Chelsea, Chicago: Sounders at mid-point

The rookie-ness is gone, and they are a remarkably good team. Chicago teaches a few lessons from a veteran team, knowing how to factor in a lenient referee.
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Kyle Beckerman, RSL captain, tries to contain the Sounders' star, Freddie Ljungberg

The rookie-ness is gone, and they are a remarkably good team. Chicago teaches a few lessons from a veteran team, knowing how to factor in a lenient referee.

It has been a busy midsummer for the Sounders. They hosted to famed Chelsea in an exhibit game at Sounders Field, 65,000 fans dressed up and trooped to their seats in hopes the Sounders were not only the surprise of MLS, but of the Premier League as well. They should have played the game at dawn, in a mist, for whoever would get up that early. At noon, out in the bright sun, with so many fans and cameras and sizzle, it was interesting but odd. One day, with luck it will be a fair fight: they could sell virtual tickets to that game right now. It will come — but creating a team like Chelsea is no video game.

For the contest, Sounders Field was converted from turf to a real grass surface, implanted with true green. It was perhaps a priority, dictated from Chelsea, or an honor, get out the fine China, or it was a case of putting on one's best new dress and not letting the out of towners see what you typically have on. Soccer is meant for grass, as a fact not as a luxury: it cools the field, protects the players and is a true part of the game. One day, with luck, MLS will have only grass fields; turf is yet and ever shall be a drip/dry leisure suit.

The Sounders have also been busy with the Open Cup, a fierce, Euro-like mini summer tourney that has its own fury and fuel. No MLS team plays its full first team players for the Open Cup, and there are even rules for how many international players can be involved. Every coach gauges who he can risk, who he must hold out. But once the game starts, especially deep into the tournament as the Sounders have ventured, then no one has a smile and no one offers opponents a hand up.

The games have been played at the Starfire Field out in Tukwila, aa grand place to watch the very physical art of soccer. It is like a local rodeo with bulls, the blood is close and passions are clear. If Starfire can ever find their way to a grass field, then it would be one of the secret places to watch soccer — as it is, the turf out there is half-assed and a poor signal. With some very gritty play, the Sounders defeated Houston 2-1 and advance now to the Open Cup Finals against DC United. That game is more than a month away and will be played in DC on September 2, a couple days before Labor Day weekend.

On Saturday, again at noon, again in the bright sun, but this time on their home sports turf, not the imported grass, the Sounders played the Chicago Fire in a game to mark the very middle of the season. Chicago is the best MLS road team, Seattle the best MLS home team, they each have 28 points. Two hours later it ended with a 0-0 tie and little pleasure for the weary, five-games-in-a-week Sounders, who had dominated the action. It was the second tie in a row between these two teams; it would be a pleasure to see them in a playoff match, where someone must win.

They are not at all similar. Chicago does not like to run — they want to hold and control and fix and lay off passes and wait. Even without their injured star Brian McBride, they continue an offense of force and pressure. It may well be a Chicago sense, for they are not unlike the Chicago Bears football. Also, like the Bears, the Fire bring intimidation, in the form of two massive defenders and a habit of whacking as you go past. By the end of this one, there were 32 fouls, seven yellow cards, and two red card ejections. That made a considerable mess of what was at moments an elegant game.

Seattle loves to run, they love the fire drill of it and they love to bring all their characters — the liquid Zakuani, the timber of Jaqua, the buoyant Montero, the willful Ljungberg — all on a rush and dare the defenders to cover such variations. Ljungberg is among the few in this league who will head directly up the middle. That takes great skill, true grit, considerable intuitive math, a certain madness, and even some humor. It is the most direct path and every defender intends to kill you for even trying it, for if you get in alive, with the ball, then someone is free. You can feel the quickening, the moment someone screams, "he's in!"

For this game, Seattle might not have needed such heroics, but for whatever reason, they could not, in the first half, score even with several perfect moments to do so. Chicago is one of the premier teams in this league, counting on their physical reputation to keep all opponents fully aware. Still, Seattle had four corner kicks in the first five minutes. Had they converted any of them, Chicago did not appear in the mood to wager any more than let's see what happens.

Both teams later admitted they knew the referee, they knew he ran, as they say in the business, a very tight ship. Chicago is the more cunning of these two teams and having survived all those corner kicks, it began the investigation and probe into just how much this referee would allow. That is what a veteran team does, especially a team that does not want to see Sounders running pell mell all over the pitch. It worked. Chicago began to whack and trip and shoulder the Sounders on every rush, dragging the game to a duller pace.

You can guess who noticed too clearly: Ljungberg. He counts dearly on the game's not sticking to thuggery, and he cannot keep any peace without the referee's attention. Both teams noticed, as well, that two quite obvious hand ball infractions for both sides were not called — a shorthand note that the referee either will not, can not, or perhaps does not see.

Off the ball, the Chicago defender Segares cheap shots Ljungberg going by and at that moment, the game changed. Ljungberg expects, indeed needs justice, and he turned to the referee but was waved off. Segares came again, knowing there was some freedom, and this time Ljungberg skipped the court system and ran up to Segares personally, to explain what furies were about to be unleashed his way. Still, the referee stayed neutral, and Chicago now knew that very little, in physical terms, would be restricted.

In a fist fight, at least metaphorically, few will beat Chicago. Seattle needs to run to succeed. By half time, Chicago had survived Seattle's best efforts, and their All star forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who is as difficult to cover as his first name is to pronounce or spell, walked off the field comparing notes with the referee, Baldomero Toledo.

Ten minutes after the half, the game came apart. Chicago's midfielder Thorrington, who had made a bone-head play in the first period, doubled his efforts by tripping Ljungberg, who had in fact broken free into the middle. A second yellow card and an ejection and finally Seattle would get this game straightened out, playing a man up, on a hot field at home, in a game they had already controlled when the teams were even. The Sounders hardly knew where to start.

But five minutes later Ljungberg throttles once again straight up the middle, to get the one goal that will kill this game and we can all go home and barbecue. He runs as if headed downhill with groceries and sure enough he ends up face first on the turf, and jumps up, looking for the penalty. The referee saw it otherwise, or felt it otherwise, or simply was not willing to throw the Fire overboard. He waves a yellow card but on Ljungberg, for diving — two insults.

Ljungberg then went berserk. For a moment, it was the rigid Spaniard and the enraged Swede, both on principles. That gets Ljundberg another yellow and now the teams are even again, Ljungberg ejected, and on probation for perhaps the next two games. It could have been worse — ten minutes later Chicago hit the bottom of the crossbar, that would have won the game.

Now the Sounders start up their second half of the season, with eight of the remaining 12 games played on the road. They have rubbed, scrapped, and bled out most of their rookie-ness and they can expect no favors for being new. They are about to visit places where even the home team is not adored and where the food is worse than Tukwila. By seaon's end, winter will be enroute, the tail end will meet the weather they started with.

They are, for many reasons, a remarkably good team. They need only realize how fragile such good fortune can be.

While they are away, it would be a great service if the Sounders FC management could take all the remaining mylar confetti to the landfill, perhaps a landfill in another state. It is too weird to have these little mylar rectangles ruin the start of every game. Once was enough; now it is simply the embarrassment of missing your own point. At its best, soccer is meant to educate and civilize, not stupify and litter.


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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of