The Sounders may still be hung over from their early August game against Barcelona. It was only an exhibit, but you cannot play the best and most elegant team in the world and not be jumbled some. The match came at a poor time. The Sounders were deep into the emotions of their own league, it was the belly of the season, with all the grumps and groans and grumbles thereto, and suddenly there was not a single team in the league that even looked easy to beat. No one needed dinner guests.
But the show goes on. Barcelona FC stayed at the new Four Seasons for two nights; you could drive by at any time and there were fans outside. Then 64,000 fans unloaded onto Sounder Stadium for the Wednesday night match — some simply to see Barca unveiled (it was the very start of their preseason), some for the stardom, and some with notions that the Sounders were indeed headed in this direction.
Once again, a grass field was imported for the evening, and perhaps it was even the very same field brought in for Chelsea, a couple weeks earlier. Whatever the case, this pitch had the speed of an overweight black lab and the coat to boot, and even after a heavy water spray, it was three times too thick.
The Sounders had learned from the Chelsea game that even if many in the crowd brought wild hopes of an upset, that is neither likely nor the point. The point is marketing but also soccer, and Barca plays a version that is so elegant and intricate, it is impossible to resist. As one Sounder said after, "no one who plays soccer would not want to play like that."
It was not the Mudhens vs the Yankees, not the Pony Express riding against the Argentinian Polo Club. Indeed the Sounders, with their wonderful new defender Leonardo Gonzalez, nearly scored first and should have. But this is Barcelona and no heart beats squarely playing against them and the Sounders played with nervous feet. Even Freddie Ljungberg, who knew well than to go full full speed, was stunned to find the ball handed directly to him goalside from the Barca keeper. So intent was he to save some energy for upcoming games, the surprised Ljungberg shanked his shot and could only laugh.
From then on, it was a ballet of Barcelona soccer. They are the gift that keeps on keeping, for they love the pass, they pass with the passion of a Spanish matador, the thrill of the pass, and it is not several of the players, it is every single one of them. When you watch Barcelona, you will yourself feel the elegance, for each pass is its own solo, and the pass they make, no matter how close, is often, remarkably, not to the person you had assumed. If there are four solos in the Nutcracker, one after another outdoing each other, then Barca may have 18 solos, as they bring the ball upfield.
The Barcelona keeper made not a single kick that traveled further than 10 yards, and often his delivery was a soft handout. They see no sense to the poor odds of a long goal keeper kick where the results are so uncertain. By halftime, they had 16 shots on Keller and Seattle had only three chances. Both teams fielded only reserves in the second half and it became a kind of pass tutorial.
The Sounders flew out the next day for Salt Lake City and a league match against Real at the lovely Rio Tinto Stadium. And that was the first sign of a Barcelona hangover. Some say the Seattle franchise has Barcelona as its role model, but the Sounders play an English/German kind of game, driving balls deep, relying on force and fury and physical play. Against Real, a very physical team they had beaten twice, they seemed almost disoriented. Ljungberg was Ljungberg but the rest of the team was somewhere else and it had Barcelona passes all over it. You do not become Barca overnight but who can blame them for the temptation to such elegance. Real scored the only goal late in the game and now the Sounders were feeling very human.
A week later, with no exhibit games en route, they had to deal with the LA Galaxy, with Landon Donovan and Beckham and LA at night and no Ljungberg, for the Swede had once again taken himself out of action with a headache. LA is the veteran, Seattle seemed the virgin and hardly smart money. But then, at the 17th minute, LA suffered a fatal stupidity. Beckham slid cleats first into a former teammate Pete Vagenas, a sort of bonehead Manchester United throwback move, and was red carded. Up a man, Seattle could indeed breathe, and pass, and for most of the game, they cruised along, scoring two lovely goals. The Galaxy are often not fun. For this game, they brought a kind of relentless ill humor and stayed right with it.
Suddenly, August 15th and Seattle was back in business in their division, jumping up to second place behind Houston. But their central defender Tyrone Marshall was on red card probation, lured into a second foul by the pleasure of playing LA. Ljungberg's health was not getting better. And the only team they had never met, the New England Revolution, were coming in for a Thursday night game.
New England is like the Galaxy, smart and veteran, always a contender in the MLS and the champion in 2007. They were ready for Seattle conditions, ready for the crowd and the Sounders. They had not played a game in two weeks, while Seattle had played three. New England laid both energy and savvy on the Sounders, pressing and contending every ball, right from the get-go. Playing without Ljungberg, who could bring order to an over-booked rock concert, the Sounders reverted to their bulk game, long driving passes to the front line, hoping for flick-ons and slips. They even managed four passes clean through to the Revolution goalie.
Still, they should have scored on a cross in the 10th minute, and Jaqua certainly could have scored in the 26th minute. But New England did score between those chances and then let the Sounders kick themselves to death for the rest of the game. It was poor fortune that the referee was Toledo for he had already mucked up the Chicago Fire game at Sounder Field three weeks before. On that Sunday, he threw out Ljungberg for diving but his stance is such it could as well have been for blasphemy.
Someone must help Seattle's Fredy Montero with this — he seems to not understand that the rigid are not his natural ally. He was dropped eight times without any flag, and when he was awarded a penalty kick, a call even the Seattle coaches thought was lousy, he missed the damn thing. By night's end, Fredy would also get two yellows, one for head butting the ball out of the keeper's taunting right arm, and so he's forced to miss the next game.
Seattle controlled the game but they could not win it. They looked gallant and young, but New England was gallant and smart. We are headed to Fall and that is not the time of youth.
The Sounders needed some good news and they got it from the specialists. Ljungberg did not have tumors or pinches or propensities to migraine, he just had lousy food, stupid food, and was hypoglycemic. There must have been several Sounder assistants out furiously buying pasta and rice, for Ljungberg suddenly was on the flight to Houston, to the league leaders, to play a Sunday night game they desperately needed to not lose and he desperately needed to be in the lineup. Montero was out for the red card and immaturity. The humidity was up with the temperature. Houston is becoming the perfect natural enemy for the Sounders. They will call it a rivalry but it is much more a physical and immediate dislike that they have for each other.
It was not the best game the Sounders played but it was the bravest and if Zakuani had poked in the easiest goal he will ever have missed, then it would have been their best game. Ljungberg played with the simple and relentless fury of a man who has been told he is not after all sick and that he can go home and be relentless again. He was magnificent, graceful and often graceless. There was not a Houston player that did not at some moment marvel. He cured most of Seattle's offensive doubts with his direction. The game ended a 1-1 tie but if that is the Sounder team that wants to play, then they need fear no one. In one of the worst of stadiums to get healed, to relearn their passing and their trust of each other, they took the lessons of Barcelona and moved forward.