For the second year in a row, Major League Soccer opened its season in Seattle. Qwest Field is the MLS true showcase — it is downtown, it is loud, and it is full, 36,000 emerald-scarfed fans. If it had a true grass surface, it would be near perfect. For the moment, no other team in the league can promise a full house, let alone in the isolated days of March. It is ten days before Major League baseball shivers to an opening.
Last March, the weather was awful and, near central casting to the economy, humorless, relentless, and personal. The Sounders had not played a single game, yet they were already a hopeful sign. Moments before the vast opening ceremonies, mayor, governor, owners, et al, the sun even came out, and the Hollywood owners smiled Yes.
This year, the March weather was okay, helpful and Spring-like — again an apt pair to the economy — and the rain, as it should for a more normal March, came at precisely the opening kick and stayed for every minute of the game. It was a good, workmanlike victory for the Sounders: 2- 0 over a true virgin team, Philadelphia Union.
It was the first game, ever, for Philadelphia. They did not, like Seattle, emerge from a lower league and, save for preseason, they had never played together. Sebastien Le Toux, the former Sounder who was left unprotected by Seattle, is only 26 years old but is one of their veterans and a key player. Seba has many fans here — no Sounder had ever been so tirelessly gracious to the ratpack or the kids as Seba — and they cheered his introduction. As the players shook hands to start, Freddie Ljungberg gave Seba a bear hug.
It was not a great game. Last year, the opening-game opponent was the New York Red Bulls, as friendly as their name and one of the best sides in the league. No one was certain the Bulls would not terrorize the home club, so every Sounder, from the trainer to the scrubs/ was on high alert. It worked: the Bulls played as if the season was a week away and Seattle won 3-0.
But this night was different. The Sounders were expected to win, not the same as high alert, and for 10 minutes they did little more than appear to play. Philadelphia, not wanting to be timid, tried some intimidation and started a small collection of yellow cards. But they also carried the action — short careful passing, looking, testing, a few moments of near penetration.
Seattle has a difficult defense to get behind, and they do not like what's happening. After a bit of sparring, Sounder defender John Hurtado set a new tone by running over Union forward Moreno and moments later, Ljungberg does what he so brilliantly does, heading up the center, laying the ball off. Zakuani, to Montero, back to Zakuani in the corner, cross to the sprinting Evans and score, the first of this 30-game regular season.
Philadelphia did not give up and continued to press but at the 40th minute the yellow cards caught up to them. Their defender Stahl kneed Montero in the back at the midfield and was sent off with two yellows. A shame, really, as the game was still young and that changed it and ended it. Moments later, Seattle scored brilliantly on a corner header ( the very corner where Stahl would have been covering) and with 50 minutes left, the game itself was over.
There were no goals in the second half and only moments of action. The referee, Ricardo Salazar, had jumbled up three Sounder games last season, and now with the sendoff had jumbled this one up. The Sounders did bring in Nyassi and Fucito for the final 20 minutes, two young players who well might help in the future.
Next up will be the Red Bulls, coming to Seattle on Saturday evening, April 3rd, for a sterner, truer test. Early season games are a bit arrhythmic. The timing is not quite dialed in and the ball will end up in the stands more in one game in March than in the entire month of August. During these games, keep an eye on Ljungberg, since it is often the franchise player who keeps order in the early going.