Guy walks in a bar.... Last year the Sounders needed Freddie Ljungberg to go into the bar with them — a veteran Swedish sailor, black water, bad waves, not a problem lads. They beat the Red Bulls in the opener, with Freddie only watching. Then went up to a very windy and very unfriendly Toronto and Freddie unzipped the game with a teenager-like give and go and goal. For the year, Freddie won several honors and the reward of being the most fouled player in the entire league. Stop him, to stop the Sounders.
But Ljungberg takes up room and this year, the Sounders needed the room. They played without a striker, no Jaqua or the incoming N'Kufo, for all of the first half season. Ljungberg's game needs that force in the middle, to score and to get the game off him a bit. The only bright spot for the Sounders was the World Cup break — they seemed to see and hear some rhythm to the game. And suddenly they were playing not as pounders but as dancers, as a team, as mates. Wanting the ball, and, most importantly, not wanting to give up the ball.
Ljungberg was traded to the Chicago Fire, a better brawlers crew for him; and having to play the Fire twice more this season, it will bring some anxious time. Freddie may be playing the twilight of his career but revenge is a dish best served cold and Freddie would love the smile of serving it himself to the Sounders. Certainly, they will know to be careful.
But, that said, this team, the Sounders, is much betterthan last year's side — much smarter, wiser even, more difficult to defend against. It is a shame they had lost John Hurtado to a knee injury: he is the perfect shaft to a defense. But that loss gave time to Jeff Parke, a 28-year-old defender from the Red Bulls, who the Sounders had tried to sign for two years, back and forth. Parke was the Red Bull Ironman of the Year in 2006 for minutes played.
Central defenders do not just pop up, and teams do not just hand out the keys to the vault. Forced to center by the Hurtado injury, Parke started with a slight stutter and Colorado's Casey, a bull himself, took advantage in their first match to score a goal. But two weeks later, Parke was up to full speed, both with himself and with his teammates, and Casey could find little room. The Sounders won, Ljungberg did not make the trip, and these Sounders were loosed.
Two parts have been added, not including attitude and even humor. One, the older part, is N'Kufo, and he is only now getting into full condition. He is the middle they have played without, the tip, he is the horn player that can change the timing, who can pause, pause, pause, then go. He allows the wings to be wings and the middle to strike.
The other part is young, 24 years old, a wonderful midfielder from Uruguay, Alvaro Fernandez, who played in the quarterfinals World Cup match this year, and he is coming to Seattle as much for a place to raise his young family as for a place to raise his career. Fernandez is precisely the player the Sounders do not have — a brilliant passer and scorer and defender, all in sequence. If you watched the World Cup and watched Spain, then you saw the workings of a brilliant midfield, an engine that collects, conserves, and delivers. In storybook form, Fernandez scores the only Sounder goal last week moments after coming in, a goal that secures their moving on in the Champions league. You will love that he is on your side.
A month ago, the Sounders were a lost, last-place team with a fat coach and nearly out of the playoffs already. Now even Sigi looks slimmer and Seattle has moved into fourth place and no one is certain they want to play against them. It is last Sunday night, SeaFair is just trash left on the Lake, no one is playing anywhere in Continental America this late, a weird 8 pm start against Houston. And Houston is in a lousy mood, a couple notches below the Sounders, in a year when they thought to be contenders. To finish setting the table, the two teams do not like each other.
Houston, like FC Dallas, plays soccer with more barbecue sauce and Cowboy than any other teams in the world — large, broad-shouldered defenders and thick-legged attackers, and when there is a chance to whack the other player, they take it. It will never work in international play, where both the referees and the player skills would steal its effect. But MLS is trying to lure more than just expatriate Belgians to the fan base. MLS wants Americans, and Americans, by their own football, are used to seeing some whacking: "Get up, you wuss." There has been some adjusting with the referees as to what must now be allowed in MLS, and that can be an adjustment for international players.
As a result, you have a game like Sunday night's. For the entire first half, neither team could get on a page. The Sounders played a bit nervous and should have; this was, after all, the first home viewing of the new Sounders. Had the opponent been less a brawler than Houston, they might have settled in. But Houston contested everything. Knocked down for the third time from behind, Sounder N'Kufo looked at his opponent certain that one of them was in the wrong arena. He even checked with the referee Michael Kennedy to see if it was still FIFA rules.
It was Kennedy who chopped up that first half, stopping play for chippy details and letting play what looked more like gridiron stuff. There was little ballet to any of it and both teams grumbled off at the half 0-0.
Sigi loves halftime. When the Sounders returned, they bought and then owned the game. Two minutes in, Zakuani slipped behind all of Houston and just missed with a shot on the naked keeper Tally Hall. By the 60th minute, they had the game in order and in sight, and it only made sense that Montero would get the first arrow in. Backing up to field a very long Kasey Keller kick, backing into one of the Houston giants Eddie Robinson, it was the giant trying to hold the trout. Montero tucked inside and shot too quickly for Tally to block, 1-0 Sounders.
Five minutes later, having come in for Zakuani only moments before, Fernandez set his place with the Sounders for the second game in a row, sliding up the left wing for a Montero pass, a pass that laid out like a fly fishing line, Fernandez even coughed it for a moment but then finished Tally and the game with a goal to the right post.
There is plenty ahead for the Sounders but never have they looked so well-armed. Sturdy, yes, but never so well-armed. They have games still in the Champions League and the Open Cup, where they are the past Champions, and this weekend an MLS contest, against Chivas, down in California. Chivas, a proud warrior if MLS is old enough to have warriors, is an old bull not having a great year. Seattle is the better side, young bucks and momentum, but Chivas tied Salt Lake, the MLS Champions, and beat the Columbus Crew, and they will be more than ready for the Sounders and an August Saturday night. Lucky you, Seattle, you have football, up ahead.