You should be nearly pleased with your Sounders soccer team. They are playing well, they are good, they are in many ways feared, and they have not been foolish.
The Major League Soccer season is a weirdo. It starts in March, a month even before baseball, six months after soccer in Europe and South America, six months after universities, high schools and grade schools. The Sounders started well but foolishly.
By their own success from the previous fall, they had to play the Concacaf Finals before even their first game. Their opponent Santos was already nearly through their season. In a burst, the Sounders won the opening match played March 7 in Seattle, then were demolished in the final game. It is not possible, regardless of grit and will, to run with an opponent who has been at it six months longer than you have. The pretense otherwise cost them — in confidence and in health. They won some early games but they lost some crucial players: Gspurning, their new keeper, Johansson, their new defender, Rosales, their soul.
By midsummer, MLS quietly takes a break and doffs a cap to Euro Cup or World Cup or whatever is on. The English League, then the Euro League, acknowledged this new business of soccer in America and sent their best teams, their Barcelona, Chelsea, AC Milano, Real Madrid, over to get some sun, get in shape, whack away at the newcomers, and maybe get a glint of how some players might retire. They use the MLS as preseason practice.
MLS soccer in truth starts now — August, September, October — three months, then the playoffs to the championship in late November. Hot to cool to cold. And everything before this, all that whacking away in spring and early summer, is just positioning and whittling and realism. Philadelphia realized their coach was in truth a jerk and he is gone. Montreal realized their keeper was someone else's keeper and swapped him out with Portland for their keeper and both sides went whew.
The Sounders have most of their squad recovered, they have returned or traded Sivebaek and Fernandez, for reasons you will never fully know; and, importantly, they have begun to weave their players into a fabric. The most notorious new thread was adding Eddie Johnson. Seattle has by nature shied away from recruiting hitmen and Johnson is literally that, a scorer. More typically, the Sounders have left the scoring to a fluid bunch, Fredy Montero being the most famous of the goal scorers. When Fredy is hot, the Sounders were fine. But Fredy can be cold as well, cold and distant, and then the Sounders looked little better than motley.
Adding Johnson took courage. They had to trade out two very popular young players, Fucito and Neagle, and they had to marry the two very particular dudes, Montero and Johnson, just to make the weave work. At first, it was terrible to watch, at least the marrying part. Johnson began to score but Fredy began to not score and to press and you could hear the mumbles, maybe it was time for Fredy to follow the earlier Freddy Ljundberg and move on.
Then something changed. By Sunday night, for the biggest game of the year against the LA Galaxy, a justly dreaded opponent, the J&M duo brought it together. Johnson scored first. No one said a thing but few people score first on LA, who are a cold bunch who know perfectly that a first goal is too much to give away, especially in someone else's yard. Montero scored a second goal moments after halftime, and that was it for LA. They worked as journeymen for the rest of the game, collecting a few samples they might try next time. Beckham, Keane, Donovan, when the balls are not falling, do not even look.
That brought Seattle to its midweek match, the finals of the Open cup, a summer tourney that proudly dates back 99 years and you have never heard of it. Every team, and any team can enter. Every team in MLS will declare how seriously they take this mid-season tourney but few are more serious about it than Seattle. The Sounders have won it for three consecutive years, beating some good teams and some wild-eyed teams; given that one loss and you are out, that is no small feat. You play the matches alongside your true season, so it can be a distraction.
Sporting Kansas City also took it seriously, and even outbid the Sounders for the right to host the finals, before they were assured to be in the finals. No one was certain what outbid meant. Kansas City's Sporting Field, which opened last season, is a lovely park, 20 miles out onto the prairie from Kansas City, but it only seats 19,000 people, so the bidding was not about attendance.
It is a handsome, intimate stadium, with cable intentionally provided for all 19,000 people to download even the Olympics at the same moment and not lose signal. Oddly, it has had a problem with its grass surface; somehow the incorrect grass seed was used, causing the field to be too soft and thereby hard on the players legs. The soft surface and the summer Kansas heat are quiet factors.
Kansas City wants in on this soccer business. They are a football, meat and tomatoes town but they want in, the way people want in on Facebook. The crowds are rowdy, the tailgatting vast and sophisticated, and their patience short. The referee for the match turned out to be Ricardo Salazar, perhaps a fine fellow, but he has little humor for the Seattle team. Even back in the the very start of Lundberg and Montero, he would drag out a match, or ruin it, with his petulant yellow carding and red card taunting. Sure enough, he ruined this match and it was a shame.
Sporting Kansas City won in penalty kicks but the road along the way was littered with yellow cards, a red, and even the very weird redo of a penalty kick. KC was jubilant but in any bigger picture, it was a kind of hokey sham, and a damn shame, for they are both pretty good teams. It should have been a shootout and, with a better referee, it would have been a shootout. Instead, it was a fine dinner out with a little food poisoning at its end and a very bad taste.
The loss has no effect on the Sounders MLS rank but it rankled. And three days later, they faced the league's best team, San Jose, down in the valley. Their offense (Rosales, Johnson, Montero) was held on the sidelines and did not get in the game until the 80th minute. It had been too long a week, and too hot and it was still too hot — wisely, they rested. And it almost worked. The wonderful new Sounder, Christian Tiffert, from Germany, brings order to the midfield. Andy Rose, the 22-year-old kid from England, brings youth and the sheer pleasure of being at it in the league. Seattle and San Jose were still tied 0-0 in the 80th minute.
The Sounders would lose the game, 2-1, even after tying the match in extra minutes. Rosales, Johnson, Montero, the Three Amigos, finally came on the field after San Jose had scored. They tied it up but San Jose has been spending magic all year and used a little more to score with seconds left.
A long week done. It will be all business, now, for the Sounders, starting this weekend against their neighbors, the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are tied with Seattle in points. The weather should be good, the match is at 1, the fish are jumping, and the stakes are getting much clearer.