Can the Sounders recover from their L.A. disgrace?
I could smell the low tide all last week. It was the perfect call and echo of summer — in the old moon, the end of July, the weekend of weddings, low tide at sunrise and low tide at day's end. My commuter train rattled down and back to Seattle — you can smell the tide both ways.
It is the belly of summer up ahead — the center cut, the august and leonine August, the handsome sun and handsome days and slight bite of air at night. It is the bounty and end of this wonderful opera. We may even and most likely shall have tomatoes, even to throw.
After the Sounders soccer game on Monday night, against the LA Galaxy, the most cunning and cynic of their rivals, you may need to throw those tomatoes.
It was not what it was teed up to be. The Sounders can mumble it was an off day, but it was a deeper incision than that. On a perfect evening in front of 45,000 perfectly confident home fans — fish jumping, 78 degree weather, high-fiving hearts and trumpets — LA demolished the Sounders 3-0. It should have been 5-0, and it could have been 7-0.
The Sounders were the top dog with the best record in the league — five of their players were chosen as Major League Soccer All-Stars. With Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin both back and rested from the World Cup wars, this was a game so chubby with possibilities and goals that TV moved the whole thing to Monday night, the very first ever Monday Night Football (soccer) game played in America.
MLS games technically started in March, but with the World Cup dropped into June, this was the true start of the season. Nothing trumps the World Cup — nothing — leaving all the MLS games played in the months before meddled with and forgotten, players missing and fans’ attention held back. (All I can remember about San Jose's record is that Chris Wondolowski, their star, missed a hell of a chance late in the USA versus Belgium game. Had it been an MLS game, he makes that goal a million times and runs around the field kissing the back of his hand.)
But the Cup is over. Germany won, as it seemed they would, and every soccer player in the world learned a few things watching the matches — a flick here, a head fake there, a pause, a back heel, a breath. The players went back to work, back to the teams that pay the bills, the bump and grind of league rivalries.
And then you have the LA Galaxy, a team with more seasoned assassins than any of the MLS squads.There’s Robbie Keane, Juninho and of course Landon Donovan, the smirkiest of the lot, still pained from being left off the USA squad. Each player carries scars from World Cups long past. They are, to a one, true gunslingers, men hired for success and talent, but also for cold eye. The Galaxy typically muddles through the early MLS schedule, with a few flashes of their talent. More often this season they played as they always do in the early parts — with more calculation than passion. Until it matters, it only partly matters.
There is a lot going on in Seattle sports. The Mariners have tightened themselves into nearly an authentic contender — they are about two pitches and one single away from the cruel talent needed to win. You can feel it when you see them — they are literally to the edge. Each of their extra inning defeats (and there have been, in this stretch, four of them) was lost by no more than a flicker. If they had won even half of the late inning games, their stock would have soared. The Seahawks, of course, are the champions. More importantly, they are feared — feared for their push, their talent, their cunning, their ferocity.
And that is what the Sounders are hunting for — to be feared, to be fierce. And that was the shock of Monday evening, the blatant disrespect and dismantling that the LA team doled out to the Sounders. The All-Star Seattle defender Chad Marshall was a last minute scratch, which hurt the defense, but it’s not clear that Marshall would have made much difference. The Galaxy tilted the field downhill to their favor and played with a quicker Spartan cruelty than the Sounders, who could hardly get a fair breath.
There are other Seattle defenders who are missing — Leo Gonzalez and Brad Evans — but in truth, the blame is more acute than that. None of the Sounder defenders were up to the task of the Galaxy's Donovan, Keane or Gyasi Zardes. Even Yedlin, honored from the World Cup, looked lost — his exploits are a great adventure only if more grizzled players are there to hold the fort. On Monday night, Yedlin often seemed more useless than a pony.
Turns out the Sounders were bluffing with their backup defenders, who had no grizzle at all. Defending is an intricate task of many layers, but you must have players who are up to it. And on Monday, the Sounders did not look up to it.
It is of course natural to criticize the coaching (you can probably hit some pretty good targets that way), but I have another idea. Take a whack at the announcers instead. Take a whack at their idiotic jingoist palaver, their pumped up English-accented prepping and pimping, and neo-serious grave voiced dissections. Their commentary is always baloney, but somehow on Monday it seemed worse baloney.
The Sounders’ goal is to get it right. At the moment, that will take more truth than they’d like to wager. But if you want to be the best, you better tell the truth. And get to like it.