Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe stood a few yards from where his MLS season ended last year at Lumen Field. He missed a penalty kick in the sixth round of a shootout that could’ve helped send the Rave Green on to the Western Conference semifinals in storybook fashion – Federal Way High star lifts home state team.
What was written was more of a horror story. RSL defender Justen Glad followed Rowe’s miss and scored the deciding goal to defeat Seattle 6-5 on penalty kicks after a goal-less 120 minutes before 34,000 fans.
“Have I gotten over it? No,” Rowe said last week after a Sounders training-camp session. “But that’s OK. That’s a positive to kind of use in the back of my mind to fuel the fire kind of thing.”
Last season’s finish is why Seattle didn’t need extra motivation when it faced off against the rival Portland Timbers on Wednesday in Tucson, Arizona, for Seattle’s preseason opener. The match is part of FC Tucson’s Desert Showcase at Kino North Stadium, but it won’t be livestreamed due to technical difficulties.
The Sounders were able to return the bulk of their players from the 2021 roster – 11 who also played roles in the 2019 MLS Cup run, each bringing their own individual motivation. Best XI players in Jordan Morris (knee), Nico Lodeiro (knee), Joao Paulo (hamstring) and Raul Ruidiaz (hamstring) had their seasons impacted by injuries. Nouhou, who was named to the MLS All-Star team, wasn’t selected for the playoff loss due to health and safety protocols, while a knee injury stunted veteran Will Bruin’s season.
All, including Rowe, want a redo. Yet, it can’t be a simple rewind.
The task will be figuring how to successfully maneuver through what the club already knows awaits them – multiple tournaments mixed in with league play, multiple callups and injuries. For coach Brian Schmetzer, it starts with how to maximize a talented roster.
The opening of training camp saw a flurry of contract announcements ranging from Rowe and Fredy Montero, the club’s all-time leading scorer, to new designated player Albert Rusnak. Thoughts of the starting formation and position battles ensued, but the first obstacle is already present – many of the expected players aren’t currently in camp.
Morris (U.S.), Cristian Roldan (U.S.), brother Alex Roldan (El Salvador), Nouhou (Cameroon) and Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) are with their national teams for World Cup qualifying matches. Joao Paulo remains in Brazil because of green-card issues.
MLS did format its season to end a month earlier to make way for those named to World Cup rosters to report to their national teams. El Salvador is a longshot to qualify while the U.S., Ecuador and Cameroon are in position to advance.
The internationals have been key to the Sounders’ run to the 2019 title and 2020 MLS Cup championship loss.
Given the magnitude of the World Cup, where do MLS and CONCACAF Champions League matches rank for those players?
“The Sounders don’t take a back seat to anybody,” Schmetzer said. “There’s cooperation, and we have to be realistic. As a coach, I have to make sure I don’t put our players in an injury risk because the national teams are very important.”
Utilizing different starting formations could counter the juggling Schmetzer and his technical staff will have to do for player absences. Seattle was successful playing with three center backs last season, tying New York and Nashville in conceding a league-low 33 goals.
But if Arreaga and Nouhou are gone, is it better to change formations? Schmetzer already stated he’s not going to split the team into groupings that would be used for Champions League games and another for MLS matches, as an example.
“There’s some reality with guys that are going to start, the senior guys already on the roster that will get the first opportunity,” Schmetzer said. “But we’re going to need everybody with the compressed schedule. Right away, if you look at the first three games, you’ve got a travel down to Honduras – an away game on a Thursday – back home for a Thursday game and then a (MLS home) opener against a very good team (Nashville) on a Sunday. Just in that stretch of three games, how do we mix and match the lineups and all of that? That will be something we talk about as the preseason goes along.”
The Sounders closed the 2021 regular-season on a six-game winless skid. The inability to get any offense going – the team scored five goals in that stretch – was partly due to the lack of on-field chemistry amid all the lineup changes.
What the Sounders learned from that experience, especially how to create fluidity no matter who’s on the field, will be key in moving forward with the collective redo.
“The guys that we have here are big veterans,” Rowe said of those currently in camp. “We have a good voice and we’re sticking together, making sure that these young kids learn how to be that good professional. To work though that preseason.
“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, you can go back six, seven games into the season as well. We have to make sure that no matter how we start the season, the middle of the season or even end the season, we make sure the playoffs are done better.”