SEATTLE – When FC Cincinnati midfielder Leonardo Bertone scored on a 20-yard laser in the 13th minute of Saturday night’s match against FC Cincinnati, you couldn’t have blamed Sounders fans for thinking “Here we go again.”
For the past three seasons, the team has come out of the gate as a tortoise before inevitably evolving into a hare.
It happened in 2016, when the Sounders lost their opener and eight of their next 14 games. It happened in 2017, when they lost their opener and won just two of their next 10. It happened last year, when they lost nine of their first 15 and seemed certain to be shut out of the postseason.
They always rally, of course. Over the past three seasons, the Sounders have won an MLS Cup, been to two MLS Cup Finals and advanced to the second round of the playoffs every time.
But why bring on the unnecessary stress? Why eliminate themselves from Supporters’ Shield contention and take months off their fans’ lives?
Seems the players asked themselves those very questions just after that goal, as Seattle scored three of its own over the next 30 minutes en route to a 4-1 win. It was the Sounders’ first season-opening victory since beating New England in 2015.
Does it mean a lot, considering it came against an expansion team expected to finish at the bottom of the standings? Probably not, although Seattle did lose to an expansion team in last year’s opener. But it might have served as the layup they need to snap their slow-start tradition.
“It’s time to move on from that (not starting well), for sure,” said Sounders forward Jordan Morris. “It’s important to get off to a good start, because we haven’t for the last couple years. It’s good for this club and I think we’re going to do some good things this year.”
The Sounders’ ability to launch a second-half turnaround over the years has been remarkable. After a late-June loss to Portland last season, they were in a tie for last place in the Western Conference two games before the halfway point.
A couple of months later, they were in the midst of a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, which was also the longest in the MLS during the non-shootout era.
At the time, Sounders defender Chad Marshall wondered aloud why his team kept doing that to itself. His team might have come up with a solution.
With a healthy Morris returning to a squad that, over its final 17 games last year, had the best half-season in MLS history, the Sounders are primed for a historic next few months. Back is Nicolas Lodeiro, the designated player who turned the 2017 season around. Back is Raul Ruidiaz, the designated player who turned the 2018 season around.
Not only do they have the talent to have the best record in the MLS, the Sounders have the talent to have their best record ever.
If this were any other sport, these humble beginnings wouldn’t be as much of an issue. As long as teams peak going into the playoffs, who cares, right?
Except the pursuit of the Supporters’ Shield – given to the team with the best MLS record – adds a fridge full of flavor to every team’s season.
Additionally, the MLS playoff format has eliminated the two-game, home-away format. Each round is just one better-team-hosted game, making every regular-season contest that much more important.
“Because of the new playoff format, we are very cognizant of what we need to accomplish to get one, two, maybe even a third home game,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who cautioned against getting too excited over one game. “That is for sure on everyone’s radar.”
In his first game since suffering an ACL injury before last season, Morris scored two goals, both in the first half.
Kelvin Leerdam added a first-half goal, and Ruidiaz tacked on one more in the 87th minute.
The ever-fervent Sounders crowd roared every time. It’s been awhile since the fans have been able to exude so much enthusiasm at this point of the year.
Schmetzer was right to “pump the brakes” on Seattle officially overcoming its early season woes. They did make a major stride Saturday, though.
Sounders fans are used to big finishes. It’s time to give them a big start, too.