SEATTLE — Stefan Frei isn’t one for sports clichés. When asked if he thought Sunday’s game against Minnesota United was a “must win,” he seemed to hold back a little laugh.
“No,” he said rather emphatically. “Mathematically, there are so many seasons to play.”
Frei is, of course, technically completely correct. Even after their 3-1 win over Minnesota United, the Sounders still have about three quarters of the MLS regular season to play. But it’s not like the question came out of nowhere either.
Despite all their success in the Concacaf Champions League, the Seattle Sounders’ performance in MLS had left something to be desired. The Sounders came into this game having gone 0-3-0 in the league since April 2 – coincidentally, the last time they faced the Loons – and found themselves bottom of the table.
Almost as quickly as he dismissed the idea, Frei made it clear that he was fully aware that the Sounders needed to start racking up the points and that victory over a conference rival was an obvious step in the right direction.
“It was a good opportunity to finally get going,” he said. “At home, against a decent opponent, we are complete, I would say. Why waste chances to collect points and move in the right direction? It wasn’t a must win, but we wanted to win today. All focus is on the league. We don’t want to play just for fun, we want to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win another trophy.
The game had a lot of feel-good moments apart from the result. Most of those came from the attacking end, where the Sounders generated more and better chances than in their previous eight games in MLS.
The Sounders first entered the board when Albert Rusnák ignored a defender and then put Cristian Roldan in the box with a perfectly weighted through ball. Minnesota defenders couldn’t do anything to stop Roldan but fall on him for a penalty. Raúl Ruidíaz converted.
The undeniable highlight came later in the second half when Jordan Morris kept a game alive with an aggressive recovery of a loose ball, tapping it past Ruidíaz who then found Roldan. With his goal facing back, Roldan managed to turn and somehow fire a shot from about 20 yards out that beat Minnesota goalie Dayne St. Clair at the far post.
“To be honest, I was partying before he came in,” Roldan admitted. “I try to open my body to strike on the left. It’s hard honestly, you turn your back on goal and it’s hard to get torque on the ball. I try to place it more than power. But those Adidas balls sometimes fly. Catching people off guard also helps.
“It was more of a golf shot, a punch in the trees to put it on the green.”
Roldan was also instrumental in the final goal, finding space on the right wing and then sending in a cross that found Nicolás Lodeiro alone at the far post. Lodeiro calmly finished what turned out to be the last game of the match, his seventh goal to go along with five assists in all competitions this season.
In the end, the Sounder generated an expected 2.7 goals, around 0.2 more than their record from the previous season in the league. That he came without the services of João Paulo, who is out for a year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, should be seen as a very positive sign.
It was also another piece of evidence supporting the idea that as long as the Sounders can field a lineup reasonably close to the first pick, the results will be there. In 13 games where they were able to pitch at least 8 of 11 ideal starters, the Sounders went 7-2-4 (1.92 ppg) with a +15 goal difference.
Not that it’s anything close to perfect performance. As well as being a bit wasteful with their opportunities – Jordan Morris had at least three very good looks on goal – the Sounders’ defense was quite shaky, especially on set pieces where it looked like the Loons had a decent look every time they sent into a corner.
There were two particularly scary chances, one on a close range header from Robin Lod that forced Frei into an acrobatic save and another that came moments before Roldan’s goal where Bongokuhle Hlongwane fired wide at an open header at the back post. United’s goal came when Nouhou failed to clear a relatively straightforward ball into the box and dropped it on Lod, who finished it off easily.
“We weren’t clean defensively,” Roldan said. “The defensive aspect of our team must improve, it is a reality. We were so good in the Champions League not to concede goals [they allowed five goals in eight games] and that’s something we have to fix in the league [where they’ve allowed 14 in nine].”
In the end, the quality of the Sounders was enough to overcome these slip-ups. They’ll probably have to be a bit sharper if they want to turn that into immediate momentum, as they’ll play three more games between now and May 29. The next two are on the road against Western Conference rivals.
More than anything, the Sounders know they have to look ahead.
“What I want is for this team to understand that just because we won the Champions League doesn’t make this season successful,” Schmetzer said. “We want to make sure we get more.”