MLS 2020: Sounders embrace challenge of trying to repeat
SEATTLE (AP) — Brian Schmetzer has long exhibited an insatiable urge to raise the expectations for the Seattle Sounders.
Nothing seems to be changing even though the Sounders enter the upcoming season as league champs. There’s always the challenge of trying to become the first MLS team to repeat as champion in nearly a decade.
“We know as a coaching staff, the team, they’re going to be out for us,” Schmetzer said. “But I actually tried to just say, ‘Look, we’re going to try and do a little bit more here, a little bit more there, a little bit smarter over here,’ just so we can raise our own standard and not worry about what are teams going to do against us.”
In a way, Seattle fulfilled its destiny a year ago. The team with arguably the most successful expansion launch in league history, the Sounders finally earned a chance to host the MLS Cup final while also playing in the game. They rewarded the nearly 70,000 spectators there that day with a 3-1 win over Toronto.
That means Seattle begins this season — which starts Sunday hosting Chicago — with a second star on its crest, and an even larger target within an improving and expanded MLS.
“When I came here to Seattle I say that I want to win every trophy,” captain Nicolás Lodeiro said. “This year we have a great opportunity.”
Seattle’s goals for the season had stretched beyond the borders of the league with the desire to become the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League under its current format. Those hopes came to an ugly end Thursday when Seattle was eliminated from Champions League competition by CD Olimpia of Honduras. The Sounders gave up a tying goal in the closing minutes and were eliminated on penalties. Seattle was the only MLS club not to advance to the quarterfinals.
Seattle will still have a chance to make a mark in the region by competing in the Campeones Cup against the champion of Mexico’s LigaMX.
But ultimately Seattle wants to be the first team to repeat as league champions since the LA Galaxy in 2011-12. The Sounders nearly accomplished that feat after winning their first title in 2016, reaching the final a year later before losing to Toronto.
Repeating this year would be helped by avoiding what happened at the start of the 2017 season when Seattle languished near the bottom of the Western Conference before getting hot the second half of that season. With the new MLS playoff format that proved highly beneficial for Seattle last year, a sluggish start can be difficult to overcome.
“The lessons I learned over the last couple of games will be a driving force for us to move forward,” Schmetzer said.
The elimination by the Honduran club highlighted the biggest concerns for Seattle going into the season — a defense that saw three major players depart.
Roman Torres, Kim Kee-hee and Brad Smith, along with midfielder and MLS Cup hero Victor Rodriguez, all moved on in the offseason. The losses have turned one of Seattle’s strengths in its title run into one of its bigger concerns.
Seattle seems to be set with its starters on defense, anchored by Xavier Arreaga, Nouhou Tolo and Kelvin Leerdam. But the elimination in the Champions League highlighted concerns about depth, and they have been amplified by visa issues that held up the addition of a key offseason signing in Colombian defender Yeimar Gómez Andrade.
Seattle also signed midfielder João Paulo and he showed flashes of being worth the designated player contract by scoring in both Champions League matches.
Seattle also played the Champions League without Lodeiro. Being without the engine to its attack may have only highlighted his importance. Outside of Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez, there may not be a more influential player in the league than Lodeiro. And he has weapons around him with Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan.
“We built that team up last year and we didn’t have to do a whole lot. That team was pretty baked. We were mature. All our chips were in the middle and we were ready to go,” general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “This year … we just have some natural turnover. That happens. A lot of times I’ve had the good fortune to win a couple of these before and that offseason after you win is always the roughest offseason because everyone gets recruited.”