Brian Schmetzer, who rarely gushes over opposing MLS players, gave the league’s newest franchise — Atlanta United FC — a complimentary nod this week before the two clubs square off Friday night at CenturyLink Field.
“They have a lot of good players,” the Sounders coach said.
And the first guy he mentioned?
Tyrone Mears, who helped Seattle win the MLS Cup a season ago but was traded to Atlanta in January.
“We love Tyrone,” Schmetzer said.
Last season, Mears made 32 regular-season starts for Seattle, ranking second on the team in minutes played (2,875) behind Jordan Morris. He also played every minute of the MLS playoffs.
“I loved playing with Tyrone,” Sounders center back Chad Marshall said. “He is one of the hardest defenders I’ve ever experienced playing against in a practice or a game. He was an unbelievable one-on-one defender. He had great work rate.
“I don’t think we win that championship without the way he played, especially in the second half of the season.”
And about now, the Sounders could use a rock-solid, Mears-esque presence at right back, which has become sort of a revolving door early this season.
While the 34-year-old Mears is one of three Atlanta starters to play all 270 minutes so far in 2017, Seattle has played four different players in Mears’ old spot.
Brad Evans, who entered the season as the projected starter, has been nursing a calf injury and is yet to get on the pitch.
Newcomer Gustav Svensson started the first two matches at right back with mixed results. And in Seattle’s home opener March 19 against the New York Red Bulls, Oniel Fisher got the nod, and showed instant range and burst.
But Fisher came up lame with a hamstring injury. Cristian Roldan, one of the team’s regular holding midfielders, slipped back to man the position for an extended period in the second half.
And in Seattle’s friendly with Mexican side Club Necaxa last Saturday, Nouhou Tolo, a 19-year-old from Cameroon, made his first career Sounders start playing right back.
“It is not easy, you know,” said Sounders assistant coach Djimi Traore, who organizes the team’s defense. “We did not expect Brad to be injured that long. The guys who have shown up and played the position have done their job.”
Atlanta poses a big challenge with its speed on the wing, even without forward Josef Martinez, who is out the next six weeks with a quadriceps injury, suffered during Venezuela’s World Cup qualifier against Peru. Martinez’s five goals leads the MLS.
“They are dynamic in their attack,” Seattle midfielder Harry Shipp said. “You give them too much space, and they will find gaps and get behind you, especially on the outside.”
At this point, it is anybody’s guess what starting lineup the Sounders will field Friday with the likes of Clint Dempsey, Nico Lodeiro, Joevin Jones and Roman Torres returning from national-team duty Wednesday.
One thing is clear — when healthy, the Sounders like Fisher’s ability to get up the field in that spot.
“The kid has been there for us 3-4 years now, so he knows the team,” Traore said. “He’s a different type of player compared to Brad ... (who) is more of a down player at that position, and Fisher has the legs, and is young and is fast.
“He only needs game experience. The more he plays, the better he’ll be.”