When it comes to ceremonious flair, no sport is more adept at puttin’ on the ritz than soccer. The prelude to a typical midseason game finds more kids on the field than Disneyland draws in a week, and the Sounders home opener Sunday was anything but typical.
The match between the Sounders and New York Red Bulls was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. The latest banner destined to adorn the roof girders at CenturyLink Field — the 2016 MLS Cup championship banner — was unveiled among the Emerald City Supporters who occupy the south stands at 4:19.
After flames spewed and sparks flew, things finally kicked off at 4:21, at which time separation finally was achieved between the 2016 comeback kings and the 2017 club attempting to follow in their footsteps.
During Major League Soccer’s 21-year history, only three teams have won back-to-back Cups: Houston in 1996 and ’97, Houston again in 2006 and ’07, and Los Angeles in 2011 and ’12. For the Sounders, joining that short list would be a validation of the 2016 title march that began in late July, when Brian Schmetzer replaced Sigi Schmid as head coach.
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“Our championship’s going to be judged in one of two ways,” general manager Garth Lagerwey theorized the other day. “It’ll either be, ‘Well they got hot, got some bounces and won on penalties in the final. They were kinda fluky and lucky.’
“Or if we have a really good season this year, last season was just the beginning, just the jumping-off point where we took off and ran with it. There’s a lot at stake this year from a credibility standpoint — how we’re judged from a credibility standpoint. Did we just find lightning in a bottle for four or five months? Or can we sustain that success and take it to the next level?”
Toward that end, Lagerwey’s approach to roster maintenance over the winter was surprisingly aggressive for a defending champion. He traded defender Tyrone Mears to Atlanta and declined a contract option to forward Nelson Valdez. Mears and Nelson started a combined 11 playoff games last autumn.
Meanwhile, the Sounders acquired midfielder Harry Shipp from Montreal in an allocation-money deal, traded for Houston forward Will Bruin and picked up Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson.
“When Brian took over last year, we literally had to win every game, or else,” Lagerwey continued. “There were 20 steps along the way, and if we tripped on any of them, it was over. Everyone rallied together. It’s pretty easy.
“Now you have to reignite that hunger, reignite that fire. We had some very good veteran players who helped us win the title, and we opted to bring in some younger players. These guys weren’t part of the group last year, and you wonder: Can they step into roles? Can they be important players for us and provide competition so we can maintain hunger and bring fresh blood to a group highly motivated to go back?”
Fresh blood is difficult to quantify, but if nothing else, Lagerwey’s blueprint for long-term sustainability produced a cheer Sunday previously unheard at the Clink.
Fans yelled “Holy Shipp! Holy Shipp!” in unison after Shipp was credited with the final goal in the Sounders’ 3-1 victory. Shipp’s score had none of the artistry of Clint Dempsey’s penalty kick in the 28th minute, or Jordan Morris’ precisely aimed header that broke a 1-1 tie in the 66th minute.
But sometimes in soccer, as with real estate, it’s all about location. Somebody was in the right place, at the right time, when Joevin Jones’ shot caromed off Shipp’s foot and past Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
The ball rolled into the right corner net slower than a softly tossed bocce ball, and yet Robles still had no chance. He was leaning to the left.
A 2014 Rookie of the Year finalist with the Chicago Fire, Shipp scored a hat trick a mere eight minutes into his professional career. Last season with Montreal, the Notre Dame grad was limited to two goals in 20 starts.
Since relocating from the Impact, Shipp has endeared himself to the head coach.
“We love Harry,” Schmetzer said after the Sounders improved their record to 1-1-1, “because he’s very humble, hard-working and all the attributes I like in a player. I didn’t notice it until I watched the replay, but it looked like he kind of redirected that ball. He doesn’t want to take credit, but he could.
“He’s a great kid, and I’m happy to have him.”
Schmetzer also is happy to have Svensson, a 30-year-old midfielder who spent last season in the China Super League.
“The impressive thing with me about Gustav,” said Schmetzer, “is that on the defensive side, in a couple of the one-on-one duels where he was going up against faster players, he actually was able to win those duels. And offensively, I thought he saw some passes with long diagonals and stuff that really opened up the game for us.”
Harry Shipp. Gustav Svensson.
A year ago, few Sounders fans recognized their names. Now they’re contributors, challenged to help keep a defending championship team as hungry as it appeared to be when losing was not an option.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath