His club’s failure to win a second consecutive MLS Cup didn’t ruin the short winter vacation of Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer.
Toronto had both the better team and the home advantage for the one-game championship, and put two shots past Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei in a 2-0 decision. Heartbreak would be too strong a word to describe the disappointment.
It was more like heartburn.
“Last season was a good season by many standards,” Schmetzer said the other day. “But that sickness in our stomach is still there, and it’s because of one contest, one match. Stef had a 13-game shutout streak. We lost two of our last 18. Clint Dempsey had a resurgence. We’re certainly proud of many different parts of last season.
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“People might say... ‘OK, the Sounders went to the MLS Cup twice, had a good year, won a conference championship in front of our fans.’ But that emptiness is still there, and we will use it to push us toward another good season and, hopefully, another title cup.”
The Sounders’ chances of doing that were not enhanced last weekend, when forward Jordan Morris went down with a season-ending ACL tear in the first leg of their CONCACAF Cup Champions League series against Santa Tecla of El Salvador.
During Seattle FC’s formative phase as an expansion franchise, losing a versatile attacker like Morris – the 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year – might have troubled the Sounders. But thanks to a deeper roster reflecting the overall of advancement of the league, all systems are go.
The Sounders bounced back on Thursday night with an impressive 4-0 thumping of Santa Tecla at CenturyLink Field. Midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem, acquired on Jan. 30, played a key role. The 27-year old Norwegian, who scored once and was pivotal in setting up the other three goals, provided a glimpse of the flash-and-dash chemistry he figures to share with Dempsey.
Eikrem, it should be noted, created all that commotion as a second-half substitute.
“We don’t have a first team anymore,” said Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey. “We may have a first group, with players developing behind the first group, but we don’t have this idea where there is a first 11 and they have play, and if we don’t, we’re doomed.
“We have a much broader group now with much better depth, and it’s a sign of the progress of the league.”
The Sounders are emblematic of that progress. Operating under a rising but still small salary cap, Seattle FC scouts are combing the globe for players capable of sustaining a winning culture while other players take leave for international competition.
“We got Nicolas Lodeiro – arguably the premier midfielder in South America – almost two years ago from Uruguay. That wouldn’t have happened before,” said Lagerwey. “Kelvin Leerdam had a chance to play in the European Champions League, and he turned that down for a chance to play with us. That wouldn’t have happened six months ago, let alone two years ago.
“Or take Roman Torres,” Lagerwey continued, referring to Leerdam’s teammate on defense. “The guy has literally been given the key to the country of Panama by the president of Panama. To have somebody of that stature playing for the Sounders is amazing.”
Depth is essential in a sport where the offseason amounts to a coffee break, and depth is especially essential during a World Cup season. Although the U.S. was eliminated from the 2018 Cup in the qualifying round, there will be a substantial representation of Sounders on soccer’s brightest stage.
Purging an MLS roster of some of its best players poses a challenge that could into devolve into a grind, but Lagerwey accentuates the positive.
“You look at the Sounders from the last World Cup cycle, we had Dempsey involved and maybe one or two others,” he said. “If things fall normally, we’ll have seven Seattle players in the World Cup. It’s another objective metric of how this league is getting better and better.”
As are the Sounders, who keep adding and adding. While Lagerwey was assessing the state of his team last week, South Korean defender Kim Kee-hee was acclimating himself to the artificial turf of his new world. A veteran of the Chinese Super League, Kim signed with Seattle on the advice Shanghai Shenua teammate Obafemi Martins, a former Sounders standout.
Some serendipity was required to bring Kim aboard, but it’s the Sounders’ reputation that will be luring quality international players to Seattle.
“The MLS is televised in 120 countries,” Lagerwey said. “People around the world now know our sport and know about the Sounders. Because of our fans, we’re on broadcasts all the time. We’re into getting into households of players and agents and fans everywhere.”
The Sounders will open their MLS schedule Sunday with a home game against Los Angeles FC. It’s an expansion team, not to be confused with LA Galaxy.
MLS continues to grow, gradually cultivating respect as something more than the international soccer equivalent of a Single-A minor league. There are miles to go, but when Lagerwey insists the league’s ascent to first-class status is only a matter of time, it’s easy to believe him.
Although America won’t compete in the 2018 World Cup, at least seven Seattle Sounders will be prominent participants, and the team absent seven players won’t buckle.