SEATTLE — Stefan Frei is not one for sports clichés. When asked if he thought Sunday’s match against Minnesota United was a “must-win,” he seemed to be holding back a bit of a chuckle.
“No,” he said rather flatly. “Mathematically there’s so much season to be played.”
Frei is, of course, technically quite correct. Even after their 3-1 over Minnesota United, the Sounders still have about three-quarters of the MLS regular-season left to play. But it’s not like the question came out of nowhere, either.
For all their success in Concacaf Champions League, the Seattle Sounders’ MLS performances had left something to desire. The Sounders came into this match having gone 0-3-0 in league play since April 2 — coincidentally, the last time they played the Loons — and found themselves at the bottom of the table.
Almost as quickly as he dismissed the notion, Frei made it clear that he was keenly aware that the Sounders needed to start collecting points, and that the win 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’re full strength I’d 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 the sake of playing, we want to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to win another trophy.”
The match had plenty of feel-good moments, apart from the result. Most of those came on the offensive end, where the Sounders generated more and better chances than in any of their previous eight MLS matches.
The Sounders first got on the board when Albert Rusnák shrugged off one defender and then put Cristian Roldan into the box with a perfectly weighted through-ball. Minnesota’s defenders could do nothing to stop Roldan other than fall on top of him for a penalty. Raúl Ruidíaz converted.
The undeniable highlight came later in the second half when Jordan Morris kept a play alive with an aggressive recovery of a loose ball, tapping it ahead to Ruidíaz who then found Roldan. With his back facing goal, Roldan managed to spin and somehow fire a shot from about 20 yards out that beat Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair to the far post.
“I was celebrating before it went in, to be honest,” Roldan admitted. “I’m trying to open up my body to hit to the left. It’s hard honestly, your back is toward the goal and it’s tough to get torque on the ball. I’m trying to place it more than power. But these Adidas balls sometimes fly. Catching people by surprise also helps.
“That was more of a golf shot, a punch out of the trees to get it onto the green.”
Roldan was instrumental in the final goal as well, finding space on the right wing and then sending in a cross that found Nicolás Lodeiro alone at the far post. Lodeiro calmly finished on what turned out to be the game’s final play, his seventh goal to go along with five assists across all competitions this season.
In the end, the Sounder generated 2.7 expected goals, about .2 more than their previous season-high in league play. That it came without the services of João Paulo, who is out for the year after tearing his ACL, had to be considered a very positive sign.
It was also another piece of evidence supporting the notion that as long as the Sounders can field a lineup reasonably close to first-choice, the results will be there. In 13 matches where they’ve been able to start at least 8 of 11 ideal starters, the Sounders have gone 7-2-4 (1.92 points per game) with a +15 goal difference.
Not that it was anything close to a perfect performance. In addition to being a bit wasteful with their opportunities — Jordan Morris had at least three very good looks at goal — the Sounders’ defending was pretty shaky, especially on set pieces where it seemed as though the Loons got a decent look every time they sent in a corner.
There were two particularly scary chances, one came on a close-range header by Robin Lod that forced Frei into an acrobatic save and another that came just moments before Roldan’s goal where Bongokuhle Hlongwane fired wide on an open header at the back post. United’s goal came when Nouhou failed to clear a relatively simple ball into the box and allowed it to fall to Lod, who easily finished it.
“We weren’t clean defensively,” Roldan said. “The defensive aspect of our team has to get better, it’s a reality. We were so good in Champions League about not conceding goals [they allowed five goals in eight games] and that’s something we have to correct in league play [where they’ve allowed 14 in nine].”
In the end, the Sounders’ quality was enough to overcome those slip-ups. They’ll probably need to be a bit sharper if they’re to turn this into any 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 need to look forward.
“What I want is for this team to understand is that just because we won Champions League that does not make this a successful season,” Schmetzer said. “We want to make sure to get more.”