The Sounders’ faceplant Sunday at New England was remarkably ill-timed, seeing as how three of their best players are taking a break from MLS to commit nationalism in the run-up to the World Cup. The potential for MLS buzzkill is akin to cops at the door of a loud party.
Not only did the Sounders end a five-game winning streak with the worst loss, 5-0, in their MLS history, they play the next three games without Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin, who joined Wednesday at Stanford the U.S. National Team’s final 30-player camp to select the 23-man roster for Brazil.
The absences were more or less expected. Unlike the previous Cup in 2010, the Sounders have national-caliber players, although Yedlin’s progress at 20 is a bit of a surprise. The MLS too, has progressed — 15 of the 30 summoned by coach Jurgen Klinsmann are from the North American league, up from four in 2010.
The Sounders’ opponent Saturday at the Clink, San Jose, will feel the effects, too, with stars Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson headed to the USMNT camp.
In MLS circles, it is impolitic to bitch about the personnel losses for the Cup, which is far and away the biggest event in the careers of world-class players. The fact that MLS plays the bulk of its season in summer, at odds with the global soccer calendar and the Cup, is considered tough manure by the rest of the world.
Whether Dempsey, Evans and Yedlin care to admit it, some of their thoughts may have been elsewhere besides Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the Sounders fell behind in the 14th minute — not unusual this season — but had no substantive capacity for recovery, which was unusual.
“We tried to stick to our guns in the beginning of the game and it just didn’t work out,” Evans, who started at left back for the second match in a row, his likely spot if he makes the U.S. lineup, told reporters. “We didn’t play like the away team in the first 15-20 minutes of the game like we talked about. But after that, we fell apart. I don’t know. I’m at a loss for words.”
There’s always the third-game-in-nine-days/long-flight excuse, but 5-0 speaks to more than fatigue. Part of it was a strategic failure. The Sounders enjoy bringing their backs forward, which ratchets up offensive pressure. Defenders Yedlin and Chad Marshall have been the biggest beneficiaries. But the tactic leaves the defense vulnerable to counter attacks.
New England, 5-3-2 and tied for the lead in the MLS East, wrote the book for Sounders’ future opponents. Coach Sigi Schmid knew it.
“I thought we threw too many people forward,” Schmid said post-match, “and left ourselves exposed for the counter. I thought they did a good job of countering today. They executed well when they got forward, and it’s just a game that we’ve got to forget about.”
Actually, it’s a game the Sounders have to remember if they’re going to avoid a repeat. Especially now that they will play without Dempsey, their leading scorer and USMNT captain, who will be gone as long as the U.S. remains alive in the tourney that begins June 16 and ends with the championship game July 13. If the U.S. goes all the way, Dempsey (and/or Evans and Yedlin, if they make it to Brazil) will miss seven Sounders matches.
This was all part of the deal when Dempsey agreed a year ago to give up his station in the EPL to return to MLS for $5 million a year. The Sounders attempted to fill the roster with veterans such as Kenny Cooper and Chad Barrett for the breach, even though the Sounders have a three-week schedule break from June 7-28.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a big (hole) to fill in terms of the players in your starting 11, but there’s a lot of depth on the team with the Sounders,” Dempsey said on a conference call Monday. “I’m sure that they will be able to do fine if us three are absent. It’s about getting back on the right track after a poor performance.”
Then again, what else would he say? “Good luck, guys, I’ll text you from the big time!”
Schmid also put up a brave face.
“I think we have it and we’re covered there,” he told reporters recently, “but we’ll have to see how long we’re missing guys for.”
The MLS came up with a marketing slogan, “club and country,” to give an air of nobility to the divided loyalties, but it doesn’t help teams such as the Sounders. They are giving up more than any MLS team to the camp, although Real Salt Lake, the league’s only unbeaten (5-0-5) team, is donating Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando to the U.S. team and Alvaro Saborio to Costa Rica.
But MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation have made it clear that the profile soccer gets in America during the World Cup is worth the sacrifice; again, tough manure for Seattle. The growth argument was underscored Monday when the two enterprises jointly announced a new TV deal with Fox, ESPN and Univisión for the next eight years starting in 2015.
Sports Business Journal reported the average annual value is $90 million, which is a pittance relative to the biggest U.S. sports, but about five times what MLS was getting from its current deal. The new deal calls for dedicated broadcasting windows, so viewers know when and where to find games.
Univisión, primarily through new channel UniMás, will broadcast at 7 or 11 p.m. ET on Fridays. ESPN and Fox Sports 1 will go back-to-back on Sunday matches at 5 and 7 p.m. ET, respectively. The three nets will show a minimum of 34 regular-season games.
U.S. TV ratings for MLS remain small, partly due to the fact that the league still lacks credibility with serious fans who gravitate to EPL telecasts, as well as streaming content from around the world that satisfies a soccer lust in a nation of immigrants.
But that’s the big picture, about which the Sounders can do nothing. What they can do is figure out by Saturday how to get back from 0-5 missing three starters. Game of the year so far.