Much has made of the Seattle Sounders’ desire to be “a big club,” meaning a well-regarded powerhouse elevating beyond MLS into global soccer’s pantheon of consistent excellence. Winning two MLS Cups and playing in three of the past four was a good start.
However, losing Thursday at home in the opening round of CONCACAF Champions League to an underdog outfit traveling from Honduras was a crappy follow-through. So, failure Sunday in the MLS regular-season opener against Chicago was not an option.
Not with the 2019 championship banner being unfurled at the Clink and 40,126 on hand, many of whom paraded pre-game through Pioneer Square with the MLS Trophy, all expecting no drop-off from the feats of November.
“That’s going to make Sunday more difficult,” a chagrined Sounders general manager, Garth Lagerwey, said Friday of the expectations following the the CCL loss. “But, likewise, we’re going to have a highly motivated group Sunday.”
Yet the Sounders made it even more difficult with the risky decision to start with a figurative hand behind the back. But when star forward Jordan Morris was unleashed in the second half, he was highly motivated.
Morris changed most everything, scoring in the 62nd minute to draw even at 1, then lighting up the joint in stoppage time with a short-range header that drowned the Fire, 2-1.
The quick turnaround between games inspired coach Brian Schmetzer to risk Morris’s wrath by benching him. The reason was purely for health, not performance, but that didn’t make it any easier.
“He was actually pissed at me. He was upset,” Schmetzer said. “He was like, ‘No, coach, I want to play.’ We had a long conversation with the medical staff. I had to go with what I felt was best, because all players want to play.
“Jordan’s anger turned into, ‘OK, I’m a team guy, and I’m going to accept this decision.’ I could just tell, when I had spoken to him about going in at halftime, you could see on his face that he was motivated.”
Cristian Roldan, who assisted on both scores, including the game-winner when he took newcomer DP Joao Paulo’s corner kick in the 93rd minute and snap-headed it across the goal to an unchecked Morris, offered his admiration.
“Coming off the bench is difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to get incorporated. He made the most of his opportunities, and could have had an assist as well. He elevated his performance. I’m sure Jordan wished he would have started the game, but good players find a way to make an impact.
“Fantastic all-around game. It’s going to be a big year for him.”
The lousy window between games — the CCL could have chosen, for telecast purposes, windows on Tuesday or Wednesday, but stuck the Sounders with Thursday — combined with Morris’s injury history as well as his management of diabetes, dictated the reduced minutes.
It’s something Morris, the MLS Comeback Player of the Year in 2019, understood.
“The type of player I am, I’m at a little bit of higher risk for muscle injuries,” he said. “It’s kind of an on-going conversation. Always looking out for me, the medical staff. They have my best interests in mind. It’s not always an easy decision.
“It’s always a little bit frustrating to not be out there. I completely understand the reasoning. I always respect the coach’s decision. My job coming into the game was just to use my pace to get in behind and create some chances. I just tried to do that.”
As a hometown guy — as are Schmetzer, owner Adrian Hanauer, and technical director Chris Henderson — the pre-game ceremony hailing the Sounders championship from 2019 had a little deeper meaning.
“It was great,” he said. “I got chills at the start, watching the banner unveiling and all that. It’s a testament to last year. Something we will always remember. It was really important.”
— chris blakely ⭐️⭐️ (@chinsb11) March 2, 2020
The need for something large from Morris was compounded by the absences of DP Nico Lodeiro (hamstring) and Colombia newcomer DP Yeimar Gomez Andrade, who would have started at center back, but for delays with his visa that allowed his arrival only Saturday.
After scoreless first half, the Fire — which has never won in 16 trips to Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, or as they call it on Rush Street, Crashcadia — shocked the Sounders with a 46th-minute goal by Robert Beric. Over the next 16 minutes, a dread settled in over the Rave Green about a potential whiff on opening weekend.
Then Roldan connected with Morris for the first time, and fear became relief. The second time to complete the brace, became exultation. Especially for Schmetzer, who would have been hectored by fans for being soft on Morris.
Morris has grown into a pro’s pro.
“I was most impressed by his attitude and his mentality about the situation, he handled it in a very professional fashion,” Schmetzer said. “He delivered.”
The hombres from Honduras began to look smaller in the rear-view mirror.