It was supposed to be a friendly.
It was more like an awkward.
Celtic FC and Sounders FC, two teams with way different agendas and itineraries, were thrown together Sunday in a mash-up of little determinable value.
Celtic, one of Europe’s more heralded clubs and winner of 34 Scottish Cups, has been around a year longer than Washington has been a state. It was playing a third game of four in 10 days in a preseason tour of North America.
The Sounders, flailing in their second year of Major League Soccer, were playing their seventh game in 21 days while introducing a new star player to a new country, team and lineup that doesn’t even know itself.
Then the referee chipped in a red-card blunder that left the Sounders with a third-string goalkeeper from Tacoma and the University of Washington to make his big-time debut defending a penalty kick against the star of the Greek team in the World Cup.
The kid guessed the wrong way.
Goal. Match. Awkward.
Or, as Sounders coach Sigi Schmid described matters surrounding the call after the 2-1 defeat, “A decent game that could have been a good game . . . ruined for 40,000 people because we were playing a man down.”
The call added to a growing sentiment to re-think the value of these international exhibition games in the middle of the MLS season.
If the Sounders want their enterprise to be taken seriously, they have to schedule seriously. Sure, the traveling big-timers are fun and a draw. But the Sounders already are participating in the U.S. Open Cup, and later this month the international CONCACAF tourney.
At the moment, the locals seem everywhere and nowhere.
Even the loyal Sounders faithful seemed less than enthralled.
Having been to Qwest Field for exhibitions in 2003 and 2004, Celtic has lost some of its exoticness. The Scotsmen’s 2003 game against Manchester United drew a then-stadium-record crowd of 66,722. Expecting this time about 50,000, the Sounders announced a crowd of 45,631, which included an unusual number of unoccupied seats in the lower bowl.
Not many among participants or spectators seemed thrilled to be here.
Except for Jordan Jennings.
A night earlier, the 23-year-old from Stadium High School and UW was in goal for the Tacoma Tide of the Premier Development League in front of about 25 people on a pitch in Bellevue.
Because of the absence of starter Kasey Keller, resting an injured foot, followed by the dubious ejection in the 29th minute of his backup, Terry Boss, for sliding too hard into Celtic’s Georgios Samaras on a scoring attempt, Jennings found himself thrust cold into an international match in the big house.
“He’s a kid who’s not normally on our team,” Schmid said. “He plays a couple of divisions below. He did well.”
Recollecting his thoughts of the PK encounter with Samaras, Jennings said, “Isn’t that the long-haired Greek guy I saw in the World Cup?”
He was a dead man on the PK, and allowed a second-half goal as the result of a breakdown in front of him, but had three saves and acquitted himself well. The problem for the Sounders was that the ejection denied Boss the playing time he so rarely gets behind Keller.
Even Celtic players protested the penalty call because a moment after the whistle, a prone Samaras still managed to swing his leg into the loose ball from 15 yards out, banging it into the back of the net. The visitors didn’t want to take the goal off the board and chance the PK. But it worked out for Celtic.
The thing that worked out for the Sounders was the introduction into the starting lineup of Blaise Nkufo, the 35-year-old striker who started all three group-stage games for Switzerland in the World Cup. For years, he starred in the Netherlands.
In the second minute Sunday, Nkufo set up Fredy Montero with a perfect pass. But in the habit of this season, Montero blew past his defender and left-footed a shot past the keeper — and just outside the far post.
In his 60 minutes, Nkufo’s movement clearly showed him a cut above the MLS standard. He’ll be drawing a lot of defensive attention in the middle, freeing up Montero and others on the wings.
Eligible to start the Sounders’ MLS game Thursday, the native of the Congo is the Sounders’ latest international transfer and a reason Seattle may have seen the last of Freddie Ljungberg.
The 33-year-old Swedish star’s big contract is up in November, and he seems to have fallen out of favor with his teammates and Schmid. The Sounders have kept him out of action allegedly with an ankle injury, but the belief around the team is that he is being held out to avoid injury prior to transferring back to Europe as soon as this week.
In March, Ljungberg drew the ire of Keller and others when he showed up late to practice because of uncertainty around the league’s negotiations with the players union. In May, after a 1-0 home loss to San Jose, Schmid called out Ljungberg post-game, mostly over his complaints about officiating that seem to distract him.
“I think we all need to look inside ourselves and ask ourselves why it takes 10 to 15 minutes before we start playing,” Schmid said. “We have to look at ourselves as to why we spend game time to argue insistently with referees.
“If throwing his hands up motivates him and makes him work harder, it’s not an issue. But if arguing with the referee takes away from time that you could be helping the team, then it is an issue. As a leader, he’s got that responsibility on his shoulders to help guide the team.”
Since Ljungberg, who seems to have gone diva, sometimes has indicated he’s disappointed in his teammates, the parting seems likely to be welcomed by all.
Whether Nkufo is the answer remains to be seen, but with an MLS record of 5-8-4, the Sounders have little to lose. If only they could unload as easily the distractions in the schedule.