When the Seattle Sounders FC open the season Saturday at CenturyLink Field against the expansion FC Cincinnati, the expectation is clear.
Win and win now.
With the bad feeling still present from a playoff loss to Portland Timbers in the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Sounders enter 2019 with a renewed health, new additions and a trophy winning mindset.
While there were key additions to the team, it’s largely the same group that has used second half surges the last three years to make deep playoff runs. One key subtraction is the loss of captain and midfield glue, Ozzie Alonso, who signed with Minnesota after spending 10 years in Seattle.
Nico Lodeiro takes over the captaincy. He said there’s no additional pressure, even wearing the captain’s armband.
“The pressure is the same because we want to win the Cup,” Lodeiro said. “We want to win the championship, it’s the same. It might be easier because I don’t have the World Cup to worry about (this year).
“I can be with the Sounders, play good soccer here and then for the national team when I get the call. The pressure is the same, I want to win the Cup for my team first then the play for the international team second.”
One issue the Sounders do feel some urgency about is getting off to good start. While Seattle won the MLS Cup in 2016, advanced to the Cup again in 2017, the team has gone just 1-7-2 in March games the last three seasons.
The 2019 slate gives the Sounders two home games (vs. Cincinnati and the Colorado Rapids) in the early going that may help set the tone for good start. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei knows positive results are needed in those games.
“I think they’re vital,” Frei said. “Dangerous first game because it’s a team with nothing to lose and if they walk out of here losing 4-0 everybody’s gonna say that’s what they expected. They can experiment a little bit, pressure’s on us but we’re confident in our squad and in our 12th man that we can get a good result here.”
A key addition is one that will excite the Sounders faithful. Jordan Morris, who spent all of 2018 rehabbing from an ACL tear suffered shortly before the 2018 season opener, is back. His return to the lineup has been seamless so far but coach Brian Schmetzer is being cautious.
“The influx of Jordan back into the group, that was not challenging,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said.
“Jordan’s been around the guys, I think they know him. He and Nico (Lodeiro), they had a good relationship in 2016 and parts of 2017 so the the integration of Jordan went smoothly.”
For Morris, the last year has been a series of challenges. Physically, to get his right knee ready for the rigors of soccer. And mentally, being with the team but not on the field.
“I think the tough part was mentally coming in for training, having to go up into the stands and watch the game,” Morris said. “Pretty draining, pretty tough, there’s been some tough times in the last 18 months because I couldn’t do what I love.
“The physical part is hard but that’s something you push through but I think the mental part is what was really tough. I came out of it on the other side learning some things and appreciating the opportunity I have to be a soccer player because that was taken away for awhile.”
Morris’ injury was just one in a series that struck the Sounders over the course of the season. None were more costly than losing key starters Cristian Roldan and Chad Marshall during the first-leg match of the MLS Cup Playoffs vs. the Portland Timbers.
The upside was that so many players gained experience last year. Combine that with the additions of defenders Jonathan Campbell (trade with Chicago) and Saad Abdul-Salaam, the Sounders should have more depth.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said his expectations are always high. And that is no different for this season.
“We have a real good chance at the title this year, as I’ve said from day one,” Lagerwey said.