Sounders FC is a team in waiting, yet the Seattle Sounders are very much alive and kicking. Brian Schmetzer has his club near the top of the USL First Division and through to the next round of the U.S. Open Cup despite some difficult circumstances surrounding this, the franchise’s final campaign. In the first of two rounds of questions with Schmetzer, we focus on the current squad and the season to date.
The Sounders started a bit slow, and yet most people say, ‘What else is new?’ What about you?
Well, we weren’t 1-3-4 or whatever we were a year ago. Last year was bad, really bad. Certainly a few games ago it was very similar in the sense that the team itself was not playing up to its potential due to injuries to key guys, a light roster and the normal kind of just ‘Sounders early season blues.’
Is there an altogether new vibe this season?
I’d have to say the vibe on the team is ‘anxious’ right at this moment. Everyone wants to end on a high. We all want to have the USL Sounders end on a positive, which means a repeat on our championship of last year. Part of it is individual players thinking about what they’re going to be doing next year. There’s that bit of uncertainty for the guys because it’s a fact; it’s going away. There’s a little bit of anxiety there, as to where the guys are going, whether it’s to the MLS team here in Seattle, or another USL franchise or into happy trails retirement.
But having won four and drawn two while playing five of the last seven on the road, it seems the players have found a way to play through that unsettled feeling.
The thing that countered that anxiety, that has kept it in check, is that this particular group is coming together in a very determined fashion, and it was evident on the road trip to Carolina, Puerto Rico and Miami. They want to win. The team mentality of this group is very, very strong. We could’ve really packed it in against Carolina when we lost Zach Scott and they were ahead, but we actually outplayed them in the second half with a man down. The performance in Puerto Rico, the second game, might not be as heroic as the playoff series last year, but the amount of effort, and the fortitude with which we came back in the 75 minutes with Taylor’s goal to tie it up and earn a point was absolutely tremendous. Then we went into Miami, we were dead tired and Miami’s not a bad team at home. We were able to match them and their effort and eke out a point. That was a telltale sign that this team is very strong mentally.
You also mentioned the light roster. With the club only taking on players who demonstrate a potential for MLS, have you been limited compared to past seasons?
Yes. Michael Rodriguez will give us 20 [available roster players], but we’re waiting for his P1 clearance. Nik (Besagno) brings us up to 21. Then we get Roger (Levesque), Danny (Jackson) and other guys back [from injuries]. There are also more players coming in on trial during the transfer window in July. All of a sudden we’ll be back up to 22-23 players, and forbidding any serious injuries that should be enough for the remainder of the season.
Most champions have a target on their back the following season. Add to that the fact that the Sounders are taking their last lap around the USL, do you have any thoughts on whether the target is that much bigger?
There’s already the target because we’re defending champion of the USL First Division. Teams do want to measure up to us. Fans may think it’s just this group of players moving up, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re MLS? We’re almost as good or better than them.’ They don’t understand the makeup of the [2009 MLS] team has yet to be decided. It will certainly have a lot of new and good professionals on the team.
Beyond wanting to beat Seattle, are there not opposing players who are trying to show us that they deserve a look for the MLS club next season?
I would agree on all those points. There are several different scenarios that show me it’s a bit different this year.
What’s the toughest place to play in the USL?
I can’t single-out one. I’d have to say two venues; Puerto Rico, obviously because of the travel, but also the quality of that team at home. That’s a difficult place for us to play. And we have not had much success in Montreal. The game where we came from behind in 2005 and won 2-1 when Roger scored; we held on through seven and a half minutes of added time when the [fourth official] indicated there would be three [minutes]. That scene and scenario was difficult.
It resembles the FA Cup and because of the history and potential for upsets, it’s a good tournament. People always want to root for the underdogs. Like down in Phoenix, that little stadium they had was packed full of people. Their team [Arizona Sahueros], which I’m not sure if it was even semi-pro, played us and the stands were full. That’s good for the game.
Do you think MLS clubs share that view?
The tournament itself may be viewed by some MLS teams as ‘well, why are we doing this? We have other tournaments that generate more income for our club.’ But for us it’s very important. I don’t want to jinx us, but hopefully we’ll get a date against Chivas [USA] here. For us it’s important and it can generate a lot of excitement.
Where does the Cup rank on the Sounders’ to-do list this season?
Because they’ve been subjected to all of the MLS hype already, it’s just another thing they want to win. It is not bigger or lesser than the league. They want to win everything. A couple years ago Minnesota was terrible in the league, like last place, yet I think they beat three MLS teams in a row. That was basically their entire season. It’s not like that here with us. We have a good USL team, and we’re going to be up in the standings. We had success last year that everybody is hungry to duplicate.