After a disappointing 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last weekend, the Sounders are on the road again. And for a significant chunk of the next three weeks, to be exact.
On first blush, that might seem like a cause for genuine concern. MLS road trips are notorious grinders, and the one on the Sounders’ horizon might be the most difficult swing in sheer terms of distance for any team all season. Seattle is essentially posting up on the Atlantic Coast for the next three MLS matches: first at the New England Revolution (4:30 p.m. PT; JOEtv, Univision-Seattle, ROOT Sports; KIRO 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM), then down the coast at D.C. United, then back up I-95 to face the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J. later in June.
If the past is any guidepost for what Seattle’s about to face, the immediate future might not be quite so bleak as it seems at first glance.
In 2016, road teams are 23-65-34 in MLS. The league is a thresher for road teams, providing a unique set of challenges leagues in other parts of the world don’t dream of confronting. In fact, you’d need to zoom out European competition from club to international tournaments like the Champions League to come close to approximating what MLS teams face in terms of travel. And even then, replicating a single 6,000-mile round trip road slog like Seattle to Boston and back again doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Then multiply that by three, and you see the struggle.
The Sounders, despite a few encouraging overall performances, are still seeking their first road win 2016. All of this would seem to add up to a difficult field to plow in the coming weeks.
It won’t be easy. That much is certain. But Seattle’s been here before.
In 2015, Seattle faced a difficult three-match road swing in May that featured games at NYCFC, Columbus and Vancouver. The close proximity of the latter contest was all but mitigated by the difficulty presented by a Cascadia Cup clash on the road against a team that eventually made it to the doorstep of the 2015 MLS Cup final. The first clash was on the other side of the country on a chopped-up baseball field, and the middle contest was against a team that actually did make the MLS Cup final.
Incredibly enough, Seattle came out of that trip with a pair of wins and three hearty performances. The Sounders filleted NYCFC 3-1, fell just short in Columbus in a 3-2 barnburner and shut out Vancouver 2-0 in one of the team’s most inspired defensive performances of the team’s season.
Now that it’s time for the team’s 2016 May road trip reprieve, it’s time to dig out another reserve of road magic and catch fire before the summer.
This primary difference this time around is no Clint Dempsey. The U.S. international scored three goals in those three matches in 2015, and he could miss Seattle’s entire three-game road swing this time around with Copa America duties. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has already said he expects Dempsey to miss the first two, and his status for the Red Bulls match is floating. Nelson Valdez, who’s played just 65 minutes in the Sounders’ last seven games due to injury, will also miss time after being called into Paraguay camp.
Seattle basically got through its three-game road swing last year by opening up the floodgates offensively without throwing caution to the wind at the back. And the Whitecaps match proved this team is at times at its best when it relies on contributions from everywhere, not just its big-name players.
In that match, the wearying third on the road trip, Chad Barrett scored both goals and an increasingly steady center back duo of Chad Marshall and Brad Evans locked down the quick-strike Whitecaps’ attack. With Dempsey out in the near term, that’s an encouraging word for forwards like Jordan Morris and Herculez Gomez, who has been underrated as part of the whole in Seattle but has yet to cash in his first goal since joining the team.
The key to surviving could be the wide play, which has struggled to find consistency so far this season in the 4-3-3. The spine has been sturdy all year, and especially when Dempsey and Morris and midfielders Erik Friberg and Osvaldo Alonso are aligned centrally and hooked in to one another. The trouble has been finding consistent wider outlets.
Andreas Ivanschitz has been the team’s best provider so far this year, but he prefers to pinch inside and isn’t a particularly vertical player. Oalex Anderson has been quality as a nitro-charged winger in substitute stints but hasn’t grabbed the horns when deployed in a starting role. Aaron Kovar has been a tidy two-way player in eight matches this season, but he hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet in 563 minutes as a Sounder. Gomez has been tried as a wide spoke, but he inevitably drifts inside. Nearly all the of the width so far has come from otherwise excellent fullback play from Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears.
This will be Seattle’s challenge in the coming weeks as it looks to stabilize its form for the looming road trip. If the Sounders can weather this three-match storm and come out the other side with at least four points - no mean feat, to be sure - they’ll cruise into the teeth of the summer with more momentum than ever.