This was not quite the start to the title defense the Seattle Sounders had in mind.
The Sounders muddled through a viscous first half before dominating the final 45, but they couldn’t turn the tide from an early deluge and ultimately dropped their season opener 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Sounders were outshot 15-2 in the first half and completely reversed the tenor of the match in the second with a 12-2 edge in shots and a 67 percent possession share over the final 45 minutes. But two early first-half goals from Erick “Cubo” Torres and Romell Quioto were ultimately too much to overcome.
It’s a long season, and the Sounders have a tried and true recent history of coming alive at the right time of year. It’s not quite time to panic yet. So let’s take a look at three prescient things we learned from the Sounders’ season opener less than three months after their first MLS Cup championship.
Joevin Jones, thy name is All-Star
So we had a pretty good inkling Joevin Jones was going to be in for a good year this preseason. He was probably the Sounders’ best player over the life of the 2017 preseason, and entering the regular season there were precious few left backs league-wide who could legitimately claim to be on better form. On Saturday, he proved those claims were no myth. This is the best Jones has ever looked.
Jones pumped in dangerous cross after dangerous cross on Saturday, and the majority of the Sounders’ best goal-bound opportunities were generated off his left flank. Ever since arriving in Seattle we’ve known Jones had the speed to push width and create danger on the overlap, but his one-on-one defending was often stressed to a breaking point due to his need to track back from such high positions. Considering he was up against the youthful Alberth Elis, one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league, Saturday’s matchup was of particular interest.
There was certainly a feeling-out period between the two in the first half, but Jones simply wore Elis down over the course of the match. By the time there were 20 minutes left, Elis was gassed and Jones looked like he was still fit enough to run a marathon. The Sounders’ back line was quality in the run of play all night, and Jones was its lodestar. But more than that, he ground a young, spry winger into dust.
We’ve known for some time Jones had all the potential in the world. It seems he’s getting dangerously close to realizing the whole lot of it.
Houston’s central trio makes life tough
This was Clint Dempsey’s first foray back into the Starting XI in a competitive match since August 2016, so some rust was inevitable. He spent much of the first half knocking off that rust, and what that tends to mean for Dempsey is a deeper drop in the build. Especially at this point in his career, Dempsey needs to be as close to goal as possible regardless of his deployment, and in this case that was as the nominal No. 10 underneath lone striker Jordan Morris in the 4-2-3-1.
Dempsey was ultimately quite deep in the first half, which removed him from danger and forced Nicolas Lodeiro to do a ton of heavy lifting all over the field. Here’s Dempsey’s touch map from the game. The vast majority of those touches near the Houston box came in the second half.
In the first half, Houston did tremendous work gumming up the central channel with Alex, Eric Alexander and Ricardo Clark in head coach Wilmer Cabrera’s 4-3-3 formation. This pushed Dempsey backward and kept Lodeiro from pinching in to combine. In the second half, Dempsey floated above them and willfully refused to be sucked deep and simply let the possession come to him. Players of his caliber tend to not want to do that. His goal in the 58th minute was high positioning. He might not have been there in the first 45. Something to consider going forward.
The attack is still feeling itself out
This probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but the Sounders’ front four is going to need some time.
It’s been seven months since Dempsey played a competitive match with this group, and the Sounders are also attempting to incorporate new pieces in Will Bruin, Harry Shipp and Henry Wingo (the latter of whom got his first pro appearance on Saturday). That no doubt contributed to Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer’s decision to array Lodeiro on the left flank of the 4-2-3-1, Alvaro Fernandez on the right, Dempsey in the middle and Jordan Morris up top.
But that doesn’t mean the formation will settle into that pattern. Bruin is a prototypical striker with more than 50 MLS goals in his career, and Morris had some positive stints on the left wing in 2016. On Saturday, the match ended with Bruin up top and Morris on the left flank with Lodeiro shifting right and Dempsey sitting centrally. It produced a few dangerous moments, and depending on how Schmetzer sees Fernandez it’s a top four setup we could see in some form to start a match.
MLS seasons are long distance runs from Marathon to Athens, not sprints. The point of March is to distil the preseason into some workable shape for the rest of the season, especially when one of your top two or three players is coming back from an illness that sidelined him for months. You’re not supposed to have everything figured out yet, and that second half was at least something positive to take home and build upon.
Nobody’s particularly happy about Saturday’s result. But in March? You learn from it, pack it out and keep moving down the trail.