TUKWILA, Wash. — For the Seattle Sounders, getting their 2019 MLS campaign off to a strong start is about much more than bucking a narrative.
With the new Audi MLS Cup Playoffs structure that has turned the two-legged series of the past into single-elimination one-offs, procuring home-field advantage for the postseason is crucially important. Any sustained stretch of poor form during the regular season could make a postseason path to MLS Cup even more difficult.
Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer has had a clear objective for his players that’s he emphasized throughout preseason camp and into the start of Seattle’s league campaign.
“We are absolutely messaging internally, externally, that the new playoff format is different,” Schmetzer said. “We’re trying to collect points. I don’t care if the second game is in New York or here, it doesn’t matter. We’re trying to win every single game, because every single game matters. Why can’t this team be the best Seattle team ever?
“Coaches say this all the time: They say the objective is to make the playoffs and win MLS Cup,” he added. “I said that [during] preseason. But now let’s challenge them and say, ‘You know what? With a couple home games to start the year, a good schedule, everybody’s healthy, why can’t we lead from the front? Why not?’”
Goalkeeper Stefan Frei leads the prematch huddle against FC Cincinnati | Mike Fiechtner
But that’s only one game. Now, the task becomes keeping that momentum going and turning those goals of a sustained hot start into a reality. That means besting a Colorado Rapids side at CenturyLink Field this weekend (7 p.m. PT; JOEtv, YouTube TV, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM | TICKETS) that struggled in 2018, but is sporting a revamped roster with proven MLS commodities like midfielder Benny Feilhaber and striker Kei Kamara.
“[Rapids Head Coach] Anthony [Hudson] has done a good job,” Schmetzer said. “They’ve collected some good pieces and the way they play with two forwards, they’re a much-improved team. So, we’ll obviously know on Saturday, but from what we’ve seen on film, they’re a much-improved squad.”
Aside from the implications in the league standings, shooting out of the gate is also necessary psychologically. Training weeks following victories are naturally looser and more enjoyable. Players are itching to come to work and get back on the training ground, a mentality that becomes much harder to achieve coming off a loss.
“It’s one thing I think I will remind our players before we step on the field on Saturday,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “This week was enjoyable. And it’s because we had a W. It’s that simple. You enjoy your food, you enjoy coming to work, you’re smiling, you’re happy, you’re going after it but life is good. But you have to earn that every weekend.
“And, speaking of goals, I think you have to make those weekly goals,” he continued. “You can’t just sit here and say, ‘O.K., we want to win MLS Cup.’ Everybody wants to win MLS Cup. You need to set yourself goals for on the road. How do you get there? That’s the question. We want to get there week by week and a strong start is very, very important for us. We really value that.”