The first 45 minutes of Saturday evening’s match at Lumen Field between the two teams topping the Western Conference table was a balanced fight, a tactical stalemate showcasing how quickly St. Louis CITY SC have found ways to compete with MLS elites like the Seattle Sounders in their debut campaign.
The newcomers frustrated the reigning champions of Concacaf with a formation tweak and controlled doses of the high-pressing mayhem that paced their 5W-0L-0D start to the season, readily conceding possession yet still posing danger, nearly tripling their hosts’ expected-goals total in a scoreless first half.
The second stanza was something closer to a beatdown.
Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer and his staff made the most of those 15 or so minutes in the locker room, sorting out the adjustments that enabled the Rave Green to surge past STL to a comfortable 3-0 win that reminded everyone of why Seattle remain the role models for MLS expansion projects like CITY SC’s. Now, the West's top spot belongs to the Matchday 7 hosts.
“Well, we just tweaked a couple of things tactically,” explained Schmetzer afterwards with his traditional understatement, admitting CITY SC coach Bradley Carnell “threw us for a little bit of a loop” with his adjustments to the visitors’ shape.
“They started [in a] 5-2-3 [formation] which, normally a lot of teams play 5-3-2, [like] Cincinnati, one of our games where we were frustrated a little bit [a 1-0 road loss last month]. And we just wanted Josh [Atencio] and Albert [Rusnák] to be a little bit more mobile and play the ball past their front three. And I think that worked in the second half.”
Seattle did all this with arguably their two most influential players, Raúl Ruidíaz and João Paulo, starting on the bench and rested due to a hamstring concern, respectively. The depth of roster and strength of culture at SSFC is such that they got an immediate boost from João Paulo's replacement, 21-year-old homegrown Atencio, who banged home his first career MLS goal for a scintillating game-winner in a man-of-the-match outing in central midfield.
“When Josh is playing well, he's going to continue to get opportunities. It was an easy decision for us to be conservative with JP,” said Schmetzer, who noted he was so impressed with Atencio that he gave the home faithful a chance to give him an ovation by substituting him out in the 90th minute.
“We will rotate through the squad throughout the year. But it's not my decisions that drive that group. It's not me saying to Josh or to Obed [Vargas] or to JP, ‘Hey, better watch out or this kid's going to take your spot.’ That's not the mantra of that group in there,” he continued. “That group is fully committed to each and every player trying to do whatever they can do to help drive the performance of the team. And I think that's a very, very distinct calling card for this group.
“They’re not trying to prove to me that they deserve to play, they're trying to prove to themselves and their teammates that they can help the group win games. That's why I'm so positive about this group.”
One of several promising kids to filter through the Sounders’ revitalized youth system in recent years, Atencio already has more than 50 first-team matches under his belt despite his age. He ranks as one of their most impressive development projects, as does Jackson Ragen, the center back keeping Ecuadorian international Xavier Arreaga on the bench at present.
“I think we had some injuries last year and that allowed him to play a little bit,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said of Ragen postgame. “I remember distinctly telling him, ‘Look, when some of those senior guys come back, you’ll probably get pushed back onto the bench.’ That’s just a harsh reality at times. Either you can pout or you can take that as a challenge, and I think he showed he has a good head on his shoulders – he took it as a challenge.”
That’s one of several reasons the shadow of last season’s historic failure to reach the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs after their Concacaf Champions League triumph is receding rapidly in Seattle. Schmetzer admitted he’s currently spoiled for choice when it comes to picking his lineups, not only in terms of competing options in multiple positions, but the versatility of key cogs like Jordan Morris, who slotted seamlessly from the left wing to their lone striker role and produced goals in bunches when Ruidíaz was sidelined by injury.
“I think we're still developing the actual final product,” said Schmetzer. “There's a ways to go. I think what this group of players gives us as a coaching staff is options.
“Gives me a lot of sleepless nights, but it's a really, really good problem to have.”