Coming off a midweek 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, one where he deposited a left-footed volley for the game's only goal, Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan has every reason to feel confident.
But the 25-year-old will need something extra when LAFC come to Lumen Field on Sunday evening (9:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) for reasons far beyond the rivalry these Western Conference sides have developed in recent years.
Look no further than the early league table, where Seattle are unbeaten through five games (4W-0L-1D) and challenging skeptics who posited that last year’s MLS Cup runner-up was due for a regression.
“We may have a bit of a target on our back, not because of what we did last year but because we're doing this year in a different formation, not conceding too many goals and still finding ways to win games without some of our best players,” Roldan said. “So that's a credit to the whole team, but it's going to make for a very tough year.”
As Roldan noted, the Sounders are likely without US men's national team winger Jordan Morris for the entire season after he tore his ACL while on loan at Swansea City. Best XI-caliber midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro has played in just one game off the bench, with head coach Brian Schmetzer describing the Uruguayan as “day-to-day” while dealing with knee inflammation.
Starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a sprained knee, and midfielder/defender Jordy Delem is diagnosed with a torn ACL that'll require surgery. Without Frei, Schmetzer is expected to choose between Stefan Cleveland or Spencer Richey at starting goalkeeper.
Those punches might produce a knockout for some sides, but Seattle have adapted and thrived in their three center-back system that often puts Alex Roldan and Brad Smith in wingback roles. Schmetzer said they have a next-man-up mentality, and things will be no different on Sunday when facing LAFC in their first double-game week of 2021.
“I don't think there's any underlying stories, messages, whatever – a lot of teams are going to come after us,” Schmetzer said. “So the message was that this morning, that yes, feel good about yourself, it's another great victory, San Jose, great, everything good, we'll make some adjustments here or there. But it doesn't get any easier. You've got LAFC on a weekend.”
Seattle are encountering an LAFC side that hasn’t quite hit second gear, now roughly five months removed from making the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final. They haven’t won since a Week 1 victory over expansion side Austin FC, and are emerging from a 2-1 setback last weekend against the LA Galaxy.
It’s not entirely clear if star forward Carlos Vela will return, either. Head coach Bob Bradley said the 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP trained “up another notch” this week and is a possibility for some minutes on Sunday. If not, look for Corey Baird to continue to his acclimation since being acquired from Real Salt Lake via trade and Diego Rossi, last year’s Golden Boot presented by Audi winner, to build off scoring in El Trafico.
“I think we've had four tight games. We've had moments in every game of playing good football, winning balls, creating advantages,” Bradley said. “I think, for sure, that we've not done as well as we expect when we create attacking advantages. The timing, the ball, the right pass – we're a team that, over all the years, has scored a lot of goals. And so far this year five goals in four games is, especially considering the number of possibilities, that's low.”
Sunday’s game also marks the second of three regular-season games between Seattle and LAFC in 2021, as they battled to a 1-1 draw back in Week 2. Several stars weren’t out at Banc of California Stadium, but both teams played with a good tempo and chased the three points.
Now, we’ll see if LAFC can hand Seattle their first loss of 2021 or if Schmetzer’s somewhat-depleted squad can keep proving the doubters wrong.
“We've had so many tight games with them,” Bradley said. “Games in some cases where we've taken the initiative but still not been able to score with some chances and then they've taken advantage of a moment and put us behind. If I just go by this year, I thought it was a hard-fought early-season game, two teams going after each other. I would expect that again.”
Added Roldan: "These games are going to be extremely intense because they're Western Conference games. It certainly feels like they're six-point games. There's always that added motivation and at the end of the day, we want to put ourselves in position to win another trophy. Whether that's Supporters' Shield, whether that's being as high as you can in the standings for MLS Cup, that's our motivation going forward."