For one night at least, the Seattle Sounders put some of the preseason concerns surrounding the defending Western Conference Champions to rest.
After a slow first half in their season-opening match against Minnesota United at Lumen Field on Friday, the Sounders exploded in a goal-filled second half that featured a legitimate golazo from Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo, a brace from standout Peruvian Raul Ruidiaz, and a capper from Fredy Montero in the club legend’s first game back in Rave Green.
All told, head coach Brian Schmetzer couldn’t have scripted the start to his club’s season much better, coming off a preseason that saw the club lose Jordan Morris to a torn ACL, leading many to question whether the club could retain its status as a Western Conference power.
Here are three takeaways coming off Friday’s match.
Atencio’s big debut
If the Sounders had a full-strength XI at their disposal, homegrown midfielder Josh Atencio would have started Friday’s match on the bench. But due to a preseason knock that sidelined star playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, the 19-year-old academy product drew his first MLS start, tasked with helping neutralize one of the league’s most dynamic attackers in Minnesota’s Bebelo Reynoso. It was anyone’s guess as to how he would fare.
As it turned out, Atencio never looked out of place over the course of the match, putting in a strong defensive shift beside Joao Paulo and even showcasing some nice attributes getting forward into the attack.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Josh,” Schmetzer said after the match. “Because, look, he had big shoes to fill because if Nico Lodeiro, captain of this club, was healthy, Nico would have been playing. That would’ve meant Cristian [Roldan] would have dropped next to JP and so Josh wouldn’t have played.
“So if you look at that story, here’s a kid from Bellevue, Washington, who’s trained with [Tacoma] Defiance and trained with the first team last year. We had to send some kids down to Defiance last year because of Covid and the bubbles, but we kept Josh purposely in the first-team training environment and you guys witnessed his transformation into – I mean, he looked like a very, very talented MLS player.”
It speaks to a larger reality facing the Sounders as they look to the rest of the season, which is that they’re going to need contributions from their much-heralded but still inexperienced crop of homegrowns when they inevitably have to contend with squad rotation and international absences. Atencio certainly made an intriguing case that he can be one of those contributors.
New formation pays early dividends
Throughout all of preseason, much of the talk around the Sounders centered around their departure from Schmetzer’s long-used 4-2-3-1 formation into a two-forward set-up, a move necessitated by the injury loss of Morris and a lack of replacement wingers on the roster.
Veteran forward Will Bruin got the start beside Raul Ruidiaz on Friday, with Montero coming off the bench. The early returns were positive, with Bruin assisting Ruidiaz’s first goal and Montero adding some late insurance with a clinical volley off a cross from Alex Roldan.
They made it look easy in this match, but Schmetzer conceded learning the new tactics remains an ongoing adjustment.
“There’s going to be a learning curve, it’s not always going to be like this. I mean, yes, we’re very happy with tonight but there’s going to be a learning curve, a few bumps in the road,” Schmetzer said. “We as coaches, we know that.”
Still, Schmetzer had to have liked what he saw on Friday as the Sounders adapt to life without Morris, one of the best dynamic attacking players in the league. The trio of Ruidiaz, Bruin and Montero has the look of a potentially potent three-headed monster, regardless of who starts next to Ruidiaz.
Letdown for the Loons
Coming into the match, Minnesota had revenge on their mind following last year’s defeat at the very same venue of Lumen Field in last year’s Western Conference Final.
It wasn’t to be for Adrian Heath’s men, who got overrun in the second half despite accruing some first-half momentum after goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair saved a Ruidiaz penalty kick. It was a sour way to start the season, but this still a team that was minutes away from MLS Cup last season, and one that boasts plenty of talent in its first-choice XI.
The question going forward will be how quickly Minnesota can integrate new striker Ramón Ábila (who made his club debut in a second-half cameo), and if they can shore up the leaky defense that plagued them on Friday. In the meantime, Bebelo Reynoso is about as good a building block as Heath could hope to have at his disposal. The Argentine showcased some more electric moments on Friday, picking up where he left off following his arrival to the club last season.