As most Seattle Sounders FC fans can attest, Brian Schmetzer isn’t known to be a hype merchant.
The head coach generally lets his team’s play do the talking, and doesn’t mind pumping the brakes on bold predictions about the Rave Green’s potential for glory. Even when it’s coming from people nominally above him on the totem pole like GM and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey, who said he believes the 2022 Sounders are “going to be one of the best teams we've had here” when big free-agent signing Albert Rusnak was introduced.
“So let's talk about that for a little bit, expectations,” said Schmetzer in a Tuesday call with reporters before he and his squad flew south to Palm Springs, California, site of their final preseason camp before jetting to Honduras for their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 first-leg matchup with CF Motagua next week.
Listing off the highly competitive sides SSFC have fielded over the half-decade he and Lagerwey have been in Seattle, Schmetzer reminded his audience that the current edition inherits a high bar.
“I mean, 2019 we had a tremendous team, 2018 we set records at the end of the year,” he noted. “This past season, we set a record of 13 games unbeaten. We've had a great team. I would not say that this team is going to be the best all-time. We haven't even stepped on the field yet.
“You can't pile on too much,” added Schmetzer. “Players already are pro athletes, so there's that pressure, there's always 40,000 people in the building. We're a big club. It's one of the reasons why Albert wanted to come play for us. We're a big club, there's added pressure there. Look, it’s a World Cup year, there's a lot of guys that are vying for spots on their respective national teams … it's my job sometimes to slow it down a little bit.”
Yet the simple fact that Schmetzer is already dealing with this topic just a few weeks into their 2022 campaign underlines how high the Sounders’ ceiling is perceived to be, both around the club and MLS as a whole, however cautious their famously down-to-earth coach would prefer to be.
It starts with a dense accumulation of talent and achievement headlined by battle-tested stars Raul Ruidiaz, Joao Paulo, Jordan Morris, Stefan Frei, Cristian Roldan and now Rusnak, but also includes consistent performers like Yeimar Gomez, Will Bruin and Alex Roldan.
Then add in the sting of last year’s uncharacteristic one-and-done Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run thanks to David Ochoa and Real Salt Lake. Consider that they were upset in much the same fashion in their most recent Champions League appearance two years ago, where another Honduran outfit, CD Olimpia, knocked them out via a penalty-kick shootout in the first round. And hovering above all this is Seattle’s standing ambition to accomplish what no other MLS club has done in the modern era: win CCL.
“There is the Champions League loss, that I take very personally, in 2020,” said Schmetzer. “There are high expectations for this club. [Lagerwey] has made it one of his flags in the ground: He wants to win a Champions League competition. We certainly do, coaches, staff, players – I think that would be good for MLS, it would be a good marker …
“Champions League is a competition we want to do very well in. And so having a good team – because I agree with Garth, we do have a good team, a very good team on paper, that gives us the best chance of doing well in Champions League, doing well in the league and ending the year on a high note in another MLS Cup final.”
The Rave Green appear to be particularly spoiled for choice in attacking areas. After spending much of 2021 in a 3-5-2 formation crafted in part to compensate for the lengthy injury absences of linchpin playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders are also spending time in the 4-2-3-1 formation that was previously their default, offering a range of options and looks.
“I'll just get right to the point. I think we’re going to be really good offensively,” said Schmetzer. “Albert adds another dimension, he loves shooting from top of the box, his set pieces are good. He's going to add something. You're bringing Jordan back, Nico's coming back. I mean, the team looks pretty good offensively. Again, tempering expectations, it's only been training but in training they look pretty sharp.”
Speaking of Lodeiro, Seattle are hopeful that their Uruguayan talisman has shaken off the issues that limited him to just nine league appearances (four starts) last season. Schmetzer went as far as to guarantee that Lodeiro, 32, will play a role in the first round of CCL.
“He's chomping at the bit,” said the coach. “He's ready to go. He would tell you that he's ready to play 90 minutes, but just because of the injury that he sustained, and just kind of the ramp-up for that, just to make sure that nothing goes wrong there, we're being a little bit cautious. But he's definitely going to play against the Galaxy and he's definitely going to play against Motagua. I can throw that out to you.”
SSFC meet the LA Galaxy in a preseason match at the Empire Polo Club on Thursday, then jet to Tegucigalpa on Tuesday ahead of the first leg vs. Motagua at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino on Feb. 17.