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Sounders need help from young guys as injuries, suspensions mount

In this March 31, 2018 file photo, Montreal Impact defender Chris Duvall, left, is challenged by Seattle Sounders midfielder Handwalla Bwana, right, in the first half of an MLS soccer match in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
In this March 31, 2018 file photo, Montreal Impact defender Chris Duvall, left, is challenged by Seattle Sounders midfielder Handwalla Bwana, right, in the first half of an MLS soccer match in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Not long before the latest Sounders injury further depleted an already shorthanded lineup, goalkeeper Stefan Frei reflected on taking advantage of opportunities.

Frei was talking about young players making the most of extra minutes being given, something that’s yet to fully happen for a winless team that could use a boost. On Sunday, when the Sounders play a road game against a first-place Sporting Kansas City side, the youth will be expected to step in again.

And whether it’s Handwalla Bwana, Henry Wingo, Alex Roldan, Jordan McCrary, or whoever fills the void, this Sounders group without latest casualty Harry Shipp or still-suspended forward Clint Dempsey and right back Kelvin Leerdam will need some results to avoid the worst start in franchise history.

“These guys are all seeing a decent amount of minutes,” Frei said. “But seeing minutes is one thing. I think what I want to judge, or what I’m keen to see is how do they respond in getting these minutes?

“Do they see it as an opportunity, or do they see it as a given, or a job well done? I think this is the start for them. You want to fight to get on the pitch and then get better, improve and make the team better and develop into a really good player.”

Frei was merely responding to a question about minutes being given first and second-year players. He wasn’t calling them out, but merely being honest about the difference between celebrating youth and needing results at the professional level.

The Sounders, now 0-3, have never gone pointless in their first four matches. They went five games without a win to start the 2013 campaign, but had a pair of draws mixed in with that.

Bwana will likely feature from the start of Sunday’s match (1 p.m. PT, ESPN), as could Wingo. Osvaldo Alonso should see his first minutes in the defensive midfield, but likely not to start the game, meaning the team will be limited as to who can be bumped forward in the attack.

History is not on their side in visits to K.C., where they’ve been blown out 3-0 their last two trips and haven’t won a game or even scored in five years. The Sounders are the only Major League Soccer team that’s yet to score this season and won’t be helped by missing Dempsey, his center midfield backup Shipp – felled by an ankle injury Thursday – or Leerdam along the right flank.

Beyond lacking high-powered forwards in the wake of the Jordan Morris injury, the Sounders have been plagued by inconsistent fullback play from both sides. McCrary, a former second-division player for Toronto FC, has filled in adequately at times, though Leerdam’s shutdown style was sorely missed as he recovered from a pre-season ankle injury.

Rookie midfielder Bwana and second-year player Wingo have shown speed and playmaking talent in spurts, both in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play, while newcomer Roldan has been limited to spot duty. But again, it’s consistency that’s eluded them, as is often the case with tentative young players.

They aren’t alone. Veterans have also struggled with consistency, including highly-touted midfield signing Magnus Wolff Eikrem, left back Waylon Francis and center back Roman Torres.

If the vets don’t get things going soon, it may not matter what the younger players do. Still, some hungrier play all around probably wouldn’t hurt the team right about now.

“I would love to have one of those young guys really step up,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Saturday. “Bwana played well against (Chivas) Guadalajara at home, but I need him to step up in an MLS game in a tough situation because with Sporting, it’s not easy to play here.

“Henry (Wingo) had some chances. Alex (Roldan) is the one that hasn’t really had much time…but I need one of those three kids to step up and deliver a great performance for sure.”

Schmetzer said that, young or not, the team hopes “these young kids are going to be so excited to play, that they give you that little bit of energy, that enthusiasm, that desire to show that they belong. And that’s where you get some of those side benefits of a good performance.”

Frei would like to see some of that enthusiasm result in a goal so his team won’t continuously need a shutout just to have a chance at registering a lone point.

“As far as we can see, all of those young guys have an abundance of talent,” Frei said. “But it’s up to you to show what you’ll do with that talent. I’ve seen so, so many players that have been way more talented than I could ever hope for, literally throw it away by thinking that once they see a few minutes they can relax and just cruise for the remainder of their careers.”

Right now, these Sounders can’t afford to cruise for a single game if they want to avoid getting buried before their season truly begins.


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