SEATTLE – Under normal conditions, the Sounders would face a challenge Sunday in winning on the road against a team that has already beaten them at home.
But this rematch against the expansion Los Angeles FC side comes with the added drama of that franchise’s home debut in the most expensive soccer-specific stadium built in this country. The 22,000-seat, open-air Banc of California Stadium cost $350 million. It features 34-degree seating angles, among the steepest in Major League Soccer.
Some fans will be 12 feet from the pitch – and others no farther than 135 feet away – which should create a closed-in, hostile environment for Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer and his crew to navigate in seeking their first road victory of 2018.
“I think (revenge) is on everybody’s mind,” Schmetzer said in reference to his team’s 1-0 defeat to LAFC at CenturyLink Field in the season debut March 4. “The players are competitive. They sure want to win. Would it be nice because it’s their opener and they spoiled our home opener? Sure, there’s a bit of revenge there. But at the end of the day, we need a good performance to give us a chance to win because we understand they’ll be very hyped up.”
The new stadium features 125,000 square feet of walkways and public plazas, an 86,000-square-foot pitch made of improved Bermuda grass and a semitransparent, curving roof that rims the stadium’s outer flanks and partially covers several seating sections while minimizing glare and heat.
Playing under that roof will be two teams trying to establish patterns to their season after inconsistent starts.
Adding to the intrigue surrounding the nationally televised match is whether the Sounders will again begin with forward Clint Dempsey on the bench. Schmetzer hedged against revealing too much, though was pleased with the attacking-midfield work of brothers Cristian and Alex Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro in a 3-1 home victory last weekend over Minnesota United FC.
The Roldans grew up in Pico Rivera, California, 16 miles from the site of the new stadium, adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Their parents and dozens of family and friends are expected to attend.
“It’s sold out, so we’ll see how many (tickets) I can get,” Cristian Roldan said. “I have a big family, so I’m hoping for a lot. But I’ll try not to get my hopes up.”
Roldan expects “a hostile environment,” with LAFC seeking to prove itself to new fans after a record six road games to start the year. LAFC has been up-and-down since starting the season 2-0 and jumping ahead 3-0 against its LA Galaxy crosstown rivals in its third game. The Galaxy rallied late to win 4-3 and LAFC was blown out 5-1 by Atlanta in its ensuing match.
Since then, LAFC has beaten Vancouver 2-0 and improved to 4-2 last weekend by winning a 5-3 thriller over Montreal in a game largely devoid of any defending.
The last-place Sounders, at 1-3-1, trail second-place LAFC by eight points in the Western Conference and need to make up ground. They largely controlled play throughout their season-opening loss and now – with five goals in two games compared with none in their first three – hope to pounce on a shaky-looking LAFC backline.
Roldan said starting alongside his brother in opening a new soccer-only venue practically in his hometown backyard would be surreal, something he could never have imagined growing up.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “I know I’ve said many times that Seattle is my second home … but there’s nothing like playing in front of your family. Hopefully, they can experience that and experience it for many years to come.”
The Sounders could start three Los Angeles-area natives among the Roldans and center back Chad Marshall, who hails from Riverside. But this is also the type of high-profile game in which Dempsey typically thrives.
Roldan described the relationship between him and Dempsey – whose role he took over the last two games – as “competitive” in daily workouts. But he added that the competition for spots should make all of them better players.
“You never want to put a guy like Clint Dempsey on the bench,” Roldan said. “Obviously, there are certain situations where you may need to … but when somebody is healthy, it’s really hard to keep Clint off the field.”
Roldan noted veteran Magnus Wolff Eikrem, a touted offseason signing, has also struggled to get on the field. It’s just the byproduct, he said, of strong internal competition every good team needs.
Alex Roldan expects an emotional, high-intensity start to the match given the circumstances. He says it’s imperative the Sounders keep their heads and not get carried away in the moment.
“The first 15 minutes are usually very chaotic,” he said. “So, we just have to come in there and be patient enough to withstand the first 15 minutes.”