SANTA TECLA, El Salvador – Jordan Morris and the Sounders may have lost more than just an opening CONCACAF Champions League match down here.
Word that Morris was on crutches, his right knee on ice, after Thursday night’s stunning 2-1 loss to Santa Tecla FC sent a panic through even the most resolute of Sounders fans. Morris flew back to Seattle with the team on Friday and was to have his knee re-evaluated by medical personnel there ahead of further updates early next week.
But Morris, who collapsed untouched in the 85th minute, is the one player the Sounders are ill-equipped to lose for any prolonged time given how thin they are at the forward position. Now, the team will almost certainly have to regroup for Thursday’s return engagement with Santa Tecla and then the MLS opener Sunday versus Los Angeles FC minus their third year striker.
As is, they looked shaky both on attack and defensively throughout the second half against a Santa Tecla side considered among the weakest of the Champions League tournament. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer took a chance by leaving Clint Dempsey back home and saving Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson for the second half.
“I think we can play better,” Schmetzer said afterward. “I can’t blame the Astroturf. I can’t blame the travel. I thought my players fought hard, but at the end of the day Santa Tecla scored two and we only scored one.”
Schmetzer’s makeshift starting lineup did maintain a 1-0 lead through until he began substituting the bigger names on. But the momentum had already begun to swing late in the first half and seemed to keep going once the second half began ahead of two quick goals by Gerson Mayen, the first on a loose ball scramble and then the second on a penalty kick.
“Towards the end of the first half, we knew they were pushing but we got out of the half so that was that,” Schmetzer said, quickly adding: “Then, in the second half they came out, but I thought the way it began at the start of the second half was OK. I wanted to get some fresh legs on, but then, the first goal…it (the ball) drops to their player and then the penalty. They get the penalty and that’s a two-goal lead.”
Schmetzer had been reluctant to start Svensson, given several missed training days while with his wife awaiting the birth of their child. He’d toyed with starting Bruin up top with Morris in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, but opted instead to keep Bruin’s legs fresh for the second half and next week’s games as well.
Even after the substitutions, the Sounders appeared out of sync. That’s common at the start of any season, though it’s left them in a Champions League hole they didn’t expect.
The second leg of this series and the season opener being just three days apart has been on Schmetzer’s mind for weeks. Both are important to the franchise, given they’ll be played at CenturyLink Field so Schmetzer wants as many regulars dressing as possible.
But he’s worried about burning out too many veterans early. Already, heath issues have claimed Osvaldo Alonso, Kelvin Leerdam, Roman Torres, Victor Rodriguez and now Morris.
Still, losing the opener to Santa Tecla wasn’t in the plans. Schmetzer kept insisting his squad competed, but – given the talent disparity on paper between the teams – that seems a minimal goal for a two-time-defending MLS Cup finalist.
The Sounders wound up further hurt by leaving Dempsey behind once midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem failed to get required visa approval in time to travel here and rest up for the game.
The result was a lineup more akin to preseason than a tournament the team insists it’s serious about. Things could prove far different with more regulars starting next Thursday – minus Morris – in front of 40,000 fans at CenturyLink Field.
“The mathematics are that if we win 1-0, we’ll go through,” Schmetzer said, adding that “at the end of the day we just have to play a little bit better at home. Pick the tempo up and make sure we’re putting the pressure on them at the right moments. And make them feel our crowd, make them feel pressure so they make mistakes and we can score some goals.”
The question is which player will score those goals. The back line will get help once the team officially announces a pending deal with Korean center back Kim Kee-hee, but offensive firepower remains a concern.
There are a plethora of playmaking midfielders available but Morris rebounding towards a 15-goal season as a finisher was always a part of the team’s 2018 blueprint.
Schmetzer’s decision to limit the preseason minutes of forwards Dempsey and Bruin is partly why the Morris injury is so concerning. Of the pair, Bruin is the only one the team is confident about playing up top as a true striker and even his ability to consistently go 90 minutes remains questionable because of his physical style.
Nobody is panicking yet, at least not until a full medical report on Morris is produced. But the Sounders are already carrying more headaches away from their Champions League opener than they ever imagined.
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