Brian Schmetzer stood maskless, leaning against a bench post at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday night with a facial expression that said everything: What is going on?
What followed in the MLS Cup final between the coach’s Sounders FC and Columbus Crew might have the final word on Seattle’s upcoming offseason. The Crew was up 2-0 in the 36th minute when the broadcast camera panned to Schmetzer, who displayed a dismayed look.
In the Sounders’ past two playoff matches, the backline showed weaknesses but Schmetzer was slow to make changes. It worked in the Western Conference championship game last Monday as the Rave Green rallied from a two-goal deficit to pull off a 3-2 victory in the final 20 minutes against Minnesota United.
Rolling with right fullback Alex Roldan and right winger Joevin Jones in the MLS Cup final starting lineup instead of fullback Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson – who scored and had an assist, respectively, in the Sounders’ 2019 league title match – didn’t pay off Saturday. Replays showed Jones and Roldan had obvious errors and miscommunications that ultimately led to a 3-0 defeat against the Crew.
The Sounders were off from the opening whistle. Given the magnitude of the game and Seattle’s ineptness, many wouldn’t critique a bold move of a mid-opening half substitution. Schmetzer waited until halftime, which did provide a needed spark but not the goals needed to win in Seattle’s fourth MLS Cup in its past five seasons.
“Those guys were my first-choice starters for the last four games,” said Schmetzer through his mask during the postgame news conference. “I don’t second-guess myself. What I do is try to learn from things. I said this after Minnesota, when you put guys on and you win 3-2 in dramatic fashion, you’re the greatest coach ever. Then you make a lineup choice for this game and end up losing 3-0 in a Cup final, then everybody is questioning you.”
True, but it also showed a glaring trend the coach likely can’t afford in the midst of ongoing negotiations for a contract extension. While winning four Western Conference championships in five years cannot be discredited, the MLS Cup defeat is the third time on a big stage where Seattle underachieved.
And options were there on the bench.
The highly anticipated season began with a defeat in the opening round of the CONCACAF Championship League tournament in February. After the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, MLS announced a return to play with a summer tournament in Florida, sequestering its teams and staff at Disney World. The Sounders were bounced in the opening of the knockout rounds in July.
The club resumed the MLS regular season a month later, playing a regionalized schedule due to COVID-19 restrictions, and didn’t play to its potential consistently until the postseason. But in the Final, the players, the creative tactics, the bold moves all disappeared on the field in Columbus.
Seattle flew home shortly after the match. Discussions regarding what to make of the season likely will begin Monday.
Schmetzer’s contract expires at the end of the month. The coach wants to be paid according to his stature as a two-time MLS Cup champion with a 15-4-2 postseason record – best in MLS’s 25-year playoff history.
Sounders co-captain Nico Lodeiro’s contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2021, but he’s made it clear he’d like a deal before then. And forward Jordan Morris, who signed a five-year deal in 2018, said Friday if “the right European team came or situation came, it would definitely be something that I would have to take a close look at.”
Talks, just like the 2020 season, are amid the coronavirus pandemic and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Multiple Seattle players spoke of needing a break because of the strains of playing while navigating the civil unrest and COVID-related protocols.
Sounders forward Raul Ruidiaz and Svensson contracted the virus and were asymptomatic. The MLS Players Association said during a conference call with media members Wednesday approximately 20% of the athletes tested positive for COVID-19.
MLS plans to start the 2021 season on-time in March but intimated it could invoke the new force majeure clause to renegotiate the June collective-bargaining agreement because the pandemic will still gravely impact competition, particularly whether all markets are able to have fans in attendance for matches. The majority of the Sounders’ revenue comes from game-day sources.
But that would mean a third negotiation in a 12-month span. Prior to retiring last spring, midfielder Harry Shipp, the Sounders’ player representative, said the league taking advantage of the original deal not being ratified to re-open talks severely soured relationships with management.
“This would be a mistake,” MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said of the possible use of the clause. “In terms of gross dollars, no one has taken more of a hit in MLS this year than the owners. But the flexibility and control within the economic model allows our teams ample opportunity to reduce costs in 2021 if they need to without reneging on the agreements that they’ve made with their players.”
Foose added that a March start date isn’t advisable because players need mental and physical rest from a trying season. Lodeiro and Sounders keeper Stefan Frei echoed the sentiment, the former sharing his family is headed to Hawaii to recoup.
Time to evaluate what to make of the season when in the Final, so much went wrong and no answers could be found.
“I find it trivial, almost, and am a bit embarrassed to have to talk about how disappointed I am in not winning a trophy,” Frei said Saturday. “There’s people that lost their lives this year and people that are still fighting. So let’s not forget about the first-responders, the workers, the people that are out there in hospitals helping everybody. Thank you for your work. … You can’t just now turn off completely. There’s still a pandemic going on. But I just need some time with my family.”
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