The Sounders’ big plans for Champions League were dashed Thursday, partly because of a slowdown with a visa. And now, the MLS opener is abruptly upon the defending champs.
Relative to the euphoria surrounding the Sounders when last they were seen publicly — a November civic parade that followed the MLS Championship won in spectacular fashion on the home grounds — Thursday and Friday held a heavy load of glumness.
Since the MLS season opener is noon Sunday against the Chicago Fire, Seattle has little time to ditch the pouty lower lip from Thursday night’s clank at the Clink.
In fact, the entire visage of the Sounders is red and swollen, thanks to the unexpected home loss in CONCACAF Champions League play that general manager Garth Lagerway called “a faceplant.”
A defeat via penalty kicks to an underdog side from Honduras, CD Olimpia, had the entire Sounders side embarrassed and sputtering.
Never in the tournament’s 58-year history among clubs from North and Central America and the Caribbean has an MLS club won the title. In the Sounders’ mission statement to be a global brand, being the first to win the international trophy has been a big deal.
Coach Brian Schmetzer said it has been so since the Sounders’ inception in 2009, invoking the name of his coaching predecessor, the late Sigi Schmid.
“Sig always wanted to be the the first (to do things),” he said. “I used that with Champions League: Why can’t the Sounders be the first MLS team? I think the players buy into those things.”
Obviously, not quite enough Thursday.
After 2-2 tie in Honduras in the first leg of the two-leg series, the Sounders Thursday seemed to be cruising with a 2-1 lead until the 86th minute, when a scraped-together back line allowed a goal that ended up tying the regulation-time proceedings. Since CONCACAF rules call for no overtime, the game went straight to a PK shootout the Sounders lost badly, 4-2.
The result was a stunner. The Sounders had adjusted their off-season signing schedule and pushed nearly all the club’s 2020 resources forward to have a complete team for Champions League in February and the MLS season’s start in March. No powder was being kept dry for a mid-season signing of a high-profile player.
But the Sounders were an incomplete team. Missing due to injuries were starting midfielders Nico Lodeiro (tendinitis) and Gustav Svensson (calf), while newcomer defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade, 28, from Colombia, was unable to get his U.S. P1 visa in time.
Gomez Andrade, who was signed Jan. 30 with targeted allocation money, was able to play in Honduras, but for his first game in the U.S., thanks to a fresh wrinkle apparently created by tumultuous U.S. politics, he was not yet eligible.
In the past year, standard immigration procedures such as work visas have begun to take longer. While Lagerway is quick to push away any talk of an existential crisis or unfairness — all MLS teams are experiencing same — he is direct in pointing out how politics have suddenly complicated the talent-acquisition game.
A procedure that normally takes three days is taking six days. In the highly competitive world of international pro soccer transactions in tight calendar windows, it’s noteworthy.
“Our sample size is four or five — a couple of players, a couple of staffers,” Lagerway said. “I can’t speak to statutory changes from the past, but from our experience, it’s taking longer — a doubling of the wait time.
“It’s league-wide; if it were just us as a one-off, I could say we just had a bad experience. But it’s not. It’s more pervasive. It’s taking longer. Depending on what side of the political spectrum you sit, you could assign (political) motivation or no motivation.”
The national political fight between Democrats and Republicans over immigration policies has begun to be felt in pro sports. The slowdown came with no warning, and three days may seem small. It also may be just the start, not only for MLS, but for leagues increasingly dependent on international players, such as NBA, MLB and NHL.
“As a lawyer, I have to be careful about what I can prove and what I can’t,” Lagerway said. But objectively, it’s slower. It takes longer. Every step in the visa process takes more time than it did a year ago. I’ll leave it to others to assess whether it’s a good or bad idea. That’s a fact.”
Lagerway indicated there’s not much the league can do. Some decisions are made at a state level, and while most GMs seek an open, unhindered marketplace, team owners may have different views. As with any sport, MLS is not a monolith.
“That ownership diversity will always pose some challenge,” he said. “It’s emotional, it’s political, and a pretty charged issue. How long it lasts depends on who wins the election. The two sides have different approaches.”
Now that it’s game time, Lagerway has to shift into a patient mode as all the newcomers adapt to each other, as well as the defense of a championship of which they were not a part.
“As a general manager, you can’t go out and say this (2019) roster is the greatest group ever, and pay everybody a bunch of money,” he said. “You have to be willing to make some hard choices, and we did that.
“Our pace was accelerated because of the Champions League schedule. But changing out three or four defenders from the MLS champions takes time to figure out how to play together as a unit. There’s no way to rush that.”
The Champions League priority also threw another schedule curve. CONCACAF had national telecast windows of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for its second-round games. Despite intense lobbying by the Sounders, they where chosen for Thursday ahead of the Sunday MLS opener.
“As long as they provide a 48-hour window, CONCACAF has the right to schedule,” Lagerway said. “It’s out of our control. It didn’t change our approach. We’re going to put out our best team and try to win.”
But they didn’t have their best roster, and didn’t win. Apparently in the fast-moving MLS, being defending champions is sooo last year.