After a practice this week, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer noted that “it’s always harder to repeat something.”
He was speaking specifically about a certain individual’s performance, but the sentiment holds true in a general sense for those who, like the Sounders, open the season Saturday night at Houston in defense of their 2016 MLS Cup title.
It’s absolutely very difficult to sustain that level of excellence over the course of the season when every team is targeting you. And the fight is different whether you’re coming up the mountain or trying to stay there.
But the theory is open to serious debate this season as the Sounders, at 0-0 right now, seem miles closer to the 2017 championship than the 2016 club did when they were in what looked like an inescapable midseason abyss.
In one of the all-time improbable off-the-canvas rallies, they came back from the worst start in franchise history (6-12-2 in first 20 games) to earn the fourth seed in the conference playoffs and battled all the way to the championship game, which they won on penalty kicks without having had a single shot on goal in 120 minutes of regulation and overtime.
And they did it with their marquee player and certifiable stud Clint Dempsey, who was out from late summer with an irregular heartbeat.
With Dempsey out, it would have been fair to wonder if the Sounders had a chance of any kind.
Questioning the heart of any of them now would seem unwise after the way they tore through the late season and playoffs.
So, how does a team that knows it can throw knockout punches in the late rounds get amped up to battle in the early stages of what might turn into a nine-month season?
“We’ve discussed this as a coaching staff, how do we get them to motivate themselves for games now, in March and April?” said Schmetzer, who replaced long-time coach Sigi Schmid last summer and righted the foundering Sounders ship.
“Last year was pretty fast, and the messaging was that every game is a must-win game,” Schmetzer said. “The reality of it is those guys are smart enough to know that this first game isn’t a must-win game. So, how do you get them motivated? That’s a key for us.”
So yes, Coach, how?
“We’ve been driving the message home pretty succinctly,” he said.
It’s easy to envision the 2017 Sounders as immediate contenders. Basically, they add Dempsey to the team that powered-surged to the title. He’s apparently fit and ready to open the season as a starter, even if he’s not expected to play the full 90 minutes.
Jordan Morris, last season’s MLS Rookie of the Year, could be expected to make what is often the greatest leap in efficiency in any pro athlete’s career — going from rookie to a young veteran.
And goalkeeper Stefan Frei returns with the confidence of an MLS Cup MVP. Aside from that, his performances allow the backline of the defense to be evermore aggressive in their knowledge that Frei is in the nets ready to erase any mistakes.
They rounded out the roster with some youth and some veterans off other teams to create a level of depth that Schmetzer believes gives them rotation options, versatility and insurance against injuries.
Schmetzer seems a studied and thoughtful man in his responses, often pausing to consider all facets of questions posed him. That’s probably how he coaches, too, analyzing the possibilities.
When asked about pacing the effort over the full season compared to the frantic, adrenalized finish of last season, Schmetzer saw two answers.
“The match-day mentality is we’re coming to win,” he said. “We can’t pace ourselves through any matches because the league has too much parity.”
Physically, though, management of the talent from March through at least late October gets trickier. Full bore for 34 straight weeks is impossible. For that, Schmetzer said he relies on the input of Dave Tenney, sports science and performance manager, who advises matters of player readiness.
“The pacing might come on the physical side, but the mental side is we have to get after it right away,” Schmetzer said.
The team’s training session at the Starfire headquarters on Wednesday was fast and physical, and the Sounders looked like a team that was fit and ready to play meaningful games.
“We know we are champions,” said captain Osvaldo Alonso. “But you have to start from the bottom and go little by little.”
But this is one team for whom starting from at 0-0 seems like having a head start.