A quick start will likely be more imperative than ever for the Sounders this spring as they embark on the most condensed regular season schedule in club history.
Major League Soccer has moved up its championship game by a month to avoid the postseason being split up by the international break. That means condensing the 34-game schedule, released on Monday, into a shorter time span that will see the Sounders play nearly a third of their schedule in the season’s opening two months.
The Rave Green open at home against expansion FC Cincinnati on March 2 in their first of 11 nationally televised games and will play their 11thcontest by May 4 at Minnesota United FC. Last season, the Sounders — partly because of CONCACAF Champions League qualification — didn’t play their 11thregular season game until June 2 and were able to use the stretched-out schedule to recover from a terrible start.
Not so this year. They’ll already be at the season’s halfway point by their June 5 game at Montreal — which will cap off a particularly brutal stretch of an unprecedented four consecutive road games. Last season, their 17th game didn’t come until July 7 at New England.
In other words, if they again wait until July to kick things into gear — as they have the past three seasons — the Sounders could very well find themselves sidelined come playoff time. The good news for coach Brian Schmetzer and his crew is that their second-round playoff elimination by Portland last November and a lack of Champions League play this year means this will be their longest off-season stretch between meaningful games since they had four months and one day off between their post-season ouster in 2013 and the start of the 2014 campaign.
That 2014 season, incidentally, was the best in club history and provided their only Supporters’ Shield victory. Claiming the Supporters’ Shield for the league’s top regular season record this year will be an obvious Sounders goal, particularly since a revised single-elimination playoff round format is expected to make it easier for the highest seeded teams to qualify for the MLS Cup final.
In past years, the two-leg playoff rounds offered little advantage to the higher-seeded teams when it came to advancing.
While the MLS Cup being bumped up by four weeks to Nov. 10 has all teams in relatively the same boat, the Sounders have notoriously struggled early since 2016 prior to unprecedented July turnarounds in order to reach the playoffs. Last year, the team needed an MLS record half-season run of 13-2-2 from July onward to qualify for the post-season a record 10thconsecutive time.
The Sounders do play a preseason friendly against Nicolas Lodeiro’s former Club Nacional side from Uruguay on Feb. 20 at CenturyLink Field. But the Sounders tend to avoid wearing out their regulars in friendlies and the stakes and intensity level shouldn’t be anything like what they faced against Santa Tecla FC in Champions League play last February and early March.
Instead, with a full off-season of rest, they’ll should enter the 2019 MLS campaign with mid-summer scoring acquisition Raul Ruidiaz as well as a healthier versions of forward Jordan Morris, midfielder Victor Rodriguez and left back Brad Smith.
In fact, this could be the deepest roster the Sounders have ever started a season with, sporting seasoned veteran backups at nearly every position that could start for most teams. They’ll need that depth early on, with four games in March and six in April — including two spans of three matches in a week from April 6-13 and April 21-28.
They’ll face another such three-match stretch May 11-18. Notable games over that span include March 30 at Vancouver, April 13 at home versus Toronto and two matches a week apart against Los Angeles FC on April 21 and 28.
They’ll catch a break once they hit that halfway point at Montreal in early June, with no further games scheduled for another 3 1/2 weeks during the international break. Last year, their biggest in-season layoff was a 13-day stretch in May because of advance Champions League scheduling.
They’ll need the rest because their second half opens with a tough stretch of three games in a week starting at home against Cascadia rival Vancouver and consecutive road matches at New York City FC and Columbus. Then, a week later, they play host to defending champion Atlanta United FC in a nationally televised July 14 match and then have a home match July 21 against Portland for the first time since the Timbers eliminated them from the playoffs.
By that point, their season will be two-thirds done and the Sounders should have a very good idea of whether they’ll be playoff bound yet again.
The regular season concludes Oct. 6 on Decision Day against Minnesota, and then, it’s on to the new-look MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Sounders begin training camp Jan. 22 and hold the 20th pick in the first round and the 44th overall pick in the second round in the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 11.
The full schedule
Date — Opponent — Time (National TV, if applicable)
Wednesday, Feb. 20 — vs. Club Nacional (FRIENDLY) — 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 2 — vs. FC Cincinnati — 7 p.m. (FS1)
Saturday, March 9 — vs. Colorado Rapids — 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 16 — at Chicago Fire — 1 p.m.
Saturday, March 30 — at Vancouver Whitecaps FC — 7 p.m.
Saturday, April 6 — vs. Real Salt Lake — 7 p.m.
Wednesday, April 10 — at Colorado Rapids — 6 p.m.
Saturday, April 13 — vs. Toronto FC — 1 p.m.
Sunday, April 21 — at Los Angeles FC — 4 p.m. (FS1)
Wednesday, April 24 — vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 28 — vs. Los Angeles FC — 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, May 4 — at Minnesota United FC — 5 p.m.
Saturday, May 11 — vs. Houston Dynamo — 7 p.m.
Wednesday, May 15 — vs. Orlando City SC — 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 18 — at Philadelphia Union — 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 26 — at Sporting Kansas City — 3 p.m. (FS1)
Saturday, June 1 — at FC Dallas — 5 p.m.
Wednesday, June 5 — at Montreal Impact — 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 29 — vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC — 7 p.m.
Wednesday, July 3 — at New York City FC — 4 p.m.
Saturday, July 6 — at Columbus Crew SC — 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 14 — vs. Atlanta United FC — 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, July 21 — vs. Portland Timbers — 6:30 p.m. (FS1)
Saturday, July 27 — at Houston Dynamo — 5 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 4 — vs. Sporting Kansas City — 7 p.m. (FS1)
Saturday, Aug. 10 — vs. New England Revolution — 1 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 14 — at Real Salt Lake — 7 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 17 — at LA Galaxy — 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Friday, Aug. 23 — at Portland Timbers — 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, Sept. 1 — vs. LA Galaxy — 3 p.m. (FS1)
Sunday, Sept. 15 — vs. New York Red Bulls — 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Wednesday, Sept. 18 — vs. FC Dallas — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 22 — at D.C. United — 5 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 29 — at San Jose Earthquakes — 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 6 — vs. Minnesota United FC — 1 p.m.