24 Thoughts: Seattle's grand CONCACAF plan, Berhalter talks MLS, and reheating goalkeeping beef

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SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 02: Jordan Morris #13 celebrates with teammate Victor Rodriguez #8 of Seattle Sounders after scoring a goal against the FC Cincinnati at CenturyLink Field on March 02, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Jordan Morris and the Seattle Sounders want to be the first MLS team to get off the mat and win the CONCACAF Champions League in its current format. (Getty)

Watching MLS teams get dominated in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals this week made me wish the Seattle Sounders were involved in this year’s edition.

Big-spending (by MLS standards) Seattle has been a staple of the CCL in recent years but didn’t qualify for the 2019 event. Of the four league teams remaining, just one, defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, has a payroll in the top third of the domestic circuit. Roster spending isn’t the only reason both the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo were shut out, at home, in multiple-goal losses to better-funded Liga MX sides, but it was a big factor.

Which brings us back to the Sounders. Without international games to worry about, Brian Schmetzer’s team rocked FC Cincinnati in the expansion club’s debut match. Back-to-back trips to the MLS Cup final in 2016 and 2017 limited Seattle’s offseason and left them weary when the CCL began early the following year. How much will the long break the Sounders had this winter help them down the line?

1. “It will help, definitely,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “We were spent (the last two abbreviated offseasons). We had nothing left to give. So for us, getting a rest this offseason was absolutely vital. From that standpoint, if you had to miss Champions League once, maybe this was the right year to do it.”

2. Last week, Lagerwey told the Seattle Times that the club is going all-in for a league title in 2019. “We need to win now,” he said. But that’s not to say that Sounders wouldn’t rather be playing CCL matches if given the choice. “We’ve been working for a long time to try to be the first MLS club to win that competition,” Lagerwey said. “If it doesn’t happen this year, hopefully we get a shot at it next year.”

3. Jordan Morris was the hero against FCC, scoring two goals in his first match since missing the entire 2018 season with a torn ACL. On Monday, he was named MLS Player of the Week. Things have changed a lot since Morris last suited up for the Sounders. Clint Dempsey retired. Peruvian international Raul Ruidiaz arrived and filled the forward spot that Morris occupied for much of 2017. That means that in addition to learning the tendencies of Ruidiaz and others, he’s doing it from a new position: a right winger in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1 set-up. Morris played on both flanks as a rookie in 2016.

4. “His skillset is a really good fit for that right wing spot,” Lagerwey said. “On the outside, he can really use his speed to help us attack from outside positions. He’s a very good crosser of the ball, people don’t realize that.” He’s only going to get better, and sharper, with more reps. “Physically he’s 100 percent,” Lagerwey said of Morris. “But when it comes to soccer, including last weekend, he’s played two matches in 17 months. There’s going to be some rust.”

5. Toronto FC is another team that lots of folks were down on after the Reds bombed out of CONCACAF in the round of 16. Then they went to Philly and beat the Union 3-1 in the regular season opener minus Jozy Altidore and two of their three designated players. As with the Sounders, not having to juggle CCL knockout matches could end up being a blessing in disguise for Toronto, which lost the continental championship on penalty kicks last April.

6. I was curious to find out how new TFC general manager Ali Curtis is settling into his role. Toronto has been in the news a lot since Ali replaced Tim Bezbatchenko in January. In addition to the Champions League debacle (they lost to tourney newcomer Independiente of Panama 5-1 on aggregate), the Reds sold key attackers Victor Vasquez and Sebastian Giovinco and re-signed Altidore.

7. “I honestly don’t feel settled in yet,” Curtis told me on Wednesday. “Everything’s been moving really fast since day one.” How fast? “I’ve never had this amount of work that’s been this complicated and this condensed ever, even when I worked at JP Morgan where we had a morning call at 6 a.m. and worked to 9 p.m., six days a week.”

Toronto FC defender Laurent Ciman (26) in action against the Philadelphia Union during an MLS soccer match in Chester, Pa., Saturday, March 2, 2019. Toronto defeated Philadelphia 3-1. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Laurent Ciman and Toronto FC rebounded from an ugly CONCACAF Champions League showing by beating the Union in their opener. (Associated Press)

8. “We had a lot of changes in those first two to three weeks that weren’t according to plan,” Curtis added. “So the universe sort of changed.” In an effort to bolster TFC’s depleted ranks, Curtis has spent more time away from Toronto than in it since taking the job. He wasn’t involved in negotiations with Giovinco and Vazquez; given the existing relationship with team president Bill Manning, Manning ran point with those players. But Curtis was heavily involved in hammering out Altidore’s extension, and took a bigger role in the signing of Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, who joined Altidore and Michael Bradley as designated players when he officially signed earlier this week.

9. “We had to go into attack mode. We’re still not done,” Curtis said, adding that TFC is still scouring MLS and foreign leagues looking for reinforcements. “I’m also looking forward to beginning that process of getting to know the city.”

10. When Curtis became the Red Bulls’ sporting director in 2015, expectations for the team weren’t high. Thierry Henry had just retired. The club was adopting a more frugal approach. TFC isn’t in quite the same situation, but the prevailing wisdom around the league has the Reds on the playoff bubble this season, at best. Curtis is hoping to prove the doubters wrong once again.

11. “When I went to Red Bull, a [rival] GM came up to me at the combine before the 2015 season and mentioned he thought that we weren’t going to do well. And we ended up winning the Supporters’ Shield,” Curtis said. “I get it. Last season Toronto did not meet the expectations of the club or the players or the coaching staff. So when you see players that have done well with the club leaving, it raises questions.”

12. “We won our first game, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” he continued. “We have a lot of quality in the team and in the staff and there’s a strong belief that we can succeed as well as any other team in the league. That belief is only going to get stronger as we bring new people in.”

13. How good was the atmosphere at Banc of California Stadium for LAFC’S last-gasp, 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday? During the match, I couldn’t help but think that in just its second year in MLS, LAFC might have already passed the Galaxy as kings of Los Angeles. I can’t wait for that first Trafico of the season.

14. What does it say about Giovani dos Santos that the Galaxy bought him out instead of fellow DP Roman Alessandrini? (Dos Santos made $6 million last season, while Alessandrini earned less than $2 million.) And how has dos Santos’s stock plummeted so much since his superb 2016 season, when he had 14 goals and 12 assists, more production than in his other three seasons combined? What does it say about the job Chris Klein, who signed a five-year contract extension after LA failed to make the playoffs in 2017, has done over the last few years with what was long the league’s flagship club? If the Galaxy somehow manage to miss the postseason for a third consecutive year this fall, the buck ought to stop there.

15. Which five MLS teams have the most to prove this season? Toronto is definitely one of them. The Red Bulls, in Chris Armas’ first full season as coach, are another. I’ll throw Atlanta, the Chicago Fire and Galaxy in there, too.

16. It’s interesting to see the vitriol – I don’t think that’s too strong a word – Atlanta United fans are aiming at new boss Frank de Boer after the Dutchman lost three of his first four competitive games with the club. You don’t see that sort of pressure put on MLS coaches very often and certainly not after one league match. But then Atlanta has raised the stakes in every other way since entering the league two seasons ago, so why not?

D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (24) launches a free kick against Atlanta United FC during a steady rain in the second half at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 3, 2019. United beat Atlanta United FC, 2-0. (Photo by Chuck Myers/Sipa USA)
If D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid wants to get another call-up to the national team, changes might have to be in store. (Press Association)

17. Speaking of Atlanta, the club wasn’t happy that a remark D.C. United keeper Bill Hamid made about Five Stripes backstop Brad Guzan back in January was plastered all over the league’s official website hours before the teams met for a nationally televised game in the nation’s capital. The original story didn’t mention an important detail: Hamid’s quote was over a month old.

18. Look, I wouldn’t mind seeing more trash talk in MLS. Hamid has personality. The league needs more of that, too. I also get banking a juicy quote until it will get the most play. But the story, as it written, was misleading. That the league’s own site chose to two-foot both players with it was surprising.

19. I’ve written this once before, but if Hamid really wants another shot with the national team, he’s probably going about it the wrong way. Part of the reason Guzan has been a USMNT staple for over a decade is his selflessness. Teammates adore him. It takes a certain personality to serve as an understudy in two consecutive World Cups, which Guzan did, behind Tim Howard, in 2010 and ’14. The controversy reminded me of a conversation I had last year, long before Hamid’s comments dropped. “Bill can’t be on the national team,” the source said, “unless he’s the starter.”

20. USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter was in Houston this week to drum up interest ahead of a March 26 friendly against South American champion Chile. He attended the Dynamo’s 2-0 CONCACAF Champions League loss to Tigres on Tuesday night, then made the rounds with the media the following day. And he had plenty to say about MLS.

21. League payrolls have effectively doubled over the last few years, and much of that money has gone to lure better players to MLS from abroad. Veteran Houston-based broadcaster Glenn Davis asked Berhalter how this influx of foreigners impacts young Americans coming through teams’ academies. While minutes played by academy grads have increased dramatically over the last five years, the percentage of USMNT-eligible players continues to go down as the league adds teams.

22. “The extra spending in MLS rosters is helping the product in general,” Berhalter said. “The level of competition is getting better in the short term. And then at the same time, MLS academies are improving and they’re producing better players. The level MLS academies are working at has improved. It’s a high level now.

“So in the short term, what I see happening is that the academy product will have a more difficult time breaking into the first team because the first teams are better,” continued Berhalter. “But those players that do break in are going to be better players. And that’s going to help U.S. Soccer.”

23. During a sports talk radio hit earlier in the day, Berhalter was asked about MLS’s improvement since he retired as a Galaxy player eight years ago. “The league is night and day from even 2011,” he said. “We have some real quality players in the MLS now and the league has improved dramatically. Now we’re getting younger players with big potential, massive potential, which you didn’t get before because players saw MLS as a league where you finish. Now they see it as a league where you start. And [if] you perform in MLS, you can use it as a stepping stone.”

24. Berhalter took over the national team on Dec. 2, almost a month before MLS officially announced that the team he coached from 2013-18, the Columbus Crew, would remain in Ohio. If he’s weighed in on the final decision, I haven’t seen it. Here was his take on Wednesday:

“I believe it was the best possible outcome for everyone,” Berhalter said. “Columbus gets a new ownership group, a new stadium, a new training ground, and Mr. [Anthony] Precourt, who is a dedicated man, a great owner to work for, gets to have a team in Austin. It’s a win-win. There was a lot of pain points along the way, a lot of emotion along the way. But in the end I think it was a great solution.”

United States head coach Gregg Berhalter pauses prior to the first half of a men's international friendly soccer match against Panama, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter shared his thoughts on MLS and the relocation controversy involving his former team, the Columbus Crew. (AP)

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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