SEATTLE -- For Seattle Sounders FC, much of the talk surrounding their opener against the Philadelphia Union centered on avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump, both in terms of on-field and off-field success. It was utterly appropriate then that midfielder Steve Zakuani, himself a second-year man in MLS terms, was one of the orchestrators of Seattle's 2-0 victory over expansion side the Philadelphia Union.
The Union brought a rugged approach right from the get-go, with defender Danny Califf receiving a yellow card inside of a minute for a robust challenge on Seattle forward Fredy Montero. That made it clear that the Sounders would have to beat the Union with their minds as well as their bodies, and Zakuani did just that in the buildup to Seattle's 12th-minute opener.
After feeding Montero near the left corner of the box, Zakuani's well-timed overlap froze Union defender David Myrie, allowing Montero to slip the ball to him toward the end line. The Congo native's centering feed was met on the run by Brad Evans, who powered his shot past Chris Seitz to open the scoring. For Zakuani, the goal was a product of the lessons he's learned since first suiting up for the Sounders a year ago.
"I've learned since last year to be better without the ball, and I think the first goal was a great example of that," said Zakuani. "You have to make defenders think. If you're always going to beat them with the ball, they'll learn to figure you out. So if you can do it without the ball too, it's dangerous. It paid off for us today."
Zakuani nearly doubled his tally of assists on the night just four minutes later. After once again evading Myrie, he passed to Roger Levesque at the far post, only to watch in disbelief as Levesque ballooned his shot over the bar.
But though the end product didn't please Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, the sight of Zakuani connecting on his crosses counted as good news.
"Last year, a lot of times [Zakuani] would get to the end line and not find anybody," said Schmid. "I've said that's going to improve as the game slows down for him and his decision-making gets better."
The decision-making certainly got easier in the 41st minute when Union defender Toni Stahl, a converted midfielder, was ejected after picking up his second yellow card for kneeing Montero in the back. The Colombian exacted even more revenge two minutes later when he redirected an Osvaldo Alonso shot into the net with a brave, short-range header that nearly saw him collide with the post. Seitz waved frantically for offside, but replays showed that Montero had held his ground after noticing Union defender Jordan Harvey standing deep inside the 6-yard box.
"I thought it was brilliant because it's what we've talked [to Montero] about, him moving his game up the field, being around the box, being closer," said Schmid. "He did everything I asked of him tonight. I was very, very pleased, and it was great to see him sacrifice himself like that."
Given how Seattle had punished the Union in transition during the opening 45 minutes, the second half figured to feature more of the same, especially given the two-goal lead and the man advantage. Instead, the match was played out mostly in midfield. Seattle threatened occasionally, but was more intent on preventing the Union from making any headway.
The Union did manage some decent spells of possession, which raised some questions regarding the lineup choices of Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak. The Union started the match with several players making their MLS debuts, including Stahl, Roger Torres, Danny Mwanga, Michael Orozco and Myrie. While Torres looks like a sharp player, displaying impressive quickness with the ball at his feet, others such as Stahl and Myrie struggled mightily. Veteran midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi came on as a halftime substitute, and in the words of Nowak, "calmed the game down with his experience." It begged the question of why he wasn't on from the beginning, but Nowak insisted he had no regrets.
"From the ball movement, and the movement off the ball, it was a pretty good effort from all of them," said Nowak.
The Union manager was far less charitable toward Seattle attacker Freddie Ljungberg, who, truth be told, was on the receiving end of some very physical play. That didn't impress Nowak, however.
"These guys are rolling on the pitch like they got shot," said Nowak. "I expect that Freddie Ljungberg, who has scored so many goals, and played, I don't know, 80, 100 games with the national team and won so many trophies, is going to be more honest than he is, really. Complaining and whining about every single call and trying to push the referee to give cards is not up to his standards. We both played the game, and I believe that if you play the game, you try to win and be honest with your effort."
Flopping or no, the Union did lay some heavy challenges into Seattle, a tactic that late last season did plenty to knock the Sounders off their game. And Schmid was clearly pleased that his team managed to work through such an approach, even on a night when they weren't operating at their peak.
"The good news for us is we can play a lot better soccer than we played tonight," said Schmid. "At times it was not our best soccer for sure, but sometimes you've got to win some games when you don't play your best."
If the Sounders can continue that trend, then a banner sophomore season will likely be in store.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.