A Season In Seattle With The Seattle Sounders FC

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It was a season of ever-changing narrative for the now MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders. A season that saw Obafemi Martins decamp to China before a ball was kicked, Clint Dempsey sidelined by heart problems, a midseason coaching change, Jordan Morris declared an early-season bust and then given Rookie of the Year honors. We’re exhausted just thinking about it. For more perspective on an emotionally turbulent season that ended in glory, we turn to a man who lived it every day: The Seattle Times’ Sounders beat writer, Matt Pentz.

MiB: You covered the Sounders, day-in, day-out, for the last nine months. How do you understand this season?

MP: Probably the biggest misconception about my job is that I’m a diehard Sounders fan, that I’m openly rooting them on from the press box. But as a reporter, my position entails unbiased neutrality. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that — as you develop working relationships with coaches and players, with an up-close view of their personal struggles, on a human level you connect with them — but I often say that my only rooting interest is for a good story.

And in that, more than anything else, this season was good to me.

This team was never boring, and the narrative was always fresh. It’s almost hard to believe that Obafemi was on this roster and expected to be a major contributor just weeks before this season kicked off.

Watching Jordan’s development as a player was a true joy of this campaign. He’s such an easy kid to pull for, and those early struggles so obviously ate away at him. The Sigi firing was tough, honestly. I have so much respect for his accomplishments as a coach, and he was unnecessarily kind to me when I was first getting my footing on the beat. On the flip side of that, seeing Seattle’s own Brian Schmetzer get to bring that long-sought MLS Cup to his hometown was really cool to experience.

MiB: The obvious aside, was there a more nuanced, subtle changed the helped the Sounders turn their season around? A detail that someone who isn’t around the team as much as yourself might not know.

MP: The ease with which Schmetzer won over the locker room I think glosses over just how crucial those early days of his tenure were. To shamelessly plug my own work, the Clint Dempsey section of this feature [READ HERE] gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Schmetzer was able to get Seattle’s veterans onboard what he was trying to accomplish.

The midseason arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro from Boca Juniors was also so, so important, not just on the field but in the locker room, as well. One of my favorite anecdotes from this season is that, prior to his first game with the Sounders back in late July, Lodeiro took it upon himself to shut off the team’s usual pregame music and told his new teammates they needed to focus. An action like that takes some balls, and it’s illustrative of how he was immediately able to put his stamp on team. The return of influential center back Roman Torres from injury didn’t hurt, either.

MiB: That Saturday night performance from Stefan Frei. Put in context what it was like to witness that in person. And give us a sense of the kind of person he is on the pitch, in the locker room and away from football.

MP: Stefan was transcendent on Saturday in Toronto. And going back to that rooting-for-a-good-story mantra in the intro, you can’t ask for much more than the hero playing like that three years to the day that he was traded from the very team he is helping defeat. For Frei to be able to go back to BMO Field, where he had struggled through two seasons filled with injury before getting dealt to Seattle, speaks to his mental toughness.

Stefan is a pretty introspective guy. He’s been open about how shattered his confidence was when he arrived in Seattle, as well as how important the belief of goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra in him was. Frei really has come into his own here, and he has spoken often about how much he loves his adopted city. He certainly gave Seattle a memory to cherish on Saturday night. Defender Chad Marshall called Frei’s save on Jozy Altidore’s header the best he’s ever seen in person, and given everything at stake, I would have to agree with that assessment.

MiB: You recently wrote a fantastic piece on how Sigi Schmid was experiencing Seattle’s run up to MLS Cup [READ HERE]. He was in Toronto Saturday night for work with the league. How do you think he felt after the final?

MP: I think it was probably tough on him, as much as he’ll publicly say he is happy for the players, his former staff and his son, Kurt, who is still an assistant coach within the organization.

Schmid was so instrumental in getting this club up and running in the way that it did, and he devoted a lot of years in pursuit of the goal finally achieved last weekend. It’s hard to argue against the decision to let him go, given how the rest of the season transpired and how Schmetzer was able to push so many of the right buttons. But it’s hard not to feel sympathetic for Schmid, the Moses figure in the modern history of the Sounders who took them so close to the promised land but wasn’t allowed to set foot in it himself.

MiB: When Roman Torres’ shot hit the back of the net, it wasn’t just the culmination of Seattle’s season, but also the nine months you’ve spent trekking around North America following the club. As a beat writer, how do you experience the end of this championship season emotionally? And what did you do after your story was filed the night of the game?

MP: It was a special moment for me, too, both in a personal and professional sense. This was my first MLS Cup, either as a fan or a reporter, and the atmosphere in Toronto was electric. This is the first championship team I’ve ever covered, and I won’t soon forget that post-game locker room, shielding my cell phone and recorder from the Heineken showers. Very few reporters in any sport get the chance to experience something like that, so I made sure to soak it all in — literally, in the case of my jacket and all of that beer raining down.

I wish I had a more exciting story for what I did after I filed my game story, that me and Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone took to the town afterward. But kickoff was so late on the East Coast that we didn’t even leave the press box until 2, when all of the Toronto bars shut down for the night. I did have a couple of Canadian beers the next afternoon and evening to commemorate the occasion, though. Major League Soccer’s offseason is so short that I figured I better take advantage when I can.

Manchester City, PSG Champions League favorites entering Round of 16

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Manchester City is the slight favorite in Champions League futures, but Paris Saint-Germain can do the field a solid by bouncing two-time defending champion Real Madrid.

With the Round of 16 beginning next week, Manchester City and Kevin De Bruyne are a +350 favorite on the odds to win the Champions League, followed by Paris Saint-Germain at +400, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The next tier down includes Bayern Munich (+550), Barcelona (+600) and Real Madrid (+800) before a plunge to Manchester United (+1400), Liverpool (+1400), Juventus (+1800) and Tottenham Hotspur (+2200).

The tried-and-true sorting method of fading teams that are focused on winning league titles doesn’t apply. The top four teams on the board all lead by healthy margins. Juventus, running second in Italy’s Serie A, is the only high-on-the-board offering that fits this description.

The injury bug that Manchester City is fighting shouldn’t be a factor as it starts the knockout stage at FC Basel (+50000), the lowest team on the board, on Tuesday. The favorable draw buys Manchester City a little time as it embarks upon trying to be the first English team to make it to March extant in four competitions (EPL, Champions League, F.A. Cup and League Cup).

The matchup between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid is more the calibre of a semifinal, but the timing might be in favour of the French club. Real Madrid, which hosts the first leg on Wednesday, has been in a funk and has conceded goals in seven of its last eight games – hardly a promising sign ahead of a game against a team with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. In other words, one who thinks Paris Saint-Germain has the goods to be the first French team in 25 years to win the Champions League likely shouldn’t hesitate, since its price will probably be halved (and then some) if it advances.

Suffice to say, the guarantee that either the defending champs or a ballyhooed contender will be out should be a boon to the rest of the field.

Bayern Munich simply does not get enough of a push in the German Bundesliga to be a threat in Champions League, which it last won in 2013. Barcelona offers a great price that might owe to facing an EPL team, Chelsea, in the last-16 as well as lacking major signing Philippe Coutinho for this competition. However, with attacking midfielders Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, they are dangerous. Barcelona will not have defender Gerald Pique in this round, however.

Manchester United (+1400), with its penchant for defense, is a credible darkhorse play since the Champions League format does lend itself to trying to wring out an ugly tie in road legs. Liverpool, who starts away at FC Porto (+10000), should advance but might be too offense-oriented to make a run at European supremacy. Tottenham and Harry Kane, who start away at Juventus, might not be deep enough to juggle top-flight European competition with a race for a top-four spot in the EPL.

The first legs of the Round of 16 take place over the next two weeks. The return legs are slated for March 6-7 and March 13-14.

For more odds info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

EPL Betting Preview: Liverpool hosts Tottenham to headline Matchweek 26

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Matchweek 26 in the English Premier League dovetails nicely with the two futures boards that still offer value – namely, who will join frontrunners Manchester City and Manchester United in the  top four and who will be relegated.

City, 12 points clear of United, offers minuscule minus value as a -50000 favorite to be the outright EPL champion, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Manchester United (-1000) and Chelsea (-700) are also fairly deep into minus money in top-four futures, but Liverpool (-350) needs a result against Tottenham Hotspur (+150) at Anfield Stadium on Sunday to keep its position. The result of that match will factor into the final standings.

The time is probably now to jump on Huddersfield Town (-175) in relegation futures as the Terriers’ six-match winless skid has put them on the cusp of the three-team “drop zone.” The prices on Swansea City (+110), West Bromwich Albion (-110), and Stoke City (+250) have risen due to the bottom feeders’ recent surprise results.

As noted, Liverpool (even) hosts Tottenham Hotspur (+235, +270 draw) in a Sunday matchup between teams that are second and third in EPL scoring. Liverpool had more recovery time than Tottenham after their midweek games and has yet to lose a home game this season, but when the Spurs and Harry Kane (+125 to score) are in peak form, they can break down defenses that are much tauter than Liverpool’s. The over on the 3.0 total is very attainable and it’s worth noting a tie, the more plausible outcome, pays out more than a Tottenham win.

Speaking of Manchester United (-700) it should be able to wear down Huddersfield Town (+1900, +650 draw), even though newcomer Alexis Sanchez hasn’t settled into his new surroundings. The under on the 3.0 total pays -115, which is enticing since United seldom extends itself against lower-placed competition.

Burnley (+1100) is on a nine-match winless streak and Manchester City (-425, +475 draw) is coming in on a four-win streak and nary a care about spotting stars such as Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne due to its light February schedule. Goal lines can be gut-wrenching for bettors but Manchester City pays -120 to cover minus-1.5 goals.

Brighton & Hove Albion (+125) hosts West Ham United (+255, +200 draw) in a matchup with the week’s only 2.0 total. Brighton has scored only five goals in its last 13 home games and West Ham is unbeaten in its last four away games, so there is a case for taking the tie on the three-way moneyline.

Crystal Palace (even) has won or tied eight of its last nine home games, while Newcastle United (+290, +235 draw) limps into the Sunday matchup with only two wins in its last 16 league games. Midfielder Luke Milivojevic should help Crystal Palace grind out a win. The form says low-scoring game, but the over on the 2.5 total pays +115.

Watford (+475), now under new manager Javi Gracia, is winless in six tries against Chelsea (-170, +295 draw), who should come into the Monday matchup with something to prove after a midweek loss against Bournemouth. Alvaro Morata (back) is likely out for Chelsea, so bettors should check the price on newcomer Olivier Giroud to score a goal.

For more odds info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.