Mission Improbable

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 01: Fredy Montero #17 of the Seattle Sounders FC celebrates his goal in the first half against the New England Revolution on October 1, 2011 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Saturday night's game against Real Salt Lake was a case study in ratcheting down expectations. Before the match kicked off, we were hoping for a repeat victory in Sandy and the opportunity to defend the lead from an advantageous position in the second leg at home. But it quickly became clear that Seattle was not going to play as well as RSL. They completely dominated the central midfield from minute one and Seattle was unable to find their game. My hope then became that we'd make it through a hard fought challenge and steal three points with a goal and tenacious defense.

But after Alvaro Saborio scored his first and the pressure didn't let up — with Seattle looking completely incompetent on the ball and Keller having to make a number of difficult saves — my new expectation formed during halftime was to get out of there with a stolen point, or maybe live with a 1-goal deficit which shouldn't be too much of a challenge to overcome at home when we got our tactics sorted. And then came Saborio's backheel golazo and the new expectation was to try to fight back for that one goal deficit.

And then as the final minutes ticked down and it became clear that Seattle wasn't going to get a goal, the expectation was to come home to fight back from a 2-goal deficit. Then Grabavoy scored in the 88th and the new expectation was . . uggghh. . I need another beer.

To help show just how painful that last goal was, here's what the Sounders' odds of winning the two-legged round would be after various scorelines in the first match, based on the sim we run all season:

Seattle RSL Odds of Advancing
1 0 77.7%
0 0 52.7%
0 1 33.8%
0 2 17.6%
0 3 9.1%

Before that goal the contest was already a longshot. After it, we started entering we-need-a-miracle territory. Part of the problem is that despite the fact we know we need to go after it to get the three goals back, we don't have a lot of options to switch to a more attacking style. If we start at the back line, I think it's very unlikely we'll go three at the back. That's a formation the team has played in almost never (save for a few late game minute I vaguely recall) and it seems very unwise to try out a brand new formation for 90 minutes in a critical match. The team depends on its fullbacks getting forward to create chances and sacrificing that may even reduce the team's offensive capability.

At the midfield layer, you sometimes see teams sacrifice a defensive midfielder for a more offensive one, but we're not going to leave Osvaldo Alonso out. He's the best player at his position in the league (despite Saturday's incredibly forgettable game) and he's the heart and soul of the midfield. The wide midfielders already play as attacking wingers in the system, so they can't go any more forward. The only option I could see is to replace Alonso's partner. Generally we play a box-to-box midfielder alongside Ozzie — in either slightly more defensive (Erik Friberg) or offensive (Brad Evans) versions. You could imagine replacing that with an even more attacking midfielder drawn from the ranks of the wingers. The most likely candidate is Alvaro Fernandez. But again it's a formation we haven't played often enough this season and this seems like a bad time for experiments, especially if you need to hold the shutout. And we've seen Fredy Montero struggle to play alongside advanced midfielders in the past, as he tends to want to occupy the withdrawn forward space. And so it seems to me that we're not going to rely on any significant changes in formation or personnel (other than the hoped-for return of Mauro Rosales). We're going to have to dance with the girl that we brought here.

And yet the task isn't quite impossible (thus the title). When you break it down into component parts, each doesn't seem out of reach. First, you need a shutout, and Seattle is certainly capable of shutting out even good teams. The titanic LA Galaxy got out of here with just one goal on a long, arguably fortunate Juninho shot. Seattle didn't give up more than a goal at home through almost the first half of the season until Eric Hassli's Goal of the Season in stoppage time gave the Vancouver Whitecaps two. Kasey Keller is in great form and can be relied on for a world class save or two a game. So holding Salt Lake to 0 will be a challenge, but one that Seattle has risen to many times.

Second, they have to score a goal in the first half to keep the crowd in the game and start the momentum. Child's play. The team led the league in goals this season and should be up to the task of getting one by Rimando.

Third, they have to score two in the second period. The Sounders have been late-game dynamos all year. Their record in scoring late to come back from deficits or take late leads is ridiculous. They can't leave the second goal too late — you don't want to be in a position of needing two with less than 10 minutes or so left. But if the first comes after halftime, the crowd stays in it and RSL bunker in to hold off the tide, you have to like Seattle's chances do it again and find that third late.

And if they do that, all bets are off. It's an even game and we would take two overtime periods at home, and if not we look to team captain and US legend Kasey Keller to do work on penalties. We're at even odds at worst and should feel like favorites. That's my recipe for the comeback and no ingredient in it seems daunting. Seattle has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity this season, from relentless disastrous injuries to key players to a ridiculous run of early season bad luck that had them losing points to a goal of the week or save of the week nearly every match. And yet they hung in the Supporters Shield race with a historically good Galaxy to the last weeks of the season, won the US Open Cup, won the Cascadia Cup, and reached the group stage of the CCL — just about every reasonable goal even an optimistic fan could draw up for them. It's time for one more show of belief against long odds.

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