I left the game Friday mad as hell, ready to fire Sigi but could not clearly articulate the specific reasons why at that time. I fumed over the weekend and twice re-watched the game. Then it simply hit me-- the Sounders lack a "playoff gear" and Sigi has so far been been unable to find one for SSFC. This realization was cathartic to me as I was able to finally remove that splinter in my mind driving me mad regarding our big game fails. If we can't pull anything out against RSL, or at least show some initiative to try and win, we need a coaching change.
The "playoff gear" is far from unique to soccer, you see it in all sports with playoffs and big winner-take-all games. It is simply this: if your teams are evenly matched for that game then what is going to get you the win? There are only two ways to do this really, step up the physical tempo of your game, or adjust your strategy to give you an edge. If neither occurs-which does happen-then one bounce, a bad ref call, etc., will decide the game frequently and make it the proverbial "crapshoot"--but then, that will give you around a .500 record for big games.
The lack of a playoff gear is a common hallmark of many sports teams and is pervasive, I'm sure a few teams come to mind for you. This phenomenon shows itself the same way in sports generally: our team just doesn't seem to get things done for big games, yet we have a winning record every year. The fans will then point to other epic consistent failure teams in the league, and continue to believe that one day we'll win that big game as we are "almost there." Sound familiar? This problem and how damaging it is makes it infuriating for sports fans, and is why this most recent tie sent me over the edge (as well as many other SSFC fans).
This consistent big game fail problem occurs when the coach or chief strategist has a "good strategy" and "good talent" that can consistently produce wins over a standard season, beating most of the lesser teams and possibly beating some of the better teams on given days. Thus, the coach is keeping the fans mostly happy and falls back to his or her strategy as it has "produced more wins than loses over the long run." However, come a big game like the playoffs, where the talent level and strategies are evenly matched, one side needs only a little edge in the game to produce good consistent results in winning the big game more often than not. Likewise, not adjusting to another's slight edge or coming up with one of your own will cause you to mostly lose the big games more often than not. Sound familiar? For MLS, everyone loves to tout how it is a parity league, and it is even more so with playoff teams.
In our current status, we have shown an inability to either (1) get physically up for a big game; or (2) adjust our tactics to shake things up against others. For example, remember the first 30 minutes of the San Jose home game? They were all over us physically and we had no answer. RSL did that to us in the playoffs last year and may well do it to us again on Thursday. Good coaches can sometimes get their players pumped up enough to give them a playoff gear physically. For example, the 7-9 Hawks beating the Saints by having Lynch run over the entire Saints defense. Also, in this "physical" category is the antics/bs of certain players, like Lenhart that can get under a player's skin and cause mistakes by the other side, skillful divers, etc., who can cause that penalty that wins the otherwise close game.
If for some reason the coach cannot get the team physically motivated enough to have a physical edge on the other side for the big game, then the tactics need adjusting accordingly to thwart the other sides slight advantage. Simply changing the formation can have a huge effect, or perhaps reshaping the midfield to force a pressed game. E.g. we are going to make you have to beat us on a counter, if at all. If a coach does this however, he or she is subject to extreme criticism for the loss because they deviated from the winning strategy that got them in the playoffs in the first place. So many coaches won't do this because they are conservative and believe that their season strategy will hold through the playoffs/big game. Furthermore, the front office is hesitant to fire to coach because of the winning records and if the next season is a losing one, they will face extreme criticism and second guessing from the fan base. So the safer bet is continue the status quo on strategy--even if it is consistently losing the big games.
With SSFC, we really don't have a goon squad and are not a hugely physical team outside a few players. We have never really been able to physically dominate other MLS teams. Furthermore, other teams that can goon it up have shown an ability to knock us off our game when it really matters. So we clearly know what's coming on Thursday at RSL--they will dial it physically up on us as that has been their edge.
Note that RSL otherwise executed its gameplan Friday, which was a bunker and counter and was successful and Rimando was able to fill in the gap. We did not change our gameplan and, in essence, lost yet again. We simply did not have a playoff gear to get this done either physically or strategically. If Sigi does not have a plan in place against RSL, then we will simply be once again out--with everyone probably blaming the ref, the missed chances, if we just had so-and-so healthy, etc., which plainly ignores the 0.125 playoff win rate over 8 games.
We clearly are suffering from a lack of a playoff gear. Our big game record against evenly matched teams is simply atrocious. I really hope Sigi has a rabbit under his scarf at least for the next game or we are once again two-and-done. Even if we advance, one has to wonder how far we might go given our continuing inability to get up for big games. Barring something completely unexpected in this playoff run, the front office is fully justified in rolling the dice to get a new coach.