Everyone is frustrated with the current winless streak in MLS play. But there are reasons to be encouraged. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The Sounder's league record over the past 8 games has left their fan base frustrated and reeling. No one associated with the franchise is happy right now. A string of four losses and four draws in league play doesn't inspire confidence nor does it meet the lofty expectations everyone holds for the franchise. The angst drapes over everything like a sodden blanket. Unfortunately, frustration distorts reality. It is difficult to see anything clearly from underneath a soaked duvet. Time to step back from the abyss of despair and gain a bit of distance and perspective.
This team isn't functioning the way it was designed to function. Why? The core answer is simple: injuries. Yes, injuries are a fact of professional sports and any team that wants to be successful must overcome them. But the 2012 Sounders are not dealing with a routine series of knocks, scrapes and misfortunes. The cumulative impact of injuries to the roster this year borders on catastrophic. In one half season, over 60% of the team's entire roster has missed significant playing time due to injury. Only eleven players on the team's 30 man roster have been healthy enough to play every game: Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Zach Scott, Marc Burch, Andy Rose, Bryan Meredith, Alex Caskey, Roger Levesque, Servando Carrasco, Sammy Ochoa and Mike Seamon.
Now look at that list. Three of the players are rookies. Three of them have seen only limited action. Montero and Ozzie have missed 3 games due to suspension and Ozzie is going to miss the next contest as well. Burch has been playing with a cast. Ochoa showed up to camp in less than ideal shape. The only way that this eleven man unit could even constitute a complete line up is if Rose played CB with Scott and Carrasco played RB opposite Burch so that Roger could play the RM position.
These injuries have destroyed the team's ability to rotate players both for rest and tactics. Many games Sigi and his staff have scrambled just to find a working lineup let alone make tactical adjustments. Fatigue leads to errors in judgment, poor concentration, stupid fouls and more injuries. It disrupts communication. Is it any wonder that the team doesn't have a clear personality or rhythm? Instead of wondering why the team is struggling, we could easily wonder how they have been this successful.
The team is currently tied for 3rd place in the Western Conference. They have reached the USOC Semi-Finals. Their record of 7-5-5 isn't stellar, but considering their injuries, it is respectable. There are eleven teams in the league who would gladly trade records. Time for everyone to take a step back and be honest. Yes, we want more. But what we've got isn't as bad as our outcry is painting it.
Silver linings abound if we simply review the first half of the season honestly. The Sounders have four rookies who are stepping up and performing admirably. Andy Rose may not be the flashiest player on the pitch, but he is more than holding his own at both CM positions. Brian Meredith, Alex Caskey and Cordell Cato have all shown themselves capable of playing at this level.
Patrick Ianni, David Estrada and Zach Scott have all elevated their games. Scott may not be a RB that fuels a sense of wonder. But he has done a yeoman's job of helping to hold this team together through a string of injuries that would drive an insurance adjuster batty. Instead of complaining, perhaps its time to marvel at his endurance and service to the cause. He's earned his keep. David Estrada and Patrick Ianni have both elevated their games to the point that when healthy they are contesting for the Starting 11. Six months ago, none of these players figured prominently as anything other than squad depth.
The team's gamble on Eddie Johnson's return to health and form is paying off. Regardless of whether he is the ideal fit, he is rapidly becoming an offensive force. And at $100K, he's easily fits within the budget constraints of the salary cap. He is beginning to link up with his team mates and his upfield defensive efforts on Saturday helped keep New England bottled up in their own end for most of the game.
All of the injuries have also given the team a good look at the composition of the bench. The team now has a much clearer idea of what they have and where there are holes. The Sounders bench is thoroughly vetted and even the rookies have significant experience. The team enters the Transfer window with a clear understanding of where they may need to shore up the lineup. The USOC game against San Jose forced Sigi to use an unorthodox line up and in the process he just may have found a key rotational piece to solving some of the team's defensive woes. Andy Rose allowed him to move Brad Evans to RB and Zach Scott to CB with Patrick Ianni. Using Evans as an option to Scott and Johansson gives the team more tactical flexibility and it also allows Scott to rotate into the CB flow as needed. Scott and Ianni give the team a more physical, stay at home pairing and helps to combat teams like San Jose who crash the box and attempt to intimidate the Sounders with height and physicality.
The team is finally starting to get healthier. Flaco and Mauro have been steadily improving over the past few games. Eddie Johnson is showing no signs of his early season injury. Ianni, Johansson and Gonzalez are all back on the pitch. And Steve Zakuani is getting closer to rejoining the fray. Once the team gets Gspurning back, they will have the pieces to make a concerted run.
The team does have work to do. Ties and Losses don't help the team move up the standings. They need to stay healthy. They need a run of good form. They probably need to make a couple of roster moves to shore up the areas where their roster is weakest.
But it is helpful to remember that before the team can win a game, they need to put themselves in a position to win. They did exactly that at San Jose and New England. Before they can win another USOC, they need to advance in the tournament. They have made it to the semi-finals. Before they can win the Supporter's Shield or MLS Cup, they have to put themselves in a position to be competitive. For all of their injury woes, the team is only 10 points out of first place in the Western Conference at the halfway point of the season. They have survived up to this point. When faced with catastrophe, sometimes survival is winning. It's a good thing for all of us to remember as we cope with our frustration.