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Back away from the ledge

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid sees plenty of reasons to think his team can still make the playoffs this season.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid sees plenty of reasons to think his team can still make the playoffs this season.

The season is a little more than a third done -- at least from the Sounders' perspective -- so maybe it shouldn't come as a complete shock that some are already writing the season off as lost.

Eleven matches certainly feels like a reasonable sample size, and certainly enough to start drawing reasonable conclusions for many people.

Among those:

  • The Sounders have already dug too big a hole.
  • Their scoring is nearly nonexistent.
  • They have no home-field advantage.
  • Their defense is too old, slow and not as good as it was last year.

From a qualitative perspective, I won't bother trying to refute all these things. Taken individually, a reasonable case can surely be made for all of them.

What I would like to do is offer a simple refrain: It's still early.

I know it doesn't feel that way, but if recent MLS history tells us anything, it's that 11 games -- and even 13 -- really doesn't tell us that much about how a season is going to turn out.

From a purely anecdotal point of view, first consider the fact that on pure points -- and after all, those are the only points any individual team is ever guaranteed of winning -- the Sounders (12 points in 11 games) currently reside in ninth place. That's three points -- or one win -- behind the quickly fading New York Red Bulls (15 points in 10 games). Even if we look at an arguably more accurate depiction of the standings -- based on points per game -- the Sounders are in 11th place at 1.091 PPG, .36 behind No. 8 Houston Dynamo. That pace puts the playoff cutoff at 43.65 points.

Either way, if the Sounders win one week and New York and/or Houston lose that same week, there's a decent chance the Sounders would slide right back into that final playoff position.

"You have to take it day-by-day," Sounders right back James Riley said. "I’ve been in the league long enough to know that teams can get on a roll at the end of the season and make a run in the playoffs. You look at Salt Lake last year who was struggling. They just kind of got hot and made a run. We just have to try to fix the things that we can."

The day-by-day approach is, of course, the same mantra that teams trailing 3-0 in best-of-seven series in other sports often fall back upon. As true as the sentiment may be -- teams never erase large deficits of any kind by focusing on overcoming the entire thing all at once -- I don't expect weary fans to exactly rest easy. After all, while there are certainly examples of teams digging out of those kinds of holes, they are hardly commonplace occurrences (take it from a still healing San Jose Sharks fan).

As I've already said, though, the Sounders are hardly facing a huge deficit. More importantly, it's the kind of deficit that teams regularly overcome, especially at this point in the season.

In each of the past two seasons alone -- while they were the most relevant anyway, I must admit I only used them because they were the best game-by-game results to which I had access -- at least two teams that were out of playoff position at the 11-match mark have overtaken teams that were at least as far ahead of them as the Sounders are currently behind the Dynamo. 

The most significant of those comebacks was the Kansas City Wizards, which had accumulated just nine points (.818 PPG) at the 11-match mark of the 2008 season. At the time, the Wizards were five points (or .45 PPG) behind the eighth playoff position, and even after gaining four points in their next two matches were still four points (.31 PPG) out of the final playoff spot.  

The Wizards would ultimately qualify for the sixth playoff spot and pass eight teams, including two (Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy) that were eight points clear at the 11-match mark. Real Salt Lake, which was in 11th place and just two points short of playoff position at the 11-match mark, also made the playoffs.

Sounders fans may not consider just making the playoffs good enough, though, after making the post season in our inaugural season. The Wizards, it might be argued, had so little left by the time the playoffs rolled around that they lost in the first round. That is hardly anything to get excited about.

The Salt Lake team from last year, then, might make for a more worthy idol.

Salt Lake got through its first 11 matches with 11 points and a 3-6-2 record, actually worse than the Sounders' current mark of 3-5-3. At the 11-match mark, they trailed the No. 8 position by five points (.45 PPG). 

They picked up four points in the next two games, and were just one point back of the pace at the 13-match mark. As you probably remember, Real went on to not only make the playoffs, but also become the first side to win the MLS Cup despite posting a sub-.500 record during the regular season.

The team that RSL beat for the Cup made a similar late run toward the playoffs. At the 11-match mark, Los Angeles was four points (.36 PPG) short of the No. 8 position, and was in the same position as RSL at the 13-match mark. The Galaxy ended up one point short of the Supporter's Shield.

Last year, in fact, was particularly topsy-turvy as three teams that weren't in playoff position at the 11-match mark ultimately filling nearly half of the eight playoff slots.

To be sure, there are significant statistical differences between the 2009 title-game participants and this year's Sounders. For starters, both RSL and the Galaxy hit the 11-match mark even in goal differential, while the Sounders are -5. RSL and the Galaxy ended the season well on the positive side of the ledger as well. Both had also showed significantly more scoring ability at that point in the season than the Sounders have so far shown. RSL and the Galaxy were already scoring at roughly the league average, while the Sounders are currently scoring more than half-a-goal less per game than the league average. It is worth noting that RSL were shut out more times through 11 games last year (six) than the Sounders have (five) and LAG were held to one goal or fewer more times (nine) than the Sounders have (eight).

The 2008 Wizards offer a significantly more apt statistical comparison. That team had posted a -6 goal differential at the 11-match mark and were scoring .5 goals per match fewer than the league average. They were held to one goal or fewer nine times.

Does any of this mean the Sounders will make the playoffs? Obviously, that's not the case. Those other teams significantly improved their play later in the season, while other teams fell back to the pack. The Sounders will have to figure out a way to score more goals while not sacrificing much if anything on the defensive side. Of course, once Nate Jaqua returns, Blaise N'Kufo arrives and assuming the other injured players can contribute, that should help matters.

The point is that there's lots of precedent for a team in a situation similar to the Sounders' to rebound, make the playoffs and even win the MLS Cup.

"The talent is there," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "No one has played us off the field. There’s no game where we walked away, even the L.A. game which scoreline wise should have made you feel that way, but there’s not a game where we walked off the field saying this is not a team we can play against. It’s a matter of us having to get results. Have to start making the homefield a homefield. It begins with New England on Saturday."

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