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Should Sounders be buyers?

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Osvaldo Alonso was a real difference-maker against DC United. The Sounders are hoping it's a preview of things to come down the stretch.
Osvaldo Alonso was a real difference-maker against DC United. The Sounders are hoping it's a preview of things to come down the stretch.

With four points in their past two games, the Sounders have managed to keep themselves in the playoff picture. We're projecting the cutoff to be right around 43-45 points (let's call it 44 for simplicity's sake). That would mean the Sounders probably have to average nearly two points per match (1.92 PPM to hit 44) to hit the magic number.

It's definitely a longshot, but it's not exactly unprecedented either. Four teams have played at that level this year over the course of at least 12 matches: Los Angeles Galaxy had 32 points in their first 13 matches; Real Salt Lake registered 29 points in match Nos. 3-15; Columbus Crew had 27 points in their first 13 matches; and FC Dallas has 23 points in their past 12 matches.

Considering the Sounders were believed to have the talent of a top 4 team at the start of the year, it would stand to reason that with the bulk of that talent now healthy they may be capable of playing at that level for the remainder of the year. With a healthy Osvaldo Alonso and Nate Jaqua and a presumably matchfit Blaise Nkufo, this is a team that has as much talent as any in MLS.

Focusing on such a longterm run of success seems a tad presumptive, though.

Of more immediate interest is what the Sounders need to do, and have to have happen to the teams they are chasing, before the Aug. 14 transfer window closes. 

In other words, where do the Sounders need to be in the standings in order to justify being a buyer?

My research of the past two seasons suggests that this weekend's results keep the Sounders within historic striking distance of a playoff spot, .35 PPM behind No. 8 Toronto FC. (For my past explorations of similar trends, check out this story and this story.)

Up until now, I've been using the comebacks of the 2008 Kansas City Wizards, the 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy and the 2008 and '09 Real Salt Lake teams to justify hope that this year's Sounders could still make the playoffs despite a slow start and disastrous six-match run in which they claimed just three points. 

While it is true that all four of those teams eventually surpassed others that were significantly ahead of them at various points in the season, all had started making their moves right around this point of the season. The 2008 RSL team, for instance, had moved all the way up to the No. 6 spot by Aug. 2 and the 2009 Galaxy team was in the No. 7 position on July 25.

In order to be in a playoff spot by the time the transfer window closes, the Sounders will almost certainly have to claim at least seven of the available nine points in their next three matches. The most likely scenario for that would involve winning their two home games against Colorado on Sunday and Houston on Aug. 8, and getting at least a tie when they visit San Jose on July 31. That would leave the Sounders sitting at 26 points through 20 matches, meaning they'd probably need about 18 points in their final 10 (1.8 PPM). Closing out the season in that kind of fashion was accomplished by four teams in 2008 and one in 2009. 

Even then, the Sounders would need some help. Toronto (22 points through 15 matches) is the only team currently in playoff position that appears catchable based on the last two years' results. For the Sounders to catch TFC by the close of the transfer window, the Reds would have to claim no more than four points in their next four matches. The most realistic scenario would involve the Reds losing at home to FC Dallas, tying on the road at Kansas City, beating Chivas USA at home and then losing at the Red Bulls. That would leave TFC with 26 points through 19 matches. Assuming the Sounders finish with 44 points, TFC could actually finish reasonably strong (no more than 17 points in 11 matches) and still behind Seattle.

Coincidentally enough, Toronto was one of the teams that was caught by late-surging teams in 2008. Through 20 matches, Toronto was in sixth place and six points clear of Kansas City (.30 PPM). By the end of the season, the Wizards were five points ahead of TFC.

The next year, Colorado suffered a similar fall. At the 20-match mark, the Rapids were in sixth place and RSL was in 11th (.20 PPM behind). Of course, the standings were much closer, and Colorado was ultimately beaten out in a tiebreaker.

Aside from Toronto, the Rapids (23 points through 15 matches) seem the next most likely team currently in playoff position to be caught by the close of the transfer window. They would need to claim no more than three points in their next three matches. The most reasonable scenario would have to include losing at Seattle and doing no better than beating either FC Dallas or San Jose at home. That would leave Colorado with 26 points through 18 matches.

This also assumes that Chicago (17 in 14 matches) and Houston (19 in 16) don't get hot, but both face a series of tough matches heading into the close of the transfer window. Houston visits Columbus, hosts New York and then visits Seattle. Chicago visits Los Angeles and hosts New York, but will still have four matches in hand.

In fact, the Sounders will have played more matches than every team they will likely be fighting for those final playoff spots. This is why I think it's of particular importance that they are in playoff position by the end of play on Aug. 8.

If they manage to do that, being a short-term buyer would seem to be worthwhile. Otherwise, I would be hard-pressed to support any move that doesn't make sense in the longterm, or at least builds toward next season.

Either way, I'd say Sunday's match against the Rapids seems as close to a must-win as any match in July can be.