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Believe it or not, Sounders still have shot at playoffs

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The return of Nate Jaqua is one reason to maintain hope in the Sounders' salvaging this season.
The return of Nate Jaqua is one reason to maintain hope in the Sounders' salvaging this season.

There's no question the Sounders' chances of making the playoffs are looking pretty bleak right now.

Three straight losses -- in which the team has allowed a total of nine goals -- have left them facing a pretty steep climb at the halfway mark of the season. 

I can definitely understand the desire to essentially wave the white flag on the regular season and place all the emphasis on the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League.

The prospect of winning two trophies -- and even the possibility of playing meaningful games late into the season -- is obviously very inviting, especially considering the dismal state of the regular season. 

With a spot in the USOC semifinals up for grabs on Wednesday at Starfire, I am by no means suggesting the Sounders offer anything less than their best reasonable lineup against the Galaxy -- which no doubt will rest some of their stars -- but I was surprised to find that there's still historical precedent for salvaging the MLS season.

As strange as it may seem, a Sounders win on Sunday at home against FC Dallas, combined with some good fortune in other matches, would actually put the Rave Green right back in the thick of the playoff race.

 

To be quite honest, I started researching this article with the assumption that I would be making a case the Sounders had very little to lose by putting all their eggs in the non-MLS competition baskets. And if I'd stopped at simply looking at where the Sounders currently stand in relation to the teams immediately ahead of them in the standings, I would have been able to make a reasonable case.

Oddly enough, though, this is one of those instances where having played more games than your opponents has the potential to work in the Sounders' favor.

Before I get too deep into the nitty-gritty of how I came to the conclusion that the Sounders are still alive in the playoff hunt, I should give some background.

Prior to the World Cup break, I wrote a story that made the case that just by looking at the past two seasons, there was ample evidence that the Sounders could still make a playoff run. At the time, the Sounders were sitting at 12 points through 11 matches and were three points short of the No. 8 playoff position.

The basis for that article were the performances of four teams -- the 2008 Kansas City Wizards, the 2008 and '09 Real Salt Lake squads and the 2009 Los Angeles Galaxy. All four teams overcame deficits as big or bigger -- on a points per match basis -- than this year's Sounders faced at the 11-match mark.

One win and three losses later, I fully expected to find the Sounders had fallen so far behind the paces of those teams that there would be little recent historical precedent for a playoff push.

In a sense, that assumption was correct. If you look at the Sounders' current PPM (1.00) and compare it to the current PPM of the No. 8 team (Toronto and San Jose are currently tied at 1.46), that's a deficit I couldn't find any precedent of a team overcoming this late in the season.

But that comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples. The Sounders have played two more matches than either TFC or San Jose. The same situation applies to Chicago (1.31 PPM). Houston, which is also ahead of the Sounders, has claimed 18 points through 15 matches. Realistically, Seattle will have to pass at least three of those four teams in order to make the playoffs.

Saying the Sounders face a .46 PPM deficit, though, assumes TFC will claim at least three points in their next two matches -- at home against Colorado and at Philadelphia. That might very well be a safe assumption, but it is an assumption none-the-less.

Likewise, San Jose's PPM of 1.46 assumes they will claim at least three points in their next two matches -- at Philadelphia and at Los Angeles.

If we instead assume a loss and a tie in both cases, their PPMs through 15 matches are knocked down to 1.33 -- and the Sounders are back within our historical striking distance. All four of the historically comparable teams caught teams that were as far as .33 PPM ahead of them at the halfway point in the season.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions here -- not the least of which is the Sounders putting together a second-half run comparable to those other teams.

The first step will almost certainly have to be a Sounders victory on Sunday. That would put the Sounders at 18 points through 16 matches (1.13 PPM, which is actually a somewhat significant figure in our historical comps as none of our teams slipped below that during the second half of their seasons). 

The key will be remaining within shouting distance of those other teams (both current and historical) while reinforcements slowly arrive. There's an outside chance Blaise Nkufo, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans could all be ready for the July 25 home match against  Colorado. There are two more MLS matches between now and then. I'd say a conservative goal should be four points.

I've seen enough of this Sounders team to know that they are capable of doing that. I've also seen enough of them to know that they are also capable of claiming zero points in that span.

I'm not predicting anything at this point, but if you're looking for glimmers of hope, I think this should at least get you through the week.