As good as the Seattle Sounders have been playing lately, a result like Saturday's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake really seemed to come as quite a shock to the system. I'm sitting here in the pressbox, overlooking an empty stadium, and am actually having a hard time processing what exactly what happened here.
The Sounders did not play particularly bad. Much will be said about the ... uneven ... nature of the officiating, but I'm not saying that's what caused this uncharacteristic loss, either. Rather, the Sounders simply came up short on some key plays and failed to capitalize on most of their opportunities.
The two moments that will end up sticking in our brains will be Kasey Keller's mind-boggling own goal and Mauro Rosales' equally odd missed penalty. The Sounders' two veteran leaders simply failed in moments they expect to come through literally every time.
Keller's gaffe was particularly strange. In post-game comments, he alluded to being caught between two minds about what to do with Fabian Espindola's cross. It's a play he'll properly make the next 99 times he sees it, but on this day it ended up costing his team at least a point.
Likewise, Rosales will probably make the vast majority of the penalties he takes from here on out. That one, though, does continue a disturbing trend. The Sounders have now missed 3 of 8 penalties this year, more misses than any other MLS team. While three different players have missed those penalties, something is clearly not working. At this point, it seems like the Sounders would be better off settling on one player to take their penalties and just live with the results. His miss on Saturday aside, Rosales seems as good a candidate as any to take them.
Those two moments were made even more frustrating because of some rather odd officiating. In his 14th match as the man the middle, Mark Kadlecik had what can best be called a forgettable performance. The penalty he awarded the Sounders was questionable, at best, he clearly did not realize he had given RSL defender Tony Beltran a second yellow and the red he showed Jhon Kennedy Hurtado had "makeup" written all over it. There were only 22 fouls called, but he managed to issue six cards.
RSL coach Jason Kreis probably put it best when he said this: "I agree with Sigi Schmid, and I would go further and say I don’t think Seattle’s red card was warranted. I don’t think their player elbowed Alvaro Saborio on purpose. I just think the referee made some bad decisions and was trying to work his way back into the game. Overall it just wasn’t good enough."
To be fair, though, Kadlecik was not the reason the Sounders lost this game. You might even argue that the failures of Keller and Rosales could have been overcome. Aside from Fredy Montero's brilliantly taken goal at the death of the first half, the Sounders just lost the finishing touch that had been the hallmark of their recent run.
Alvaro Fernandez, Tyson Wahl and Lamar Neagle all had opportunities that we've grown accustomed to them finishing. Wahl's in particular was a shot from point blank range that only failed to find the back of the net because Nick Rimando's face happened to get in the way. It was just one of three times the Sounders managed to put one of their 20 shots on frame.
Really, that's the stat this game is about: 20 shots, three on frame and one goal. In a lot of ways, it was a lot like the tie against the Houston Dynamo earlier this year, except with an even more frustrating result. I honestly don't think there's much to be made over that, as recent form suggests this was more an aberration than a sign that whatever magic the Sounders had discovered was fleeting.
No matter, though, this was a frustrating result and there's no reason to sugar-coat the implications. The Sounders will almost certainly have to run the table if they are to catch the Galaxy, now trailing them by seven points with just six MLS matches left to play. Even then, they'd probably need a bit of help.
Locking up the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference is probably the Sounders' most attainable goal now. Winning the U.S. Open Cup and securing a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals may even take precedent over much of the remaining MLS schedule. That Hurtado will now miss the Sounders' next game while he serves his red-card suspension, only seems to further bolster the case for focusing on other competitions.
As annoying as this loss was, we're all probably better off moving on quickly. That the Sounders have an important game in Costa Rica on Wednesday only highlights that necessity. So get it out of your system, we've now got other things to worry about.