Where I'm living for the next year, a small apartment in Costa Rica, isn't that bad in the grand scheme of things. Steam emanates from my showerhead within at least a few minutes of turning it on, and I've only once seen a cockroach scribble out its path across my cracked white linoleum floors. I have a living room, and a stove.
I was a bit nervous when I moved into my new apartment: the Sounders played that afternoon and I wasn't sure how well the WiFi was going to work. I spent the morning unpacking, because while I usually take out each item individually, whenever I first need it, I had forgotten my computer at a friend's house and wanted something to do to distract myself. By the time I got the computer back it was half an hour before game time.
Initial WiFi checks suggested I'd be refreshing frequently and occasionally having to walk over to my router to reset it, none of which I really minded. The Sounders started off pretty well; this was in September when they were playing against Sporting Kansas City, who put out a lineup of players mostly fighting for game time. Seattle seemed to be in control. They would pass the ball around, each player to receive it checking for any possible missteps or weaknesses in Kansas City's lineup. Nothing. Seattle would pass it on once again, as if someone on their team had just pitched a strikeout. A player would see an ersatz attacking option that Sporting would easily parry, or maybe roll into a defendable corner. Seattle would pass again, and my screen would freeze. When I would return, the ball would be with Sporting Kansas City and the Sounders would be tiring. In the latter part of the half something that looked like OYO-Obafemi Martins landed a hit, slicing in past Sporting's defensive line for a goal.
The Sounders came out into the second half looking less energetic. They would get the ball, and then not check their surroundings and then the ball was gone thanks to light Kansas City pressure. Clint Dempsey had a good chance that he probably should have scored. Sporting would hold on to the ball for a while and move it between their lines. Seattle would return the light pressure; Sporting would keep the ball. When the Sounders did somehow regain possession, they would misplace passes to one another like business people who don't want to talk, playing phone tag. I would lose connection again and walk over to my router to reset it, and by the time I was back I'd see a ball pass three feet away from Clint Dempsey, as if he couldn't be bothered to do anything other than just stand there.
It didn't seem like the Sounders cared. In the first half they had struggled to create chances. In the second they were beaten on most turns and to most balls, although I'm not sure if you can "beaten" if you never tried in the first place. They hadn't looked interested in playing, happy to sit back on a 1-0 lead until Sporting Kansas City walked the ball up the left flank and Dom Dwyer finished it. By the time they were tied the Sounders looked too out of the game to muster enough possession to make it to the attacking third.
They didn't look like they wanted to be playing. I wondered if they would have been willing to face the minuscule difficulty that I had faced in order to even watch such a plodding game. Clint Dempsey staring blankly at a frozen screen for five minutes on the hope that his internet connection might come back soon did not seem a likely image.
The game ended and the Sounders tied (right after a goal line clearance that spared them from a loss). Against a lineup like the one Sporting Kansas City put out on the field it was pretty much the only way the Sounders could tie. I didn't think it was skill. I didn't think it was luck. I thought it was effort.
After the game I headed over to the Sounder at Heart comment threads in the hopes of finding some other discouraged fans to echo my views. Those fans were there, and they were supportive like they usually are after games of the depressing type. But as tends to happen after games like that, an uneasy feeling eventually began to creep over me. It's something I get from reading tactical analyses on MLSsoccer.com and Sounder at Heart, a feeling that I've cultivated for a long time. It usually takes over from my initial despair a day or two after a particularly lackadaisical Sounders loss. It's the idea that sure, to me the team looked lazy, but then again I have no idea what I am talking about, and because the tactics people say it's tactics, it's probably not something I should be talking about.
I often find that Matt Doyle from MLSsoccer.com gives me the most impetus to stop thinking about the Sounders' losses in the context of effort. I find it pretty easy to get lost in his drawings and tactics lingo, arrows and dotted lines, and sequences of numbers spit out from a chair in what must be his home because of how quickly he puts up the videos after games. Take, for example, Doyle's analysis of the Sounders' October 18th draw against Houston: "The struggle right now for the Sounders is in central midfield, where the balance, and shape, and sharpness just aren't there. So the solution is to skip central midfield. They've been putting a lot of the ball on Brad Evans's foot and having him distribute out of central defense."
As someone who's not particularly interested in tactics, or learning about tactics (I watch the Sounders to decompress, and I don't really need another thing in my life to cogitate on, thank you very much), it's easy to sit back and just not think about it. But after seven years of doing so, I guess I've never really lost the feeling that the Sounders at times don't try. It's not as if it's one player not seeking out an interception one time, it's an entire team of rave-green clad men traipsing around the field for 45 minutes, often more. It's the 2013 iteration of the Sounders that can't manage to win when they've conceded the first goal. It's a team that manages to go through consistent winless streaks or runs of poor form every single year (not that I think all of the Sounders' losses, or even a quarter of them, are due to lack of effort). They come out to games flatfooted at the very least once or twice a season and I guess at this point it feels as if "Sounders don't try, give up on easy points" is as much a part of the team as Brad Evans or Sigi Schmid.
When I rewatch the games where I think the Sounders are lacking effort, I just can't imagine it being entirely tactics. I don't believe Sigi Schmid would yell at his team in a pre-game talk, circling X's and O's on a chalk board up front, about how they needed to play like this. "Seriously everyone, no more interceptions. On offense, make sure your passes go to the other team, and of course, never, ever, check over your shoulder when you get the ball."
In fact, the one and only thing I have heard Sigi Schmid yelling at his team for, is a lack of effort. Not even five minutes into LEVYfilms' American Football, we get to hear Schmid berating the team for not picking their heads up and trying. And in retrospect, I don't think this runs all that contrary to anything any of the tacticians are saying. Hidden in Matt Doyle's earlier comment is the statement that the midfield wasn't "sharp," which I think can be chalked up to effort, which Doyle doesn't spend too much time on. (His job is "tactical analyst," after all, so that probably makes sense.) But I'm sure tactics and laziness are intertwined. Perhaps it's the Sounders' tactics that tire them out and make them appear lazy at times. Perhaps their tactics make them play a boring style of soccer that doesn't let them get excited for games. No matter what, I'm pretty sure that giving up points on effort is something that can and does happen to the Sounders.
And that's frustrating for me, as a fan. I would much rather watch a game where the Sounders tried and lost by a goal instead of a game where they tied and just didn't seem to care. When I watch soccer I want to be entertained. I know that if I were out on the field I'd be running around like a madman just trying to get the ball, so why can't Clint Dempsey be bothered to check over his shoulder when he actually does? I just want them to try.
And I don't really get why, on a personal level, they don't. I mean if making your fans happy is as easy as putting in a little effort, why not do that? And what about your own happiness? If winning would make you happy, wouldn't you chase down that ball and try for a goal? Wouldn't you make sure your team held on to the ball for long enough to get out of your own half? Wouldn't you try to make a win happen? If my happiness were on the line, I know I would.
And I think I also know that Clint Dempsey's happiness probably isn't "on the line" for every game he plays, because I'm sure his wife and kids don't want to deal with him moping around the house, just because he couldn't quite get his foot at the right angle, for a quarter of a second, four hours prior, and hence didn't score the game-winning goal. I'm sure the game matters to him immensely. It is undoubtedly his passion. But it's also his job. That's why he can shake Jack Jewsbury's hand after a match, or why he can give boring answers to the press after what, to me, was a particularly emotionally taxing loss.
But none of that changes the fact that after seven years of my favorite team not being able to pull out halves, or even just losing focus for five minute stretches and then dropping valuable points, I feel terrible. The Sounders are important to me. It's not that I don't enjoy watching them, or spending my whole week looking forward to their games. It's not that I don't love this team. I guess at this point it's that I no longer have faith in them. When Tesho Akindele scored on Sunday, it wasn't a surprise, it was an "of course that happened." When Chad Marshall tied it up, my joy lasted ten seconds before I sat back down and started expecting another Dallas goal. No matter how well they're playing or how many goals they're up, there's always a niggling worry in the back of my mind that the Sounders are going to screw it up. After seven years I just don't trust them not to.
And now that season seven is over, it's the time of the year where I wonder whether anything can be done to take that feeling away. I wonder whether perhaps this is happening because the Sounders are tired from overplay or getting bored with their formation. Maybe another coach or captain would be able to imbue more of a sense of purpose and determination in the team.
As someone who's never really been a fan of any other team (soccer or otherwise), it's hard for me to put my anxiety about the Sounders into context, because I'd imagine screw ups and mistakes that let your fans down happen to every professional athlete. I'd imagine that feeling a bit tired or lethargic happens too, and as frustrating as it may be for me that soccer, my passion, lies in the hands of a team who is doing it for work, that's never going to go away.
In the end I guess I don't really know why a few of the Sounders just don't show up, once every ten or so games, and I don't know what, if anything, can be done to fix that. There's a lot I don't know about the Sounders and soccer in general. And I'm okay with that. I am the type of fan that I am. Even so, I still really want the doubts in the back of my mind to go away right now.
Isaac Slaughter is a former writer of Major Link Soccer who now experiences the team while in Costa Rica.