These are trying times. There's simply no way around that. The Seattle Sounders have lost 5 of 6 matches, have only scored two goals in that time and now find themselves tied for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
No, the season hasn't gotten away from them yet. They still are, after all, just a solid run of a few games away from climbing back atop the standings. But we can at least see how the season could unravel.
Stefan Frei might be back this week. Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans should return by Aug. 1. Once the team is back together, things should stabilize. Should.
But for a team that was built, supposedly, to be strong from top-to-bottom and was designed to at least weather storms like the one they are in, now seems like a good time to take stock of what we've learned during this six-week nightmare (this really goes back to the Sporting KC match that they lost in controversial fashion on June 6).
Not quite ready for primetime
Lamar Neagle and Chad Barrett did not suddenly become bad players over night. But this run of games has shown them to be more limited than maybe we had previously thought.
Neagle is at his best when he's finding space created by others, namely Dempsey and Martins. When he's not the focal point of defenses, he can be deadly. But if he's the main scoring threat, his bag of tricks is limited. He's never been a particularly efficient scorer, but having a player who's willing to let fly from distance and make thankless runs at defenders is useful. But neither of those traits are especially effective when they are your main mode of attack.
Similarly, Barrett is good about being in the right place at the right time. But for that to matter, he needs service. There hasn't been much of that and he hasn't really been doing himself any favors with his holdup play. It's also not entirely clear if he's fully fit after suffering a hamstring injury.
Either way, this seems to have confirmed what many suspected: Both players are decent supporting actors, but they are not leading men. For that matter, it would appear Marco Pappa, Thomas and Cristian Roldan need some help when it comes to chance creation, too.
The defense is fine
Before we get too wrapped up in the self loathing, let's pause to consider that the Sounders have given up a grand total of 10 goals in their past eight games. That's not anything to get overly excited about, but it's certainly nothing to be freaked out over, either.
Throw in the fact that the Sounders have been without their starting goalkeeper for 2.5 of those games and were missing at least half of their starting center back duo in six of them and you might even call that an encouraging run of defensive play.
Put another way, even if the "real" Sounders defense plays like this as opposed to the one that had eight shutouts in the first 15 games, they should be fine if they figure out how to start scoring again.
The offense really needs Oba AND Clint
The Sounders have been shut out eight times this season. In all eight of those games, they've been missing at least one of Dempsey or Martins. In the nine games they've both started, the Sounders have scored 18 goals and they scored three more in the FC Dallas game where Martins came off the bench.
By themselves, Dempsey and Martins are dangerous players. But for the Sounders to return to the form in which they were looking like the best team in the league, both need to be healthy and playing well.
If form means anything, Dempsey should be fine. He's been the Gold Cup's best player and has bagged six goals, albeit against mostly unimpressive competition. But it looks like getting a couple weeks off may have been good for him.
With Martins, it's harder to tell. He's getting closer to being back, but it might be a few more weeks until he hits his stride. But as long as he can eventually pick up where he left off, the Sounders attack should eventually return to form.
The youth movement is still, well, young
Early in the year, it looked as though the Sounders were poised to experience a full-blown youth movement. Victor Mansaray, Aaron Kovar, Cristian Roldan, Oniel Fisher and Darwin Jones were all getting early looks and appeared poised to be regular parts of the rotation.
Despite all the injuries, it hasn't really turned out that way. Roldan is firmly entrenched in the rotation, but the other four are only getting first-team minutes sporadically.
Aaron Kovar got one start and an extended turn off the bench, but hasn't played in four games. Fisher got starts in back-to-back games, but also looked to be in a bit over his head against the Timbers and hasn't played since.
The biggest disappointments, though, have been Jones and Mansaray, who have just five appearances and less than 50 minutes between them during this six-game run. This seemed like a perfect time for at least one to get some minutes, but instead they appear to have been passed to Andy Craven, who was signed off S2 and is now injured.
Maybe Schmid is just protecting these players, not wanting to expose them to a situation that could further harm their confidence. But considering how freely players like Roldan (20 years old), Thomas (22) and Dylan Remick (24) have been given minutes, I think it's a bit lazy to suggest Schmid simply refuses to play youngsters. It might just be that some of them aren't entirely ready.
Seriously, how great of a find was Mears?
There are lots of reasons to be disappointed and frustrated with the Sounders right now, but let's at least recognize that one good thing to happen during this stretch is the realization that Tyrone Mears is a boss. His signing couldn't have been greeted with less fanfare, but here he is at 32 years old looking like he might be the Sounders' third best player.
It's almost comical that no one seems to be talking about his being snubbed from the MLS All-Star game, but that's just fine with me. The longer the league fails to recognize that the best right back in MLS is currently patrolling the Sounders sideline, the better.
Mears isn't just a very good defender, rarely making a wrong step and almost always learning from the few instances he does. Mears has also proven himself very useful going forward. His set-piece service might be the best on the team, he puts in a deadly cross and he's capable of scoring when the opportunity arises. None of this is really counting for much right now, but it could pay off big down the line. Let's hope.