It’s now almost five days after the Seattle Sounders’ 2018 campaign came to a rather abrupt stop and, to be entirely honest, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some measure of relief. As someone who writes about this team almost everyday regardless of the news cycle, there’s a measure of relief that comes with the team being eliminated a full month earlier than in the past couple years. But as someone who still has an open rooting interest in them, I need to admit that there’s a sense of unfinished business.
I have a very strong sensation, the Sounders feel vaguely the same way.
Following, the match the disappointment was obvious. Brian Schmetzer seemed to be fighting back emotions while he talked about the fight and determination his players showed in erasing three separate deficits to force ultimately ill-fated penalties. Will Bruin was clearly wearing a heavy burden after missing his attempt in the shootout, but also giving away the turnover that preceded the Timbers’ extra time goal. Stefan Frei was a bit more stoic, but for all the times he’s talked of the challenges an abbreviated offseason creates, he too didn’t seem ready to go into offseason mode.
I think there was some measure of relief for all of them, though. Not that they wouldn’t each make the trade if offered it, but the Sounders have effectively been playing for almost three years straight at this point. The last two offseasons have barely been enough time to schedule an abbreviated vacation, not really offering time to decompress and take stock of where they wanted to go.
They now have that chance.
I’m sure there will be some unforeseen personnel moves that create needs where none currently exist, but they should at least be of their own making. As it stands today, this is a team I think is still well positioned to make another run next year and nothing we saw in the Timbers series dissuades me of that. Even assuming a couple departures, there are no glaring holes in the starting XI and there were enough little surprises to feel as though a few players with relatively small roles are capable of stepping into larger ones next year. For the first time in several offseasons, the Sounders can focus on improving strengths instead of addressing weaknesses.
Who knows, maybe I’d feel differently if the Sounders were dismantled in another MLS Cup finals loss on the road. But even considering how good the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United were this year, I felt like the Sounders could have matched up well.
That’s the part that still stings.
Whether it my eyes or the numbers, the Sounders looked very much the better team in this series. Going by xG, their “win” on Thursday was the biggest blowout of the whole playoffs.
Over the course of the two games, they had 1.58 more xG than the Timbers. That the game even came down to penalties is frustrating. That they lost a penalty shootout against their biggest rivals at home after clearly being the better team is absolutely maddening.
The little things
The difference, as is so often the case, was in the little details. On Thursday, there were two handballs that went uncalled, a goal disallowed for an inadvertent handball and arguably a penalty on the game’s penultimate play. I won’t try to convince you that any of those calls were wrong, per se, but it does illustrate how many things had to break against the Sounders for them to be eliminated.
I did want to talk a bit more about that handball that disallowed what would have been Raúl Ruidíaz’s third goal of the match.
I thought Bobby Warshaw did a pretty good job explaining the situation in the above clip, and I’ll echo some of what he said. There are two things I think most would agree on from that clip: 1. The ball hits off Ruidíaz’s arm; 2. It was inadvertent.
If a defender does that in the box, most of the time it will go uncalled. If that happens to an attacker virtually anywhere else on the field, I suspect it will mostly go uncalled. But when a goal is scored after the ball deflects off the hand or arm? That’s almost never going to be allowed for no good reason other than “that’s just how the game is called.” I’ve come to peace with that.
What’s more frustrating — even if now inconsequential — is that Ruidíaz got a yellow card for this. In the pressbox, there was some chatter about it being for dissent. But both on the broadcast and on the stat sheet, it went down as an intentional handball. That almost seems like referee Jair Marrufo was covering for what should have been a controversial decision.
There were also a couple defensive lapses
As dominant as the Sounders were in just about every aspect — the Timbers didn’t even get a corner until extra time — all four goals they allowed in the series were the product of the type of breakdowns they had mostly avoided during the regular season.
In this game, the errors came from an inability to clear their lines. On the first goal, Nouhou appears to be trying to call off Kim Kee-hee, who was forced to play left center back with Chad Marshall out. Kim’s clearance barely makes it outside the penalty area and Sebastian Blanco ultimately hits a well-placed shot that was mostly uncontested.
On the second goal, the Sounders appeared to have handled the Timbers’ first corner well and were moving into counter-attack mode. But Bruin’s dribble around a defender was a little heavy, giving the ball back to the Timbers. Full credit to Diego Valeri for a perfectly placed cross, but he had far too much space and Kim, again, appeared to be caught defending an unfamiliar position (this time deputized as a right back).
It’s worth noting that Kim would have never been in these positions if not for a couple injuries in the first leg. Aside from Marshall being out, the Sounders were also missing Cristian Roldan, who under normal circumstances probably would have been the player moved to right back during overtime. Instead, Kim ending up being there after Kelvin Leerdam was replaced by Handwalla Bwana and before Jordan McCrary entered in the second overtime period.
The really painful part...
I think more than any of the couldas or shouldas, the most painful part of this result is how Ruidíaz’s stoppage-time goal wasn’t as meaningful as it deserved to be. It’s true that like the Timbers goals it was partly the result of a defensive mistake, but it was also an absolutely perfect strike. The explosion of joy following that goal is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced at CenturyLink Field, with the press box literally shaking.
Throughout his still brief Sounders tenure, Ruidíaz has proven himself opportunistic. He always seems to put himself in dangerous positions and has shown a remarkable ability to finish chances few others can.
But until now I don’t think we’d really experienced anything quite as thunderous as that finish. Ruidíaz managed to take that ball out of the air on a full volley and hit it with so much pace that it didn’t even matter that Jeff Attinella was reasonably well positioned to stop it.
Ruidíaz’s first goal was not nearly as impressive, but it too showed how quick he is and how little space he needs in order to generate a ton of pace on his shots.
Overall, I thought Ruidíaz had one of the all-time great performances for a Sounder in a playoff series and there’s no bigger reason than him to be excited about the prospects of 2019 and beyond.
Including those two playoff games, Ruidíaz scored 13 goals in about 1,300 minutes. His goals per 90 now sits at .89. The only players putting up numbers like that are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez. Ibrahimovic’s goals per 90 ended up at .92 and Martinez is now at .96 after setting the regular-season record for goals (31) and scoring two more in the playoffs.
Even more encouraging is that Ruidíaz seems to revel in high-pressure situations. Whether it was the stoppage-time winner he scored in the regular-season finale or any of the three he scored in this series, big moments seem to suit him well. With an offseason to rest and a preseason to get to better know his teammates, an improvement doesn’t seem entirely outside the realm of possibility.
The game in one gif
At least we’ll always have this.
Portland players are convinced they just won, but they're just finding out they have to go to penalties. pic.twitter.com/TCSxewzgUM— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) November 9, 2018
Quote of the Day
“I’m actually at a loss for words because they put everything into the game. So, you can’t fault them for effort, you can’t fault them for tactics, you can’t fault them for sticking together. They never quit. So, you just thank them for all of the effort and all of the work that they put in throughout the whole season. You just try to get them to individually take away all of the good things they had during the season.” - Brian Schmetzer
One stat to tell the tale
44 — The Sounders set a MLS record with 810 passes and a playoff record with 14 corner kicks, but the stat that may best illustrate their dominance was the Timbers’ 55-11 “advantage” on clearances. The 44-clearance gap may well be a record and certainly underscores how far back on their heels the Sounders had the Timbers. Ugh.