As much as I’d like to focus this column on what happens on the field, there are times when the story around the game ends up being the real talking point. That was very much the case following Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Los Angeles FC, the second time the Seattle Sounders have been beaten by the expansion team this year.
The loss was bad enough, itself. Broadly speaking, I thought the Sounders acquitted themselves well, generated some quality chances and would have been able to hold their heads high if they’d managed to secure the point they had done so much to deserve through 92 minutes.
But we know what happened. Cristian Roldan got called for a somewhat questionable foul — moments after Latif Blessing appeared to get away with a handball — and Stefan Frei couldn’t stop Laurent Ciman’s knuckling free kick.
If Frei manages to punch that away, maybe the tone of the conversation this week would be different. Frustrated, I’m sure, but probably not quite as spitting mad as it has been over the last couple days.
Of course, Frei didn’t make the save and the Sounders find themselves on four points through six games. That’s the worst start in franchise history (a tie would have still equaled the worst start).
That all comes against the backdrop of Garth Lagerwey’s comments on MLSsoccer.com in which he says, among other things, that the Sounders will likely never again be one of the league’s top spending clubs, talks a lot about the joys of being efficient and that none of this is actually bad. There was also his interview with me in which he elaborates on some of those things, but also basically shut the door on any notable signings coming before summer.
Take it all together and I can understand why there’s this perception that the Sounders are sort of waving the white flag and succumbing to market forces. I don’t think that’s what’s happening, but I can definitely understand how Lagerwey’s comments are contributing to the narrative. At the very least, I understand why a lot of people feel as though Lagerwey’s comments are at best tone-deaf and, if you’re more cynical, even a bit condescending.
To some degree, the Sounders can help shift this narrative by stringing together some quality results. Beating the Columbus Crew at home on Saturday is when that starts, and there are enough winnable games before the World Cup break that the narrative can plausibly change for the better. If that doesn’t happen, though? It could get ugly around here.
Here’s what else I was thinking about following the loss to LAFC:
So many what ifs...
There’s absolutely no reason the deciding play needed to happen the way it did. Let’s start with what the Sounders did wrong. Twice, they had the ball with a chance to potentially run out the clock. The first was in the 91st minute. Magnus Wolff Eikrem does a good job just kicking the ball long and the Sounders were able to retain possession with Wolff again pushing the ball down the sideline. Despite kicking it into space, though, his pass is a little strong for Lamar Neagle and LAFC is able to retain possession.
About a minute later, the Sounders have another chance to clear their lines. Clint Dempsey does a nice job blocking a shot and then retaining possession, but rather than just booting it long, he attempts to retain possession with a pass to Will Bruin who has it knocked away.
Just as frustratingly, though, is a couple decisions by Kevin Stott, who was only consistent in his inconsistency all day. The first was shortly before Dempsey’s failed clearance when Latif Blessing attacks down the right side. He gets tangled with Nouhou and goes down with his arms flailing. Stott, to his credit, doesn’t call the foul but curiously also doesn’t call Blessing for what sure looks like a handball (and maybe even two).
After then allowing another physical challenge to go unpunished at the top of the box, Stott whistles Cristian Roldan for a foul on what sure looked like a clean challenge that ultimately set the stage for Ciman’s heroics.
Here is the foul that was called that lead to the game winner. pic.twitter.com/XzYPHIH7oy— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) April 30, 2018
Those are four moments in the last two minutes of the match that easily could have gone a different way and very well may have allowed the Sounders to at least get a point.
But you know what they say about walking on a sword’s edge...
The completely legit rebuttal to that is the Sounders only have themselves to blame for being in a position where those plays essentially cost them the game. I think the Sounders did a fine job of creating chances and defending LAFC for the most part, the reality is that they didn’t score. Twice they had looks at a goalkeeper-less net only to have weak shots cleared off the line; Dempsey probably should have done better on a header late in the game, was a little unlucky to have his 4th minute half-volley blocked and was a little slow to pull the trigger on a couple other chances; Will Bruin was inches away from putting away a Kelvin Leerdam cross; and there was a stretch of time from about 38-42 where the Sounders had a ton of dangerous possession but basically nothing to show for it. Especially on the road, the Sounders need to find a way to score at least one of those.
It wasn’t a complete waste of time, though
As frustrating as the result was — and I’m still annoyed — there was at least one positive to come from the performance. Kim Kee-hee, who was starting to look like a mistake, acquitted himself quite well and the Sounders defense held up just fine despite both starting center backs being out.
Kim didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet, but he was mostly well positioned and didn’t allow much in the way of dangerous chances during his 68 minutes. For a player who hasn’t started a match in nearly six months, that’s about all you can ask.
Gustav Svensson seemed to do more of heavy lifting on the backline, and didn’t look at all out of place despite not having logged significant minutes at center back since last year’s playoffs. Nouhou also had a quietly strong game with 20 defensive actions, and Kelvin Leerdam was probably the most dangerous playmaker, with three key passes and a couple others that probably should have been.
This group was a key reason why Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi — who came into the game having combined for nine goals and eight assists — only combined for a single shot and that a LAFC offense that had scored 15 goals in their last five games was poised to be shut out if not for a flubbed save.
The game in a gif
Low-key, this was shaping up as the defensive play of the game.
Quote of the day
“He doesn’t have to. He saved us more times than not.” - Brian Schmetzer on whether Stefan Frei addressed the team after the match
One stat to tell the tale
1.50 — Since Garth Lagerwey was hired at the start of 2015, the Sounders have claimed 1.50 points per game in MLS competition (that’s regular season plus playoffs). That’s the fifth best figure in the league over that period (which includes Atlanta United’s one-plus seasons). From 2015-17, the Sounders have the fourth most points and the fifth best PPG (1.44). I’m not going to try to convince anyone that’s elite, but it is solidly in the top quarter of the league that crowns its champion at the end of the playoffs. I know it’s not how most of us would prefer it to be, but playing your best soccer at the end of the season is how MLS has decided to set up its reward system. Lagerwey seems to understand that.