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Postgame Pontifications: Punchless in Seattle

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Sounders need to find some creativity, badly.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — I’ve been in a lot of postgame locker rooms during my eight-plus years covering the Seattle Sounders. A fair number of those have been following frustrating or even depressing results. I think I can definitively say I’ve never been in one quite like Saturday’s, following a 0-0 tie with Columbus Crew.

What made this locker room different wasn’t so much the result itself. I’ve seen depressed locker rooms following bad losses or bewildering ties. What was different about this one was that there was a level of frustration hanging in the air that I don’t think I’ve ever sensed.

The Sounders knew, without a doubt, that a scoreless tie when they played up a man for 75 minutes wasn’t acceptable. More than that, though, I think they knew they didn’t play well enough to deserve better. The Sounders dominated possession, especially in the second half, but rarely did anything with it beyond pushing the ball around the perimeter until someone floated in a cross that posed little danger.

There’s certainly a timeline where Clint Dempsey’s close-range half-volley scores and the Sounders win. While those three points would have been appreciated, they wouldn’t have changed the way they actually played and how they played was like a team without ideas.

This was probably best personified by Will Bruin, who was so aggravated that he was seemingly struggling to keep his emotions in check during the postgame media scrum.

“We need to find a solution to this,” he said, shaking his head. “If you can’t tell I’m pretty frustrated right now. We are going to look at film [Sunday] and I hope we look at ways to exploit Toronto and ways we can attack them, instead of …”

Bruin cut himself off, before adding “Yeah I hope we can generate some goals.”

We can only guess where Bruin was going with that statement. But it didn’t seem good.

Running out of time

Bruin’s comments also seemed to suggest there’s an understanding that as early as it is, the Sounders can’t afford to dig much more of a hole. Wednesday they’ll play at Toronto FC, who looks like they’re over whatever hangover effects they were feeling from falling in penalties to Chivas in the CONCACAF Champions League final. The Sounders are expected to be back in Seattle for a couple of days before visiting the Portland Timbers.

If they fail to get points in those games, they’ll be looking at a nine-game start to the season that has yielded just five points. This is already the worst start in franchise history through seven games, but that would be half as many points as they had last year through nine games and eight fewer than they had in 2016.

Considering the down state of the Western Conference, it’s entirely possible that a point total in the mid-40s will be good enough to qualify for the playoffs. But that lowered bar shouldn’t be any sort of comfort to the Sounders, who would have to improve significantly just to get there in any case.

Does it feel different?

I’ve often pushed back against the idea that this slow start “just feels different” than previous years. That’s mainly because that’s what people have said seemingly every time the Sounders have struggled, especially in the last couple years. My contention has always been “well, of course it feels different. Hindsight tells us that they were able to overcome those bad stretches before.”

But Sunday’s loss really did feel different. In years past, when the Sounders have struggled it’s mostly been on the road. Last year, for instance, they had three 1-0 wins at home that were surrounded by four road games they lost by a collective score of 12-2. Bad as they were playing at home, they were at least continuing to collect home points. They finished up the year with 38 points at home. In order to equal that total, they can only drop a total of five points over their final 13 matches at CenturyLink Field.

Even putting aside the four points in four home games, the Sounders never looked quite as punchless as they did against the Crew. The locker room also never felt quite as devoid of answers as it did on Sunday.

Wherefore art thou creativity?

If you’re looking for areas to question Brian Schmetzer’s game plan, it seems fair to start with the decision to start Alex and Cristian Roldan as the team’s outside mids. Cristian might, well, be the Sounders’ best overall player and I trust that Alex has earned every minute he’s played this year. But I’m just not sure where Schmetzer was hoping to get creativity from with this lineup.

To some degree, the Sounders’ struggles to generate chances was the product of some bad luck. Victor Rodriguez was expected to be a major part of the attack and hasn’t played a single minute. Nicolas Lodeiro apparently sustained a foot injury early in the year and has not quite looked himself. Those absences are out of Schmetzer’s control.

But selecting a lineup that includes just one player anyone would consider creative — and that’s a 35-year-old Clint Dempsey who should be considered more of a supplemental piece — is one that screams for second guessing. I’m perfectly happy to consider that holistically, Alex Roldan has earned every minute he’s gotten in training. But this was a day where maybe a less holistic choice would have been prudent.

To Schmetzer’s credit, he brought on Handwalla Bwana at halftime, replacing Chad Marshall and sliding Gustav Svensson into defense. But the Sounders didn’t do much in terms of chance creation until Magnus Wolff Eikrem entered in the 63rd minute. It wasn’t much, mind you, but the four shots they took from 19 yards in after Wolff entered were the same number they took from that distance in the first 63 minutes.

Wolff, while far from perfect, at least was moving and trying to make the incisive pass. In his 27 minutes, he was able to squeeze off two shots — both from inside 19 yards — sent six balls into the box and completed his only open-play cross. At least as long as Lodeiro is out, it seems like Wolff should probably be on the field.

The game in one gif

The Sounders looked dangerous exactly one time on Saturday. It came in the 73rd minute when Handwalla Bwana allowed Will Bruin to run into a channel. He alertly picked up his head and hit Clint Dempsey with a perfectly placed cut back. Dempsey made good contact, but true to the day Zach Steffen made the save and it was cleared to safety.

Quote of the Day

“I think you need to be positive in every situation. I know it’s tough for us and tough for the fans and tough for everyone in the sporting world day in and day out. It’s what we have to do tomorrow again and you got to work hard and hopefully the next game brings us three points.” - Kelvin Leerdam

One stat to tell the tale

45 — I don’t have the patience to wade through years worth of box scores, but I’m pretty confident that the 45 crosses the Sounders put in were either a franchise record or very close to it. What I can say is that it’s five more than they attempted in any game last year — they attempted 40 in the 3-3 tie with the New England Revolution -- and they only even attempted as many as 30 a handful of times. Interestingly, there seems to be an inverse relationship to number of crosses and goals, but that would take a deeper dive to prove definitively. What I can say, is that the more times the Sounders cross the ball, the more frustration they seem to be having in generating good scoring chances.