Rarely have the Seattle Sounders needed a win against the Portland Timbers as bad as they needed one on Saturday. You could certainly argue the two teams have played more important games, but the Sounders have rarely been as desperate for three points as they were in this one.
That they failed to get any points — or even lead at any point — is perhaps the biggest indictment of the team so far this year.
I wouldn’t say the Sounders played poorly. They possessed the ball well, won their share of duels and although they were out shot 16-11, they still managed to play even according to xG. The talent and willingness to compete seems to be there.
But this was also the fourth straight game in which they’ve fielded a squad that seems to have the talent to compete with their opponents. Three of those games have been at home. That they’ve come away with a grand total of four points is bordering on inexcusable. In none of those games have they looked to be the obvious aggressor, not showing any sort of consistent ability to impose their will on opposing defenses. Against the Timbers, they never pushed the tempo, even when they were chasing a goal over the last 15 minutes. In fact, Victor Rodriguez’s blocked shot in the 91st minute was the Sounders’ only shot after Chad Marshall’s 68th minute equalizer.
I won’t try to convince you that the Sounders lost because of Brian Schmetzer’s substitution decision, but there’s no way you can convince me that it helped.
Despite never being in anything like control, Schmetzer waited until the 80th minute to make any changes. Even more strange, he opted to make a double-switch that didn’t involve any sort of formational change. Instead, he again opted to take off both fullbacks with the very minor twist of dropping Cristian Roldan back a line.
In doing so, Schmetzer seemed to be indicating that the Sounders’ were in good shape but just needed some fresh legs on the field. He did this while leaving on Osvaldo Alonso, who again looked very slow, and never using his third sub. The closest thing to a “creative” change he made was moving Chad Marshall up to forward for the final few minutes, a change that reeks of desperation. Meanwhile, Magnus Wolff Eikrem — who at least is a willing attacker who sees things teammates don’t, even if he doesn’t pull it off with as much regularity as we’d all like — was sitting on the bench.
The decision to bring on Nouhou for Francis was especially frustrating, mainly because it offered very little tactical change. If Schmetzer felt that Nouhou gave the Sounders a better chance in the 81st minute, why not make the change earlier? At the very least, if Schmetzer had made the move closer to the Timbers’ winner, it would have come with some sort of message. Instead, it just looks like Schmetzer wanting to get Nouhou on the field as some sort of wild card.
Speaking of Francis...
Somewhat adding to the confusing nature of these subs, Schmetzer said the whole reason Francis got the start over Nouhou was because they think the veteran is the better offensive player. That makes some sense, I suppose, but then why would you take him off when you are most in need of that goal? Even more maddening is that for all Francis’ theoretical offensive prowess, he’d already cost the Sounders at least two goals on the other end.
The first was on Samuel Armenteros’ goal. Francis did a fine job recovering and putting himself in position to defend the counter-attack, but instead of forcing Armenteros to the byline (where Kim Kee-hee was in position to defend any cross), he inexplicably allows the left-footed player to get the ball onto his dominant foot, cut in and fire a shot inside the far post. It’s a good finish, to be sure, but a veteran defender has no business allowing it to happen.
The Sounders managed to overcome the mistake and equalized on Chad Marshall’s header, but then gave the lead right back when Francis again was at fault on what should have been a harmless counter. But after getting to the ball first, he puts it out for a corner instead of something useful. He does this while surely realizing that the Sounders had been struggling on set-piece defense up to that point, having already allowed three shots from corners. Predictably, Larrys Mabiala gets on the end of another corner to score his second goal of the game.
One glimmer of hope...
For all the frustrations on the day, it should be said that Victor Rodriguez at least offered some reason for optimism. Out for most of the year, Rodriguez logged 90 minutes and was probably the Sounders’ most effective player. His four shots were a team high and, unlike most of his teammates, he was willing to push the tempo and force the Timbers to react.
His clever, well-timed back-post run was undeniably the highlight of the afternoon for the Sounders and it resulted in his first goal of the season.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe the Sounders can actually make a run this season, the increased health and effectiveness of Rodriguez has to be near the top.
The math ... didn’t get worse?
Heading into this stretch of games, I figured it was the make-or-break point of the season. If they could steady the ship, keep their heads above water and simply put themselves in a position where a late-season run was feasible, I liked their chances.
With two more games — played in quick succession — before the transfer window opens, it’s going to take a rather dramatic turnaround to reach that rather low bar.
Still, the math shockingly doesn’t look any worse than it did before the Timbers game.
Although the Sounders remain 11 points shy of sixth-place in the West, the pace for the final playoff spot is down to 46 points. That means that despite losing, the Sounders still only need 34 points through their final 19 matches to get there. That translates to 1.78 points per game, which is more than twice as good as they’ve played so far, but about the pace with which they’ve finished each of the past two seasons.
I’ll maintain that the Sounders absolutely need to win one of these two upcoming road games in order to maintain any realistic hope of qualifying for the postseason, but it’s amazing to me that their situation is not mathematically any more dire now than it was before the Timbers match.
The game in one gif
Remember when this week was going well? Oh man, halcyon days...
Your Seattle Sounders FC #9: Raul Ruidiaz pic.twitter.com/vEMXvVx9oq— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) June 30, 2018
Quote of the day
“The current state of affairs is not good. We have to be realistic: it’s not good. We’ve really put ourselves in a hole.” - Brian Schmetzer
One stat to tell the tale
74 — The Sounders have led for a grand total of 74 minutes at home this year. What’s even more frustrating is that 67 of those minutes came in the Minnesota United game. That means that over their last five home games, they’ve led for all of seven minutes. SEVEN. Ugh.