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Sounders road woes can’t be considered acceptable

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But I think we can overstate just how bad it’s been in the big picture.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Montreal Impact Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

As soon as the schedule was released, the recent stretch of four consecutive road games promised to be among the Seattle Sounders’ most challenging of the season. With those games in the books, we can safely say the team failed the test rather miserably.

The match against the Montreal Impact was certainly not their worst performance — and for about 70 minutes actually was one of their best — but the way it ended seemed to encapsulate the recent run of form. After battling through much of the game without really challenging the Impact’s goal — but not giving up much on their end — the Sounders were able to take the lead after Victor Rodriguez hit as perfect of a penalty as you’ll ever see.

For a few minutes, it even looked like the Sounders might extend their lead and had a wonderful chance to do just that when fresh-legged Joevin Jones sprinted into the open field with no one between him and Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush. But rather than take the ball at goal, Jones decided to slow up and look for Rodriguez sprinting toward goal. That allowed the Impact defense to recover and ultimately keep him from completing the cross.

Montreal came back and scored almost immediately, converting a penalty of their own after Kelvin Leerdam inexplicably went to ground to try to stop a tight-angled shot. In short order, the Impact took the lead and never looked back.

Given how short-handed both teams were, I’m not inclined to take much away from this game in particular. The Sounders will almost certainly never again use a lineup anything like this one. But that doesn’t make the result any less frustrating.

This was the third time the Sounders lined up against a team in a bad run of form who were at least as short-handed as they were. It was the third straight game they lost. I felt that four points from this four-game stretch would have been at least acceptable, but I thought two was probably the minimum we could expect. That they ended up with one can not be seen as acceptable.

The most frustrating part about this game wasn’t that the deep reserves weren’t able to pull out the result. Alex Roldan, Jonathan Campbell and Saad Abdul-Salaam at least performed well enough as to not completely undermine the Sounders’ efforts. All the “effort” stats favored the Sounders, and through 70 minutes the defense had allowed just one dangerous chance.

What’s frustrating, rather, is that aside from the sometimes inspired play of Harry Shipp, none of the other veterans did anything like step up. Leerdam’s penalty was the most inexcusable, but no one bathed themselves in glory. Once Seattle took the lead, there’s no good reason why the Sounders should not have been able to see it out as no worse than a tie.

Was the Sounders’ lack of depth exposed?

Understandably, Seattle’s depth has come under some scrutiny. What happened to the team that was at least two deep at every position? While the results have clearly been substandard, I’m not as convinced that the lack of reasonable depth is the issue.

The Sounders weren’t just missing eight internationals for this game, after all. They were also without Kim Kee-hee and had just lost Chad Marshall to unplanned retirement. MLS is simply not a league designed for teams to perform at anything like their peak despite the loss of 10 potentially starting caliber players.

“But what about LAFC?” I hear you asking yourself. While it’s true that they’ve managed to maintain a rather remarkable level of play throughout the year, they’ve also been able to do it with pretty much the same starters every game. One of our readers did a pretty good breakdown of LAFC’s relative lack of changes from game to game. I’ll also point out that they have 10 outfield players who have started at least 11 times this year, and that eight of them have started at least 14 of their 16 games to date. No one outside that group has more than three starts and only two have even had to play in as many as five games. Contrary to popular belief, their depth has barely even been tested. (Shockingly, they also managed to be the only team to avoid playing during the current FIFA window and Gold Cup group stage.)

The Sounders, by contrast, have just seven outfield players with at least 11 starts and eight players with between four and nine starts. They also have 18 outfield players with at least five appearances. So while LAFC has been able to consistently field the same lineup and use a tight rotation off the bench, the Sounders have been forced to use almost their entire roster. That’s not to say that the Sounders have sufficient depth, but more to illustrate that it’s just very hard to compare them against their best competition.

Playing through the international break is dumb

Let’s be completely clear about this: The Impact were just as — if not more — short-handed than the Sounders were for this game, so that’s not an excuse for the Sounders. But that doesn’t change the fact that this game should not have been played when it was. The FIFA international window was open from June 3-11, and the Concacaf Gold Cup group stage runs from June 15-26. There were six MLS games played during the first window and there will be 12 more during the Gold Cup group stage, with everyone but LAFC playing at least once during that time, many playing twice and a few managing to play three times.

The Sounders had 10 players called in during these windows and most teams had at least some of their stars called away. It’s only going to get worse as MLS recruits more international-caliber players. In this day and age, MLS simply has to find a way for teams not to play during that time.

I realize that means the tradeoff will be more midweek games, and there is no shortage of complaints about the number they already play, but that seems like a worthwhile cost. If MLS can also loosen the rules around using charter flights, that should help mitigate the effects of midweek games.

Where we stand

All that said, the Sounders still find themselves in generally fine position. It’s hard to see them making up the 11-point gap with LAFC, but if the playoffs started today they’d be hosting a first-round game against Minnesota United with the winner of LA Galaxy-Real Salt Lake looming on the horizon. They’re also just two points behind the Galaxy for the No. 2 spot with one fewer home game played and just five points behind the Philadelphia Union with a game in hand and two fewer home games for the No. 2 record in the whole league. For all the struggles they’ve gone through over the past month, that hot start really did mitigate the need for the kind of late-season push Seattle has needed the past few years.