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Postgame Pontifications: That sinking feeling

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Losing to the Timbers at home is getting pretty old.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Few losses in my Sounders memory have felt like Sunday’s. It wasn’t the most important. It wasn’t the most costly. It may not have even been the most unexpected. But this one has lingered more than most and I suspect that’s because the game itself was so frustrating, and a bit deflating.

The Sounders were coming off what felt like their most encouraging performance of the season. They had taken on a quality — if struggling — Atlanta United team and generally established themselves as the better team. The performance was not without flaws, but it was an easy one to feel good about going forward.

I don’t think anyone expected the Timbers match to be any less than what it was. Giovanni Savarese always seems to have his team ready for the Sounders, and has frankly gotten the better of them during his short time in charge. But the Sounders were better rested, more talented position by position, and showed all the signs of a properly motivated team.

While nothing I saw on Sunday dispossessed me of those preconceptions, I do find my belief in this team’s completeness to be seriously challenged. I no longer am quite so sure that the squad as it’s currently assembled is quite as ready to make a MLS Cup run as I had previously believed.

I say that mainly because I’m not sure that this team’s assembled parts are actually better than the ones on the Timbers, a team the Sounders will almost surely have to go through on any postseason run, let alone LAFC or the LA Galaxy.

I still believe, for instance, that man by man the Sounders match up well with just about anyone. When put together as a cohesive unit, though, there are some glaring weakness that will likely need to be addressed.

Lack of attacking options

If there was one area of need laid bare, it was the utter lack of attacking options that Brian Schmetzer left himself when filling out the lineup sheet. Joevin Jones was the only plausibly attack-minded player and there was not a single forward available off the bench. Schmetzer chalked that up to a possibly misplaced desire to “keep players engaged” when they aren’t getting starts, but the one glaring mistake was his refusal to pick one of Jordy Delem or Danny Leyva.

I understand that Leyva and Delem are not necessarily analogous options, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where he would need both of them. Handwalla Bwana or even Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez would have provided something different than what they had. Personally, I would have liked to see that spot used on Justin Dhillon, even if just to have the ability to throw on an attacking body at the end of a game where you desperately need a goal. In other words, a lot like the situation the Sounders found themselves in against the Timbers.

Instead, Schmetzer left himself with choices that were seemingly more designed to protect a lead than to chase one. That’s how we ended up with two of the three subs being used on fullbacks and Román Torres being moved up to forward for the final 10 minutes or so. Schmetzer, to be fair, was not exactly brimming with choices even before he made the lineup card and I’ve argued the Sounders have plenty of depth at wide positions, but this was a game screaming out for a Víctor Rodríguez-type of presence. The Sounders needed someone who could offer something going through the middle and capable of testing the goalkeeper from distance. Harry Shipp is a fine backup and a great option to have as a spot-starter, but he’s not the player who’s going to break down good opponents on a weekly basis. There’s currently no one like that available on the roster, and maybe this was the game that pushes the Sounders to get that player.

Creating chances really wasn’t the problem, though

While the Sounders were guilty of falling into a predictable pattern of attack that was almost exclusively aimed at breaking down the Timbers through wide play, it should be said that they did a pretty decent job of creating chances through that mode. That was especially true in the first half when they managed nine shots from inside the penalty area. Even more remarkable was that eight of those shots were from 12 yards or closer.

Sounders’ first-half shots from inside the penalty area
MLSsoccer.com

The Sounders would finish the match with a season-high-tying 14 shots from inside the penalty area, resulting in nearly three expected goals. By Opta’s calculations, it was the Sounders’ second best chance creation performance of the season, behind only last week’s 2-1 win over Atlanta.

As tempting as it is to beat up the Sounders for their 35 crosses — and that is too many — they did finish the match with 11 key passes, most of them from passes classified as crosses by Opta and all were setting up shots from inside the penalty area. Of those, six came from open-play crosses and four came from corners.

I do think the Sounders’ attack got predictable late on and the number of dangerous shots they got off declined as the game wore on. There were also times when the Sounders were probably more patient than they needed to be and others where they were seemingly lumping in crosses just hoping to find someone’s head.

The real problem, though, was exceptionally poor finishing. The worst of those misses belonged to Ruídíaz, perhaps the last person you’d expect to miss a sitter. The chance came in the 22nd minute on a wonderful cut-back pass from Jordan Morris and found Ruídíaz about four yards out. But he seemed to be caught wrong-footed and somehow managed to put it over the bar.

Torres, too, missed some very good looks. The big man repeatedly got himself on the end of well-placed corners only miss the mark or give Steve Clark an easy save. (Interesting note, the last time a Sounders centerback other than Chad Marshall scored a goal in a competitive match was Zach Scott in a 2014 U.S. Open Cup game.)

If the Sounders just finish one more of those chances, we’re talking about a very different game.

What to do with Brad Smith?

I’m as guilty as anyone of being transfixed by how dangerous Smith can be going forward. His runs are as good as any left back in the league and he’s prone to hitting some crosses that look like they’re straight from an instructional video.

But it’s starting to look like good teams are targeting him pretty effectively on defense, and when he’s not creating offense, that’s a huge problem. This was most apparent in the first LAFC game, and it was a massive issue again in this one. Both of the Timbers’ goals were due at least in part to Smith’s inability to close down his wing. On the first, he got juked out of his boots by Jorge Moreira who had that shot that rebounded out to Brian Fernandez. On the second, he gave Sebastian Blanco far too much space to hit his cross to Fernandez. To be sure, Torres should also carry some of the burden on both goals — he was beaten to the rebound on the first and simply got beat for speed on the second — but no big decision looms around him.

Smith, on the other hand, has about 10 days left on his loan. We’ve not heard much about what’s going to happen there, but at this point it’s hard to imagine the Sounders doing anything beyond agreeing to extend it along the current terms. They might not be too upset if Bournemouth decides to recall him, either.

Joevin Jones has not looked entirely comfortable at left midfielder and even though he’s not played left back virtually at all since leaving the Sounders in 2017, that’s still the position he says he sees as his best. They also have Nouhou, who continues to put in strong defensive performances. Perhaps most intriguingly, the Sounders would free up some TAM that could be used to sign another attacking player.