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Postgame Pontifications: It has to get better

The defense has serious problems and time is running out to fix it.

You smell that? That burnt smell ... it smells like defeat.
Rob Gray / Sounders FC Communications

There’s a feeling of dread creeping into the Seattle Sounders fanbase. Maybe it hasn’t quite hit you yet, but if you look around you’ll see signs of it. What started with a frustrating loss to the Portland Timbers was somewhat calmed after a road win over the Houston Dynamo, but the last three matches have brought it roaring back.

In all three of those matches, the Sounders have given up three goals. In the first two, the Sounders were at least generating plenty of their own chances and were perhaps a bit unlucky not to come away from them with more than a single point. But last night’s 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake was an undeniable disaster in all phases of the game.

Aside from a reasonably promising middle third that spanned from about the 35th to 65th minutes, the Sounders played about as poorly as they have all year. They had just one shot in the first 40 minutes and no shots after the 67th minute. On the defensive end, they were repeatedly exposed on the counter during those periods with all three goals coming from transition moments.

While some of the previous poor performances of the season could be chalked up to missing key components, the Sounders had many of their brightest stars in this one. Raúl Ruidíaz had just one shot, which came in the 9th minute, and repeatedly showed his frustration by dropping deep into the midfield to pick up possession. Nicolás Lodeiro managed to get on the ball 100 times, yet only seemed effective in small spurts. Cristian Roldan was barely a factor defensively and Kelvin Leerdam struggled to impact the game on either side of the ball. I could go on, but you get the point ... the Sounders’ best players were not up to their own standards.

Thanks to their hot start and ability to keep their heads above water during most of the summer, the Sounders still find themselves in a reasonably good spot as far as playoff positioning goes. But as long as they are playing the way they are now, qualifying for the playoffs for a record 11th straight season just seems like a way to extend the pain.

For much of the year, we’ve been asking “who are the Sounders?” Right now, they look like a team that is struggling to remain competitive. Simply put, the Sounders are not playing anything like the MLS Cup contender they seemed to be as recently as five weeks ago when they handled Atlanta United. They’ve got nine more games to prove otherwise.

Was signing Joevin Jones a huge mistake?

When Jones was announced as a somewhat surprising signing at the very end of the spring transfer window, it seemed as though the Sounders had pulled of a bit of a coup. Here was a player with a proven MLS track record, presumably motivated to show he wasn’t the bust he seemed to be during his stint in Germany and costing the Sounders very little in the grand scheme of things.

Three months later, it’s starting to look like the Sounders did Darmstadt a favor by taking him off their hands before his contract ran out.

Aside from a brief glimpse of his old self as a 30-minute sub against the New England Revolution, Jones has looked anywhere from disinterested to useless. At no point has Jones been able to showcase any sort of consistent attacking ability and his effort on defense has often been downright awful. On the second goal against RSL, for instance, he makes virtually no effort to step out on Albert Rusnak, who is allowed to take a virtually uncontested shot from the edge of the penalty area. On the third, Jones gets caught ball-watching as Corey Baird floats behind him. Jones may not have been able to catch Baird regardless, but his jogging recovery effort did not look particularly good either.

In a recent interview with Steve Zakuani, Jones indicated he still sees himself as a left back. That’s fine and maybe he ultimately settles in there. But so far, he’s not showing much reason he should be on the pitch at any position.

Signs of life

If there was a positive performance on the defensive side of the ball, it may have been Xavier Arreaga. Although it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s not anything like a shutdown centerback in the mold of Chad Marshall, he is showing why he was intriguing enough for the Sounders to spend a transfer fee in the range of $2 million.

At the very least, I think we can say that Arreaga was not particularly at fault on any of RSL’s goals. Small praise, to be sure, but a step in the right direction.

What I was more encouraged by was the positivity he showed moving the ball forward. Arreaga completed 91 percent of his passes, which included 5 of 6 on long balls. He also had a key pass, setting up Morris for a good look inside the box.

Unfortunately, it looks like Arreaga is the kind of centerback who probably needs a more stay-at-home partner. With Roman Torres out for possibly the rest of the year, the Sounders don’t have an obvious candidate to pair him with. I do wonder if Gustav Svensson might be a decent partner, though.

Down the stretch they come

The Sounders have nine matches left to turn their season around. If the playoffs started today, they’d be on the road against RSL. Given their struggles at Rio Tino — they’re riding an eight-game losing streak in which they’re being outscored by an average of almost two goals — that’s a pretty scary prospect. Even if they somehow managed to win that game, they’d have to play at LAFC in the following round.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I would just as well miss the playoffs as face that prospect tomorrow.

The good news is that despite all their struggles they are still just two points out of second. Assuming other teams maintain their current pace, the Sounders would probably need to get to at least 56 points to claim that spot. That’s 17 points in their final nine games, which is no small ask.

Four of their remaining games are at home. I think you have to assume they need to win all of them to get to 56 points. That leaves five points from their remaining five road games, which includes games at the Galaxy (Saturday), at Portland (Aug. 23), at the Rapids (Sept. 7), at D.C. United (Sept. 22) and at San Jose (Sept. 29). If they can at least get a point from one of these next two, they’d still need four more from their final three. The Rapids game suddenly become a virtual must-win and they’ll almost certainly need a point from San Jose. If they can pull that off, I think we can feel reasonably well about their chances heading into the postseason.

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