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Postgame Pontifications: Time’s running out for Sounders to show who they are

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The roller-coaster of the past few weeks has forced us to ask some serious questions.

A tumultuous week did not end how we wanted.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — In a season like this one, it has often been difficult to keep any sort of perspective on the Seattle Sounders. The glorious start eventually petered out into a string of disappointing results, but then the season seemed to turn around again as players returned from international duty.

The last three weeks, though, have been particularly difficult to understand. The loss to the Portland Timbers was definitely a gut punch, but aside from the disappointment of losing at home to their biggest rivals, there were some positives to be found in the way the Sounders played and generated chances. In almost the exact opposite way, the result on the road against he Houston Dynamo was wonderful. The means by which it was achieved? Not so much.

Sunday’s home affair against Sporting KC offered a chance to possibly put it all together, especially considering the state of the opponents. While healthier than they’d been earlier in the year, Sporting KC were still missing several key contributors and had not been very good away from home.

The Sounders, too, were missing as many as five starters. But the hiccup against the Timbers aside, had been nearly unbeatable at CenturyLink Field no matter who they had available.

Instead of working out the frustrations of the week, the Sounders came out with one of their most uninspired home first-half performances of the season. Given the way the played, that Sporting KC went into halftime leading 2-0 could hardly be called surprising.

To their credit, the Sounders were much better in the second half. Jordan Morris’ goal in the 46th minute forced KC to at least play straight up for the most part and with a little better luck the Sounders could have escaped the match with a point, if not all three.

Even with the decent second-half showing, the match was a reminder that it’s been an awfully long time since the Sounders were clearly the better team over a full 90 minutes. There are viable explanations for that, granted, but time is quickly running out on making the case that this team is actually capable of making a decent postseason run.

Those bad starts

Considering the way the Sounders started the season — they scored nine first-half goals in the first six games — it’s pretty remarkable to consider they’ve not scored in the first 45 minutes since May 15. Going back to that six-game start, the Sounders have just four first-half goals in the 17 games since. They’ve been outscored 13-4 in the first half in those 17 games. It’s a testament to their halftime adjustments that they’ve still managed a respectable 6-7-4 record in those games.

But Sunday’s game in which the Sounders found themselves trailing 2-0 in the 33rd minute is a reminder of how much harder life is when you go into halftime needing to make up a deficit. The Sounders played about as well as they could have in the second half, but one significant lapse forced them into attempting a miracle finish they couldn’t quite complete.

If diagnosing what the problem was were easy, I have no doubt Brian Schmetzer and his team of coaches would have figured it out by now. At the very least, they recognize the problem.

The Sounders surely know that while bad starts cane sometimes be overcome against questionable opponents, they won’t have that same luxury once the postseason arrives.

Worries about the defense

Upon a second watch, I’ll admit that the breakdowns on the three goals weren’t quite as easily lumped together as illustrative of larger problems as I first thought. Only Erik Hurtado’s goal, for instance, was genuinely a counter-attacking goal. And while the first goal and the penalty that led to the second were the result of getting behind defenders and failing to stop entry passes, I think the exact breakdowns were different enough.

Still, there’s at least some room to be worried that the centerback pairing of Xavier Arreaga and Kim Kee-hee as well as the midfield duo of Cristian Roldan and Danny Leyva have some room for improvement.

The Sounders have now given up nine goals in Arreaga’s four starts. He’s not the primary cause of that, I don’t think, but I do think it’s illustrative of the learning curve when trying to settle a player like him. In this game, I thought he made several strong plays, most notably on a tackle near goal where he stole the ball away from Hurtado. But he also botched his positioning on the third goal, getting stuck in no-man’s land as Gerso easily passed around him and set up Hurtado.

Combined passing maps of Cristian Roldan (7) and Danny Leyva (75) in the first (left) and second (right) halves.
MLSsoccer.com

Arreaga has shown himself to be a defender who likes to follow forwards into the attacking half and is good at cutting out passing lanes. But that also comes with a risk, especially when he’s partnered with another centerback who tends to like to do similar things.

The risk-reward calculation with Roldan and Leyva is similar, as neither are traditional No. 6’s. The upside of that combination was that they could both help in the attack. In the first half, especially, they seemed to be trading off in that role with the bulk of their actions coming farther up the field. But they seemed to settle into a more cohesive unit when one of them was dropping back more regularly in the second half.

It’s an interesting experiment to be sure, but I’m skeptical that now is the time to implement it. My hope is that either Gustav Svensson gets healthy soon or Emanuel Cecchini can help provide a more ideal balance.

One big positive

Before we get too down on the Sounders, there was at least one extremely encouraging thing to come out Sunday’s game: the emergence of Morris as a genuine offensive force. What I found so encouraging was not just his third career brace, but everything he did to get it. On both goals, for instance, he showed how his speed can be used in a game-breaking way, racing behind defenders and beating the goalkeeper even after he’s closed down the angle.

The first one was especially impressive because of the way he used his body to shield Graham Zusi off the ball and how he finished around Tim Melia from a sharp angle with his left foot.

The second goal, though, was a bit more of what I think of as a potentially quintessential Jordan Morris goal, as he took just one touch before firing off a shot from just outside the penalty area.

What I liked so much about this was that it showed a level of confidence that we’ve not always seen. Whereas at various times in his career, I suspect Morris would have tried to take another touch or two and potentially round Melia, this time he just let fire from the top of the box without giving the goalkeeper much time to react.

I was also happy to see Morris involved in this game throughout and to see him play so well when the Sounders absolutely needed him to. Morris has not always been a player who rose to the occasion, seemingly more comfortable playing a supporting role. In the last two games, however, his scoring has been absolutely necessary. He’s responded with three goals and, almost as importantly, nine shots.

It may be a bit of a silly stat, but Morris had never before taken more than eight shots in any two consecutive games. I’d like to think this is a sign that Morris is coming out of his shell and ready to take on a bigger role. The Sounders probably need him to if they are to get this season back on track.