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Postgame Pontifications: A precarious position

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Sounders’ season largely hinges on performances of their next two games.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It would be hyperbole to say that the Seattle Sounders are watching a nightmare scenario unfold. But they’ve not done much to make sure we don’t even need to talk about it, either.

The facts are these: The Sounders currently sit second in the Western Conference and will at least qualify for the playoffs as long as they can win one of their remaining two games, one of which is at home. But thanks to dropping points against FC Dallas on Wednesday and losing to D.C. United on Sunday, there still remains a scenario in which the Sounders miss the playoffs for the first time in 11 MLS seasons and are forced to go into an offseason with a whole rash of questions to answer about a roster that will certainly have some sizable holes to fill.

Forced to make a bet, I still think the Sounders are probably going to make the playoffs and I suspect they’ll at least host a home game. That’s based mostly on a general belief in the talent they’ve assembled, that when healthy can still stand toe to toe with just about anyone. Position by position, I don’t see this obvious “talent deficit” with anyone other than maybe LAFC.

To a degree, though, that’s somewhat based on faith. The reality is that while the Sounders have done a mostly admirable job of getting enough results to remain competitive with the teams fighting for second behind LAFC, they’ve also never done so in particularly convincing fashion. The only multi-goal win they’ve had since mid-March was the 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls in which they blew a 2-0 lead before putting the game away with a pair of late goals, one of which came deep into stoppage time. In other words, they’ve not really had an “easy” win in at least six months. If you’re wondering why this season has seemed like such a slog, that’s probably the stat that illustrates it best.

Precarious standings

We saw just how precarious the Sounders’ situation is in Sunday’s loss to D.C. United.

Despite missing Nicolas Lodeiro and Xavier Arreaga, the Sounders still put out a reasonably full-strength lineup. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good whenever they can field at least half of their normal starters. Coming into this game, they had been 8-4-4 (1.75 PPG) with a +9 goal-difference whenever at least six of their normal starters were in the lineup. Even in the four losses, three of them were by just a single goal.

I wouldn’t say they were entirely awful against D.C., but they were never able to put together the type of sustained pressure that suggested they were really capable of pulling out a result. Even while outshooting United 17-12, there were few genuine scoring chances. United simply looked like a more energetic squad, winning 56 percent of the duels that included a 13-7 advantage on tackles.

It was a performance that showed just how fragile the Sounders’ fortunes are right now. The margins between very good and actually kinda bad are not that big, and missing a couple key players and playing on the road with short rest were the sort of variables that pushed them over to the wrong side.

The bad news is that some of the variables are probably going to be around in the final two games. The good news is that while those margins probably won’t sway dramatically, there’s still some reason to think they can push it over to the positive side.

One reason for hope

If you can remember back to the start of the season when the Sounders seemed to be every bit capable of keeping pace with LAFC, you’ll also recall that Victor Rodriguez was a big part of why. Even on a team with the likes of Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro, Rodriguez’s skill stands out. He’s not the strongest or the fastest, but he sees plays developing and has the skill to move the ball in a way that no one else does.

While still limited by fitness, Rodriguez at least showed glimpses of that against United. The highlight of his day was the pass to Brad Smith that set up the Sounders’ best scoring chance of the evening. Seeing a compressed formation, Rodriguez put a perfectly weighted ball over the backline that allowed Smith to run onto it at full speed. In hindsight, Smith probably should have laid it off to Ruidiaz who had a step on his defenders in front of goal, but Rodriguez did everything he could to set it up.

Assuming Rodriguez can continue to build off this performance, that bodes well for the Sounders’ chances of still salvaging this season.

Disappearing offense

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a lot written about the emergence of Jordan Morris and Ruidiaz as an elite offensive duo. I’ll admit that I talked myself into thinking that simply having both of them on the field Sunday would be enough. It clearly wasn’t.

Both players struggled to get involved in a meaningful way. Ruidiaz’s night was sort of defined by the above clip where he makes the right run only not to get the service he needed. You could see his frustration developing over the match, especially with how he repeatedly dropped deep into the midfield just to get touches. Of his 24 passes, 10 of them were from inside the center circle.

Similarly, the Sounders struggled to find Morris in dangerous areas. Morris found himself mostly stuck to the sideline, which was probably in part by design but also too far from goal to really do much damage. It should also be noted that Morris wasn’t doing much to help himself, either. Although the spaces he found himself in weren’t ideal, Morris didn’t have a single successful dribble after averaging 2.5 per game over his previous 10 starts.

One thing that’s becoming abundantly clear is that the Sounders’ fortunes will largely rest on how effectively Morris and Ruidiaz can carry the offense.