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Postgame Pontifications: Short bench could be costing Sounders

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Brian Schmetzer has tightened his rotation over past couple weeks and had little to show for it.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

One of the earliest criticisms of Brian Schmetzer when he took over as the Seattle Sounders head coach was that he often erred on the side of relying on his veterans and shortening his bench. What started as a willingness to give someone like Herculez Gomez minutes over the likes of Aaron Kovar has more recently taken the form of playing Miguel Ibarra over Handwalla Bwana.

Schmetzer has acknowledged a desire to go with proven commodities over up-and-coming players — often stating that minutes are earned in training, not handed out with blind hope — and it’s impossible to deny that his methods have mostly been successful. No coach in MLS history has won more consistently over a similar period of time than Schmetzer.

But in a year like 2020 when the schedule is as congested as it is, it’s fair to wonder if a different approach is warranted.

Sunday’s game was at least a potential example of the strategy’s shortcomings. The Sounders started the match with just five outfield players available off the bench. Schmetzer explained that Román Torres (illness) and Miguel Ibarra (family emergency) were last-minute scratches and due to travel arrangements were unable to be replaced. Even if they’d been available, though, the Sounders were leaving a spot open on the bench with at least six seemingly healthy bodies left at home.

Then again, with Schmetzer’s recent substitution patterns, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Despite playing on three days’ rest and for the fourth time in two weeks with a starting lineup that was largely unchanged throughout, the game ended with an unused sub.

It was the fourth straight game in which Schmetzer chose not to use his full allotment of subs and the third time in four games that he’d left at least one open spot on the bench. The Sounders also averaged just 1.75 changes to the starting lineup per game during that time, with Cristian Roldan, Nicolas Lodeiro, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Nouhou, João Paulo, Jordan Morris and Stefan Frei starting all four matches. Roldan, Lodeiro, Gomez Andrade, Nouhou and Frei also played all 360-plus minutes of those matches.

Asked about this tendency earlier in the week, Schmetzer insisted he’s not just being stubborn.

“In the game against Portland when everyone said we looked tired, all the (physical) stats say it was our highest output game,” Schmetzer said. “We rely on the data. When we were looking at Jordan earlier in the year, when he was having a MVP-like season, we went through his (fitness data) and did a deep dive into what is the best situation for Jordan Morris? That’s what we do on a routine basis.”

While that may be true, it’s hard to deny that something has been off with the Sounders over the past few weeks. The Sounders have gone 1-2-2 over their past five, been eliminated from the Supporters’ Shield race and will likely need to win their final two games if they are to retain any hope of finishing atop the Western Conference standings.

Possibly adding a degree of difficulty to that task is the likelihood that Schmetzer gave strong indications that he’ll need to rotate his lineup a bit for Wednesday’ game against the Galaxy.

If not physical exhaustion, it’s quite possible the Sounders need a bit of a mental break. This was the second time in five games the Sounders had lost to a team on shorter rest than them.

“I wish I could figure out a way to give the players the right tools to be successful in those games,” Schmetzer said on Sunday. “I don’t think we showed enough patience.

“We wanted to extend possessions and wear them down. We didn’t do that.”