There are times when you look back on a disappointing result and realize you missed the warning signs. I think about the run-up to the 2017 MLS Cup when the Sounders seemed to be brimming with confidence. Toronto FC, in contrast, seemed tight and nervous. Sure, Toronto had put together arguably the best season in MLS history to that point, but an upset did not seem remotely far-fetched.
We all remember how that turned out. In hindsight, it was naive to think it would realistically go any other way after TFC thoroughly dominated the Sounders in a 2-0 win that only wasn’t worse because Stefan Frei had arguably the single greatest half in MLS Cup history.
I’m skeptical hindsight will ever give us the same sort of clarity from Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew.
The Crew, let’s not forget, were missing two of their most important players. They found out they would be unavailable just days before this game. The Sounders were, effectively, at full strength, and I still think they had the talent advantage even if the Crew hadn’t lost Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos.
And, yet, you’d never know it from the game.
The first half, especially, will go down as one of the most disappointing performances in Sounders history, one that ranks down there with those 3-0 losses in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs. What makes this one arguably worse is not just the stage on which it happened, but that those demons had seemingly been exorcised. This was a team that had won eight straight playoff games, had two MLS Cups sitting in the trophy case and had such a wealth of experience and talent that World Cup veterans were sitting on the bench.
“It was one of our worst halves at the worst time,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said in a bluntly honest postgame assessment. “I don’t think we found a way into the game. They overran us a little bit. They were hungry, they were opportunistic. It’s asking questions with crosses, with dangerous runs. It was a daring first half on their end and it paid off. We weren’t ready for it. I don’t have an answer for it.”
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer was equally blunt, but also had little to offer in way of explanations.
“I absolutely think this game was a failure,” he said. “It wasn’t up to the standard we set for ourselves, that I set for myself. It’s my job to make sure the players are prepared and have tools to be successful. This performance was not a good performance from the Seattle Sounders.”
What’s so frustrating about all of this is that it’s so hard to understand why it happened. There are mild explanations, sure. Schmetzer said Nicolas Lodeiro was nursing a strained calf, which helps explain his relative ineffectiveness. But that feels woefully insufficient. The Sounders had a full complement of frontline starters around him, a group that had gone 9-2-0 this year and outscored opponents 30-10.
Lodeiro not being at a full 100 percent doesn’t itself explain why Jordan Morris couldn’t do more with the opportunities he had; why Raúl Ruidíaz completely disappeared in the first half; why João Paulo and Cristian Roldan had their least effective match together of the season. It can’t be that simple, right?
On paper, at least, this was a team seemingly built for games like this. The group had the skill, the flare, the bite, and had done it all in big games over and over again. For a brief period in the second half, around the 70th minute, it actually seemed like they might have another epic comeback in them. But Lodeiro’s attempt went just wide, Svensson’s open header was off the mark and the brief window of opportunity closed.
Maybe it all goes dramatically different if one of those goes in. Maybe the Sounders do a better job of handling the Crew’s press if Svensson had started or if Xavier Arreaga had been available. Maybe it all goes better if the Sounders had claimed just one more point during the regular season, earned the right to host MLS Cup, and didn't have to worry about the lost training due to travel.
As much as those things may have changed this outcome, they’re also mighty thin margins. This team should have been good enough to overcome them. This group had convinced me it was special. They had navigated a turbulent season with style, class and grit when needed. I did not think this group had a performance like this in them. That’s what makes it all so hard to process.
In 2017, it was obvious the Sounders needed to make some upgrades. This team will surely make some, too. But what’s so maddening is that even if they can improve around the edges, getting back into MLS Cup won’t be easy. They’ll also have the psychological weight of being shut out in 3 of 4 MLS Cups, having yet to score on the road.
“It sucks,” Frei said. “It’s a squandered opportunity. It sucks because the stars have to align to achieve something big. We’ve achieved some stuff here and there, but you don’t forget the ones that went through your fingers.
“No one remembers the finalists, they only remember champions. What will we learn? Hopefully something. It’s too early to tell you. I’ll get back to you.”
Hopefully, time and space allow them to learn from whatever went wrong. But it’s worth noting that nothing about this year has been normal. The Sounders are not remotely unique in the challenges they faced — and the Crew faced even bigger ones — but it’s probably worth taking the time to have some perspective.
The Sounders spent the better part of the last five months treating us to some of their most entertaining soccer ever. Established stars brightened, new stars emerged. The Sounders rose to new challenges both on and off the field and handled themselves better than anyone could have asked. Saturday’s result should not diminish any of that.
Given the emotional and physical toll they’ve just endured, you can hardly blame anyone involved with the Sounders for being in no mood for self-reflection.
“I find it trivial, almost, and am a bit embarrassed to have to talk about how disappointed I am in not winning a trophy,” Frei said. “There’s people that lost their lives this year and people that are still fighting. So let’s not forget about the first-responders, the workers, the people that are out there in hospitals helping everybody. Thank you for your work.
“Everybody, keep please wearing masks because we’re not out of this yet. There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel. But that’s the other thing, right? You can’t just now turn off completely. There’s still a pandemic going on. But I just need some time with my family.”