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Postgame Pontifications: The mystery of the flat performances

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To the degree the Sounders struggle, it seems to be against relatively bad teams.

Photo courtesy of Houston Dynamo Communications

The last time the Seattle Sounders led the Supporters’ Shield race was before the games on July 25. That day, the New England Revolution beat the Montreal Impact, while the Sounders lost to Sporting KC. From that day forward, the Revolution have provided scant opportunities to make up ground.

And on the rare occasion they do, such as Saturday when they surprisingly dropped two points at home by drawing the lowly Chicago Fire, the Sounders have failed to capitalize. This time the Sounders responded by losing 2-1 to a Houston Dynamo team that had won just 2 of their past 22 games.

That marked the fourth time the Revolution have lost or tied a game since July 25. The Sounders have not gained ground in any of their corresponding games.

Saturday’s result came just as the Sounders had seemingly gotten themselves back into the Shield race, having cut what was once a 17-point deficit down to eight while the Revolution were on an 18-day break between games. The Sounders now find themselves trailing by 9 with just five games remaining on the schedule, effectively sealing the Shield race.

And maybe that’s just as well. Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has repeatedly downplayed his team’s chances of catching the Revolution and would probably be happy not to have to address it again.

“We’re not talking about the Supporters’ Shield,” Schmetzer said after the loss to the Dynamo. “It would have been a miracle. We just focus on what we need to do in order to stay ahead of Colorado and Sporting KC. We just need to focus on ourselves. That performance shows us that we have to focus on ourselves, not just scoreboard watch.”

Schmetzer’s frustrations are perfectly understandable. Perhaps more important than wasting a chance to get as close to the Revolution as they’ve been since mid-August, the Sounders also had a chance to clinch a top 4 spot in the Western Conference and create some real breathing room in the battle for first place. Thanks to the Rapids and Sporting KC both losing their matches on the weekend, the Sounders were able to maintain their two-result lead over both opponents. But even a point would have put them in position to clinch the top spot in the West with wins in their next two games against those two teams.

Equally frustrating is that the loss vaguely seems to fit a pattern. If the Sounders do fall short of gaining home-field advantage through the playoffs, they’ll likely rue their performances in what on paper seemed like very winnable games.

For the season, the Sounders have gone 8-1-3 (2.25 points per game) against teams who were in a playoff position when they played, but are a less impressive 9-5-3 (1.76 PPG) against teams outside of playoff positions. Perhaps even more curious is the even wider gap between the Sounders’ road performance against playoff teams (2.33 PPG) and non-playoff teams (1.88).

Tempting as it may be, Schmetzer wasn’t quite ready to chalk up the loss to the Sounders falling into the proverbial “trap game.”

“We talked about that a lot,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t think that was the problem.

“The team suffered a little bit in their cohesion. I don’t think that group of players took Houston lightly. I think they understand that every point is vital.”

As far as problems go, beating good teams while not maximizing points against bad teams is probably not the worst one. It also makes the rest of the schedule look a bit more manageable. Of the Sounders’ final five games, three are against teams currently in playoff positions and the others are against teams who feasibly could be. And once the Sounders are in the playoffs, well, their 4-1-1 record at home against playoff teams seems to bode well for their chances of making a deep run.

Of course, maybe I’m overthinking this. The Sounders played this game only a day after their contingent of international players rejoined the team. Unsurprisingly, when the likes of Cristian Roldan are available the Sounders are 14-3-3 (2.09 PPG). When he’s not, they’re just 3-3-0 (1.50).

It’s not that the Sounders were necessarily bad against the Dynamo, either, they just lacked the sharpness that has defined much of their season. The Shield may be out of reach, but that has never been the primary goal anyway.

“It’s a setback, but this team has shown that they can rebound from subpar performances and still keep their eye on the prize,” Schmetzer said. “It’s not going to be easy … we get it, we understand it. We’ll move forward. We’ve done that always. Win, loss, it’s always the same process. We believe in the process. We’ll be OK.”