SEATTLE — The Western Conference title is, again, up for grabs.
Saturday’s matchup between the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City had no shortage of talking points coming into the game. The top two teams in the conference had each won on the other’s home turf. With a win or even tie, the Sounders had the chance to essentially put the nail in the coffin of SKC’s chances to wrest the top spot from them.
But a slow start and an early conceded goal put the Sounders under the gun, and for most of the rest of the first half, they struggled to get a foothold in the match. However, some adjustments and a likely halftime lecture from head coach Brian Schmetzer seemed to light a fire under the Sounders, and they took the game to SKC for most of the remainder of the game. They got their reward in the 58th minute when Nicolas Benezet’s close-range header leveled terms, giving the Sounders the clear momentum.
Before that, there was the small matter of a minor dust-up in the 55the minute. And by “minor dust-up”, I mean borderline assault.
With the Sounders on the attack, Cristian Roldan was taken down by Tim Melia with a maneuver that doesn’t appear to be on the list of what are generally considered defensive soccer moves in the scope of the run of play. Melia’s transgression was deemed only worthy of a yellow, though the MLS Disciplinary committee might have a second look.
With Melia still on the field, the Sounders had little trouble creating chances after scoring the tying goal, but somehow allowed Johnny Russell to get in behind their defense. As he does seemingly every time he plays against the Sounders, he punished them, slotting the ball past Stefan Frie in the 80th minute.
The Sounders had ample chances to get a result, the best of which came from Cristian Roldan in the 94th minute, but his shot bounced off the crossbar, and that was that. It’s a damaging loss which effectively blows the Western Conference race wide open. The Sounders will play again on short rest, traveling to Los Angeles on Tuesday to battle a now in-form LAFC side desperate for points.
Here’s what we’re thinking about now:
Slow start costs Sounders
Whether it was tired legs or the early game-time, the Sounders seemed to arrive to the match about 4 minutes after the game started. That cost them dearly in the 3rd minute, when SKC worked a give-and-go with Russell, who sent a cross into the box that forced a Stefan Frie parry. The Sounders weren’t able to deal with the deflected ball, seemingly a step slow to close down the approaching SKC attackers. To add insult to the injury, the resulting shot from Remi Walter was slightly deflected by Yeimar Gomez Andrade, sending it past Frei who likely would have saved it.
Johnny Russell kills Sounders
Even with Dániel Sallói a late scratch from the game, Sounders fans could be forgiven for considering Russell the true threat in the match. Russell just kills Seattle, having now scored six times in seven appearances against them. Russell started the sequence that led to the first goal, and the Sounders inexplicably lost him on the second as he was able to find himself one one one against Frei. Russell clinically put the ball past him into the net. Some day, the Sounders might find a way to neutralize Russell, but Saturday was not that day.
Sounders not clinical in front of goal
It’s one thing not to play well. It’s another thing to not create chances. But you can’t say either of those things plagued Sounders Saturday afternoon. No, it was a lack of composure in front of goal that doomed the Sounders’ comeback. Time and again, the Sounders found themselves in dangerous positions. Each time, the pass was just a little off or the wrong decision made. And when the Sounders did find themselves with a gilt-edged chance, luck wasn’t quite with them. The good news is that these are things that tend to even out, but better not to rely on that when the playoffs arrive and it’s a one-off affair.
Whether you give credit to SKC, or fault the Sounders, it might be different sides of the same coin. In the post-match presser, Schmetzer was less inclined to praise SKC, and given the run of play one can understand why. Had the Sounders been outplayed, one might tip the hat to Peter Vermes’ tactics, but they weren’t. What they were was punished for a slow early opening, and a defensive lapse late. Sometimes that’s enough, particularly when the killer instinct is missing in front of goal.
Melia should have been sent to the showers
That Melia was still on the field after sending Cristian Roldan to the ground with a move that actually made The Rock’s radar was confounding in and of itself. That PRO deemed the play to not rise to the level of a red card at the time of the incident, upon VAR review or after the match defies credulity. What Melia did was not a soccer move that could be excused as clumsy or ill-timed. The force behind it could easily qualify as violent conduct. Simply put: PRO’s explanation makes no sense. Whether the MLS Disciplinary Committee sees it the same way will be an interesting watch over the next few days. A suspension would likely take out Melia of action for two games, so the punishment would be steep. Though perhaps Sounders fans shouldn’t hold their breath.