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Postgame Pontifications: Down but not out

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Sounders have three games to get this season back on track.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — More than 48 hours later, I’m still frustrated. Yes, it’s the body-slam. But it’s Cristian Roldan’s shot off the crossbar. It’s Nouhou failing to appreciate that Johnny Russell was sneaking in behind him. It’s losing to Sporting KC at home — no matter the reason — for the second time this year.

What’s most jarring about this frustration is that by any reasonable metric, the Seattle Sounders have played a highly enjoyable season. Not since 2014 has a season been this fun to watch and follow from end to end. I suppose that may have lulled us all into a false sense of security, though, that somehow we’d be able to get through this season without ever wanting to pull out our hair in frustration.

But that’s where I’ve been for most of the time since the final whistle blew on Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Sporting KC.

If the Sounders had been able to manage even a point from that game, these final three games would have seemed much more manageable. Seattle would be sitting four points clear of the Colorado Rapids with three games to play and six points ahead of Sporting KC, making KC’s game in hand far less scary.

Instead, the Sounders face a final three-game stretch against opponents with tons to play for and all playing some of their best soccer. They’ll start with a road game against LAFC on Tuesday, then host the LA Galaxy next Monday before traveling to play the Vancouver Whitecaps in the season finale, a match that will also have huge Cascadia Cup implications. Those three teams are a combined 6-1-5 over their past four games.

But maybe playing a bunch of high-leverage games at the end of the season isn’t the worst way to prepare for the playoffs.

“It sucks, I don’t think it’s a setback,” Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe said on Saturday. “We’re still in first place. It makes it a little harder for us. It does hurt. We could have had an easier run. But we made a mistake and it cost us. That means we have to a have a playoff mentality for the next three games. Going into the playoffs, that could help us in many ways.”

I know there’s going to be some understandable skepticism about this, especially given the Sounders’ play over their past three games. I’m also not quite as down on their play as a lot of people seem to be.

I was as disappointed as anyone with the Sounders’ start on Saturday. Sporting KC exploited that with a goal in the 4th minute and were easily the better team through the next 25 minutes or so. But the Sounders adjusted their formation and by halftime had at least gotten back into it.

The second half was a different story. Through the first 10 minutes, Seattle was dominating possession and pushing numbers forward. After Tim Melia body-slammed Cristian Roldan, the Sounders turned up the intensity even more. Nico Benezet’s goal came shortly after play resumed. He had a glorious look at another open header just a few minutes later and Roldan had an even better look at a header from a João Paulo corner kick in the 63rd minute.

Between the 55th minute and the 79th minute, the Sounders out shot Sporting KC 7-0. It was starting to feel like the Sounders pulling ahead was just a matter of time.

But like good teams do, Sporting KC figured out a way to staunch the bleeding. They did it with a 38-pass sequence that allowed them to keep the ball for two full minutes. There was nothing particularly impressive about the first 35 passes in that sequence, as they mostly moved the ball around the midfield and defense. But you can see how the Sounders slowly lose their shape.

After spending the vast majority of the possession in a near perfect line with his fellow defenders, Nouhou gets sucked into the Sporting KC half when Tim Melia receives a pass. Melia’s pass to Ilie Sanchez effectively starts the attacking sequence. Sanchez then finds Roger Espinoza, who is allowed to dribble about 30 yards before picking out Johnny Russell at the far post. It’s only when Russell receives the pass that Nouhou starts to sprint, at which point it’s far too late. Russell finishes off what would turn out to be Sporting KC’s only shot of the second half.

It’s probably unfair to put that much blame on Nouhou’s shoulders — there were plenty of other opportunities for the Sounders to break up that sequence — but it does underscore how little mistakes can be costly. That the Sounders played as well as they did and came up short only underscores how frustrating those mistakes can be.

“We need to be better in those moments,” Schmetzer said. “You aren’t going to win championships if you give goals away.

“There’s so much talent in that locker room. There’s so much desire in that locker room. If you watch that second half, they were so good. They put everything into that game. But is it one little thing that lets your opponent get back into the game? That’s pro sports. That’s why everyone feels horrible. They put their heart and soul into game and I commend them for it.”

There’s rightly been a lot of focus on how the officials’ unwillingness to red-card Melia was a turning point in this game. Make no mistake, Melia should have been ejected. But I’m inclined to agree with Schmetzer when he said “that’s not why we lost the game.” If the goal is to win MLS Cup — and it very much is — the Sounders need to be able to use these setbacks to drive them forward. No season is free from frustrations; it’s how teams respond that defines them.