Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has been saying there might be a few more bumps in the road in the last few regular season matches, but it’s not likely he foresaw his team tumbling into a sinkhole.
Their short history in Major League Soccer notwithstanding, LAFC isn’t what they once were. It could be argued Bob Bradley’s side hasn’t been the same since they were unceremoniously dumped off their perch by the Sounders following the 2019 Supporters’ Shield winning season, in what is still regarded as a masterclass performance by Schmetzer.
Tuesday, was not that.
MLS being what it is, any team on a particular night can rise to the occasion. And even with LAFC a shell of their former selves, they still present a stiff challenge to any team in the league. Desperate for points to just make the playoffs, it was all but assured that the Sounders would have to withstand an all-out assault from LAFC. That’s what they got, and their response was found wanting.
Unable to deal with LAFC’s pressure, along with some defensive lapses and some clinical finishing, the Sounders once again found themselves behind early, forced to chase the game. Down 2-0 at the half, the Sounders found a spark to start the second 45 minutes. They nearly scored on a Nouhou header just after the restart, but it unluckily hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced out, denying him (and Sounders fans everywhere) the goal five years in the making. Any momentum they were building was gone a few moments later, when a deflected Cristian Arango shot caught Stefan Frei wrong-footed to make it 3-0.
The Sounders still remain in first place, but it will take a minor miracle for that still to be the case when they take the field next Monday as Sporting Kansas City will play their two games in-hand before then. At this point, though, the Sounders have bigger fish to fry, in trying to turn around a late-season swoon that threatens their MLS Cup aspirations that looked so bright just a month ago.
Here’s what we’re still thinking about:
Depth drys up
Make no mistake: The Sounders top-to-bottom are one of the deepest teams in the league. But in MLS, depth is a finite resource, and the Sounders have been drawing on their reserves perhaps more than is advisable. Tuesday, the Sounders started the match without any of their Designated Players on the field (and that doesn’t include Jordan Morris, who has been gone all year). While the backline was more or less intact, the midfield without João Paulo and a front line that lost Will Bruin to injury in the first half was a bit more Frankenstein and it showed. The loss of João Paulo was a killer in this one, forcing Schmetzer to pair Josh Atencio and Kelyn Rowe as a defensive midfield pairing for the first time ever, and their lack of familiarity was on display all game.
It was a poor performance
Schmetzer said he was somewhat pleased with how the team responded to the deficit, particularly in the second half when they created a fair amount of decent scoring chances. But this was not a good performance, and Schmetzer did not attempt to paper over that fact. In particular, Schmetzer was displeased with the disparity in duels won by his side in the first half, which he often sees as a quantifiable way to measure effort and desire. Knowing that LAFC has a history of pressing their opponents, and was desperate for points, it was surely disappointing that the Sounders seemed second best to every challenge and second ball while falling behind 2-0. It’s no wonder, then, that they were second best on the scoresheet.
Nico Lodeiro’s return a bright spot
It was a bit of a surprise when Nico Lodeiro returned from his injury and was mixing it up in training a couple of weeks ago. It was a minor shock when Schmetzer hinted that Lodeiro might make the trip to LA, as it was previously stated his timeline was behind Jordan Morris. So by the time Lodeiro posted pictures to social media of himself on the team flight, it came as a rather big relief, albeit with some trepidation. After all, Lodeiro returned over the summer and one golazo aside never quite looked right. But this time, there was more than a little bit of a hint of the old Nico, controlling the ball and providing some incisive passing. He also came a spectacular finger-tip save away from scoring his first league goal of the season. It was only a 25-minute cameo, and Schmetzer rightly noted the match was essentially over at that point, but the Sounders could surely use the boost that their captain promises to bring for the rest of the year.
More reinforcements on the way
The good news for the Sounders is that the big guns appear to be on their way back. Both Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris are expected to make their returns to the team next Monday against the LA Galaxy. After Lodeiro’s successful cameo, all indications are that they will push him for minutes in the next match. Safe to say, this comes not a moment too soon. While the Sounders have more than held their own over the course of the season, an MLS Cup run isn’t likely to happen with three of your most valuable players unavailabe. The question is whether two matches is enough time to get them fit for the playoff grind.
It’s not surprising given the result in LA, but Schmetzer had in some ways turned the page already on the match. Along with getting the likes of Lodeiro, Morris and Ruidíaz game fit, there is also the issue of figuring out the personnel fit. The 3-4-2-1 (or 3-5-2) has allowed Schmetzer to stabilize the defense this year (recent slump aside), but by his own admission may not be the best fit for Morris or Lodeiro (or Léo Chú, for that matter).
Schmetzer previously said he would normally spend the last 4-6 weeks of the season with a mostly set lineup, gearing towards the playoffs. He hasn’t been able to do that this year, and time is running out to get something resembling his best XI to make a playoff run. So the question will be whether a formation change is in order, or they try to fit some square pegs into round holes. Whatever they do, they’ll have to do it quickly. Particularly if they can’t hold on to the top seed and have a week less of preparation time than it appeared they’d get a month or so ago.