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What’s at stake for Sounders in final week of the season

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Sounders can still win the West or finish as low as third, and the Cascadia Cup is still up for grabs.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The penultimate match day did little to clear up the Seattle Sounders’ outlook for the 2021 regular season. Although Sporting KC’s loss to Minnesota United allowed the Sounders to move back into the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference, they did it with a tie in their final home match of the regular season. That means they can still finish anywhere from first to third in the standings.

Here’s what you need to know in this final week:

Who’s left on the Sounders’ schedule?

The Sounders’ final game of the season is on Sunday at the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Sounders are 1-0-1 against the Whitecaps this season, but both of those games were at Lumen Field. The first meeting was a 2-2 tie and the most recent one was a 4-1 win, which was actually the last game the Sounders won against anyone.

The Whitecaps currently sit seventh in the Western Conference table, two points clear of No. 8 Real Salt Lake, but with two games left to play. The first one is tonight at LAFC, who are three points behind the Whitecaps and sitting ninth in the table. If the Whitecaps win this game, they’ll clinch a playoff spot.

The Whitecaps have been on quite a run lately, having lost just twice since July 7 (10-2-7) and are 3-0-1 since that loss to the Sounders.

Who is Sporting KC still playing?

Second-place Sporting KC still have two one games left. The first one is on Wednesday at Austin FC. Although Sporting KC is 1-0-1 in their previous meetings, it’s notable that both were played at Children’s Mercy Park and were both well contested.

Austin has mostly been pretty bad — which is why they’re last in the West — but have actually been OK at home, where they are 6-8-2 overall and 3-1-0 in their last four. (Update: Sporting KC lost that game 3-1.)

If KC drops points in that game, it sets up a pretty massive Decision Day match at home against Real Salt Lake, a team that will likely still be fighting for a playoff spot. RSL won the only previous meeting between the teams this year, 3-1 on May 1. Like Sporting KC, RSL also have a Wednesday match, at home against the Portland Timbers. (Update: RSL lost to the Timbers, which means they need to win their season finale to have any hope of making the playoffs.)

What about the Rapids?

The Rapids have just one game left, hosting LAFC on Sunday. LAFC won their previous match, 2-1 on May 22, and are guaranteed to be playing for their playoff lives no matter what happens tonight.

How can the Sounders win the West?

As of this writing, it’s at least theoretically possible that the Sounders could lose on Sunday and still win the West. That would require neither Sporting KC nor the Rapids claiming more than one point in their remaining games, with the Sounders somehow scoring five six more goals than SKC in the process, or for SKC to lose their final two games. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen.

A more plausible scenario would require the Sounders to win their final game, putting first place out of reach for the Rapids and forcing SKC to win at least one of their final two games. (Update: The Sounders will win the West if they beat the Whitecaps or at least match the result of the Rapids and Sporting KC.)

Is finishing second so bad?

Honestly? If the Sounders win their final game and still finish second, I’m perfectly OK with that. Not only would they be guaranteed home-field advantage until the conference finals, they’d also get a spot in the 2022 Concacaf Champions League, thanks to the U.S. Open Cup getting canceled this year.

It’s also worth noting that the Sounders didn’t win the West during any of their previous four runs to MLS Cup. In fact, of the 16 MLS Cup finalists since 2013 only one of them — Toronto FC in 2017 — was a No. 1 seed. In that same time, nine No. 2 seeds have advanced to the final. Only one of those playoffs was played in the exact same format as this year’s — 2019 — but the jury is definitely still out on how valuable the first-round bye ends up being.

Even without the bye, every team is going to get at least 12 days off and some will get 15 days between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs. It looks like the winner of the Western Conference will be playing on Thanksgiving, which doesn’t strike me as much of a prize, either.

But finishing third would kinda suck, right?

As a practical matter, finishing third is hardly a death sentence for a team’s MLS Cup aspirations. Since 2013, three No. 3 seeds have made the final along with three more teams who were even lower seeds, and three teams seeded No. 3 or lower actually won the whole thing, including the 2016 Sounders who were a 4 seed.

But finishing third would mean the Sounders would be heading into the playoffs on a six-game winless skid. The only other time they entered the playoffs on a streak like that was in 2013, when they went 0-4-2 down the stretch, won their first playoff game and then got ignominiously bounced from the playoffs when the Timbers thrashed them 5-3 on aggregate. I feel like the demons of that campaign have mostly been exorcised over the past eight years, but I don’t think any of us are interested in opening that portal just to see if it actually still leads to hell.

I also feel like finishing third would just be a bummer. The Sounders have played so well and overcome so many challenges during the season’s first six months that finishing so low in the table wouldn’t do all that work justice.

Given our home form isn’t playing on the road almost preferable?

It’s true that the Sounders will finish 2021 with more road points (30+) than home points (29) and have posted their worst home PPG of the MLS era (1.71), but I’m still inclined to prefer home games over road games in the playoffs. As frustrating as the Sounders’ struggles have been, it’s probably worth noting that stoppage-time shots off the woodwork were all that came between the Sounders and four additional points at home (Timbers +1, Sporting KC +1 and Galaxy +2). Add those three results to their record, and the Sounders would have finished 9-2-6 at home (1.94 PPG), which is basically in line with their historic average (2.00).

It’s not that the Sounders “deserved” those improved results, but I think it fairly illustrates how fine the line is between satisfaction and frustration.

I’ll also point out that the Sounders are currently riding a 15-game home playoff winning streak, which includes a 12-0-0 record at Lumen Field in the playoffs under Schmetzer. In contrast, they’re 3-4-2 in road playoff games under Schmetzer. I think I’d prefer to take my chances at home.

Isn’t the Cascadia Cup still on the line, too?

Great point! Even if this final game didn’t have a bunch of playoff implications, it would still decide the Cascadia Cup. The Sounders have won the last two Cascadia Cups — 2018 and 2019, after last year’s was canceled — and can become the first team to ever win three straight since ECS, Timbers Army and the Southsiders first started awarding the trophy in 2004.

The Sounders currently have a three-point lead on the Whitecaps and a sizable lead on goal-difference, the first tie-breaker. In order to break the Sounders’ hold on George, the Whitecaps would have to win by at least four goals.

Of course, it would probably be preferable to just win that game and make all of this a lot simpler.

Western Conference tiebreakers

Team Points Wins GD GF Disc. Pts Games
Team Points Wins GD GF Disc. Pts Games
Sounders 59 17 20 52 54 1
Sporting KC 58 17 19 58 59 1
Rapids 58 16 13 46 80 1
Updated on Nov. 4