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Five thoughts about Sounders bowing out of the MLS Cup playoffs

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The loss to RSL marked their earliest-ever exit.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Rest versus rust is an eternal debate in sports, particularly when playoff season rolls around. Whether an extended break is better than playing right away is always in part a backwards-looking discussion. Sports is a results-oriented business, so the argument will always be colored by the result.

And results don’t get more gut-wrenching than this.

The Seattle Sounders didn’t play poorly against Real Salt Lake Tuesday evening at Lumen Field. In fact they dominated in just about every facet of the game. Except one. One very important one. The point of the match is to put the ball in the back of the net, and the Sounders couldn’t do it. It wasn’t for lack of effort, it wasn’t for lack of opportunities — though one could argue about the quality of those chances. But on the day, it just wasn’t happening.

After 90 minutes, there wasn’t anything to separate the sides. After 120 minutes, there still wasn’t. And when you leave your fate up to the PK gods, sometimes they answer the call, and sometimes they leave you on hold. That’s where the Sounders will be until next year, wondering what could have been.

They won’t be alone with those thoughts over the next six weeks, as the fans and front office try to assess how such a promising season went off the rails. But the autopsy on the season can wait for another day after the pain of an unexpected early exit from the postseason subsides.

Here are some thoughts from the game:

Out of time

Circling back to the rust vs. rest debate, a better question might be whether the Sounders simply ran out of time to fix what ailed them. Specifically, although the team managed its way through a potentially catastrophic injury crisis that also made it nearly impossible to adequately put the team in the best position to perform their best. Again, the Sounders were dominant in this match, but the whole thing was never cohesive. Maybe some credit should go to an RSL side that defended doggedly, and rarely seemed interested in coming out of their own half of the field, but nothing they did should have surprised the Sounders, as Cristian Roldan noted after the game. They simply didn’t have an answer on the day.

Frankenstein or Humpty Dumpty

The lack of answers might be attributed to a team that simply didn’t have enough healthy pieces in positions that would have given the team the best chance to win. Losing Nouhou to health and safety protocols was surely a blow, but it’s hard to argue he would have significantly impacted a defense that didn’t allow a shot all game. A better case could be made that Jimmy Medranda’s attacking dynamism from the left wingback position would have been far more helpful for the Sounders given the compactness of RSL’s defense. With limited left-sided options when Brad Smith couldn’t continue, head Brian Schmetzer was effectively forced to move even more pieces around, including bringing on an also-injured Alex Roldan. It was just too much, and yet not enough.

Together again for a short time

When Nicolas Lodeiro subbed on for Jordan Morris in extra time, it was only the fourth time that the Sounders had all three of their Designated Players were on the field together this year. Suffice it to say, getting your three best players on the pitch 105 minutes into the last match of the season is far from an ideal scenario, least of all when all three were dealing with injury and fitness concerns. That João Paulo was able to give the Sounders 120 minutes was a minor miracle, and Schmetzer confirmed that both Raúl Ruidíaz and Lodeiro were limited to injury. That isn’t why the Sounders are waking up with their season over, but one has to wonder what could have been with a fit set of Designated Players.

Quality in the final third

For all of the Sounders’ dominance, they were surprisingly ineffective where it counted: In and around the RSL penalty box. For all of his antics, RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa was rarely tested throughout the match. He was well-beaten on a near-wondergoal by Ruidíaz that hit the crossbar, but clear cut chances were in short supply. Only a handful of the 15 corners taken by the Sounders were in any sense threatening, and Schmetzer after the game wondered if they should have spent more time working on their own set pieces. It’s hard to assume a team will have a 15-1 corner advantage, but given the Sounders expected RSL to defend, perhaps that was something they should have planned for.

Home cooking goes cold

After the match, Cristian Roldan said that the match mirrored the season in many ways: Too many injuries and form failing the Sounders at the end. That includes the Sounders’ home form, which was pedestrian by MLS standards, and far below what the Sounders expect. The Sounders didn’t “lose” this match and there are no points in the playoffs, but the Sounders dropped another result at home. An 8-4-6* record at home was simply not good enough. It probably cost the Sounders a chance at competing for the Supporters’ Shield, it definitely cost the Sounders the top-seed in the Western Conference, and it absolutely cost the Sounders Tuesday evening.