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Postgame Pontifications: The puzzle was never completed

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The Sounders ran out of ways to solve new problems.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — The faces of Cristian Roldan and Stefan Frei in the postgame press-conference was unmistakable. The distant look, the red eyes, the downward glances, the pursed lips, the fidgeting. This was the look of bitter disappointment, at two players who have enjoyed a shocking degree of postseason success, but who had suffered a fate normally reserved for others.

Their words effectively confirmed as much.

Roldan called it a “bitter end to the season.” Frei bemoaned the lost opportunity. Head coach Brian Schmetzer was even more blunt, saying “losing in the first round is a failure.”

The feelings were, of course, understandable. None of them had ever experienced a Sounders season that ended so ignominiously. The Sounders had never before failed to advance at least to the Western Conference semifinals. You’d have to go back to 2010 — long before Frei or Roldan joined the team — to find the last time the Sounders had failed to win at least one postseason game. In Schmetzer’s five previous postseasons in charge, the Sounders had gone a collective 15-4-2 and qualified for MLS Cup four times.

That this capitulation came at home — where they came in riding a 15-game playoff winning streak — and following a regular season that ranks among the best in franchise history, only added to the unexpected nature of it all.

The Sounders obviously expected more from themselves and I think it’s completely fair for fans to be utterly frustrated by that result. Where I’d urge some caution, though, is reading too much into what this all means.

I also think it’s fair to say the Sounders did some things well in the game. Although much of the postgame commentary has focused on how Pablo Mastroeni figuring out how to advance without his team even attempting a single shot was some sort of tactical masterclass, I think we probably need to give the Sounders some credit for that too.

It wasn’t as if RSL simply stopped trying to attack, the Sounders just did a very good job of not giving up transition opportunities. On the other side of the ball, the Sounders actually created several opportunities with numerical advantages, they just failed to do much with them. Perhaps the best example of this came early in the second half when Shane O’Neill created a turnover and then pressed into the attack with what started as a 4-on-2 break. The chance ended with O’Neill passing to an open Morris, whose bending shot went just high.

I have a hard time blaming anyone in particular for failing to convert this chance, but it was emblematic of the evening. O’Neill made a great play but found himself in the uncomfortable position of playmaker. He ends up waiting a bit too long to make his initial pass, but still eventually finds an open Morris. I’ve watched Morris bang in these chances almost automatically for weeks in training, but his footwork is just a bit off and he can’t quite keep his shot down.

The Sounders had similarly promising looks in the first half. Nico Benezet set up Morris for a quality look only for the shot to be blocked. Brad Smith had Fredy Montero streaking toward goal but hit his cross right at David Ochoa. These were not opportunities RSL wanted to give up, obviously, but the Sounders still needed to finish them.

As the game wore on, though, the chances seemed to dry up. While the Sounders continued to dominate possession, RSL settled more into a low block and practically dared the Sounders to beat them on a set piece. There, too, the Sounders found a few good looks but lacked that final quality to capitalize.

Roldan even suggested that the game itself was a sort of summary of the season as a whole. The strong start, the flashes of promise in the middle and an ending that fell flat.

Even before the Sounders started the 2021 preseason, there was a strong sense that they’d be short-handed at least part of the year. Morris’ loan to Swansea City had all but assured that. He’d either play well enough to trigger a permanent sale or he’d return in the summer. In both scenarios, the Sounders would play the first half of the season with neither Morris’ talent nor cap space.

The Sounders responded by altering their formation and leaning into other roster strengths. It worked remarkably well for much of the season. But their 13-game unbeaten run to start the year probably raised expectations unrealistically high. Over their final 21 games, the Sounders went 9-8-4 (1.47 PPG). That’s basically a 50-point pace, still solidly a playoff team, but not necessarily the record of a team you’d expect to compete for MLS Cup.

Focusing on those final 21 games is probably a more accurate way to view this team. That run of games was defined by inconsistency, both in the way the Sounders played and the personnel they used. During the middle of that stretch the Sounders were at their most dynamic, going 8-2-0 at one point and scoring 22 goals. But they went 1-3-1 in the five games before that stretch and 0-3-3 after it, never scoring more than one goal in any of those 11 matches. They also failed to repeat a single lineup in any of those 21 games.

Throughout that 21-game run, there was a sense that reinforcements were due to arrive any day. But just as quickly as players returned from injury or international absence, others would be unavailable.

It was as if the Sounders were constructing a puzzle while looking around for all the pieces. Each time they found one, another would disappear.

At no point were the Sounders ever able to field a starting lineup that was even particularly close to their ideal XI. The playoff game against RSL was about as close as they came all year to finally achieving that, but several of those players were still carrying injuries and, maybe more relevantly, had barely even trained together.

Disappointing as all this was, I’m inclined to believe the state of the roster is still stronger than it was at the close of last year. The Sounders do seem to have finally opened the pipeline of talent designed to flow from the academy to first team. The veterans who are here still appear to have a few years of productive years ahead of them. Depth has been identified and tested at virtually every position.

If this season was a step back, I’m inclined to believe it will facilitate two steps forward. The Sounders may not have completed the puzzle, but I think they at least now know where the to find the pieces.