If there is a match that was a microcosm for the Seattle Sounders’ 2021, it might have been their regular-season finale against the Vancouver Whitecaps. With a chance to finish at the top of the Western Conference, a supremely shorthanded Sounders side fought valiantly on the road, managed a goal on a penalty, but couldn’t hold the lead due to a lapse in concentration.
While they created some additional chances throughout the match, they lacked that clinical sharpness in front of goal, and the adjustments weren’t quite enough to secure the full points. As a consequence, they surrendered their hold atop the Western Conference. Due to results elsewhere, the Sounders still managed to hold on to second place, meaning at least two home playoff games should they advance.
Under the circumstances, it certainly wasn’t a total loss, frustrating as it might have been. Retaining the Cascadia Cup on enemy soil, and qualifying for the Concacaf Champions League surely qualifies as a successful regular season.
But it could have been more.
As it is, the Sounders still have at least two weeks in which to get healthy and settle on a rotation — something they’ve not been able to do at any point this season, really. Failing to capture the bye is a setback, but given the injuries and need for game time, maybe the additional game isn’t a bad thing.
Assuming they win it.
DP’s gone missing
When Raúl Ruidíaz re-aggravated his injured hamstring (for the third time) against the LA Galaxy, fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. Fortunately, the MRI revealed no structural damage, and Ruidíaz was training last week, even if only to side. When João Paulo and Nicolás Lodiero joined Ruidiaz on the injury list, one could wonder if the Sounders would ever have a first-choice lineup to pick from. It certainly didn’t come against the Whitecaps, with none of them even making the trip. It’s been par for the course in a year in which the Sounders have never had a full complement of players. That the Sounders were able to grab a goal, and even a chance to win at the end, is testament to the depth they’ve developed and the fight they’ve displayed this year. But at some point, they’ll need to get more that one their big guns back on the pitch at the same time, if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs.
What’s going on with Nico?
Speaking of never being quite right, what a frustrating year for Nico Lodeiro. Injured prior to 2020 MLS Cup, Lodeiro only ended having nearly as many surgeries (two) as starts (four). After not even making this trip, there’s a good chance it could just be this way for the remainder of 2021 and Schmetzer revealed after the match that Lodeiro’s return is very much up in the air. And even if he does return, fans probably shouldn’t expect a 90-minute performance with Schmetzer suggesting he’ll likely be limited throughout.
Jordan Morris working his way back
If Lodeiro’s up-in-the-air status is a black cloud, Jordan Morris’ return provides a silver lining. Morris came on at halftime, and while he didn’t get on the scoresheet, he did give the Sounders a solid 45 minutes. Returning from his ACL surgery only last week, a full half of action provides a springboard to see him potentially start the first playoff match against Real Salt Lake in two weeks. Morris’ skillset is something the Sounders don’t have, and with Lodeiro likely out, a fully fit Morris can provide the Sounders with another option, particularly in the playoffs when teams become more compact and “Route 1” tactics become necessary.
The good news is that the Sounders were defensively solid for the latter half of the match, not giving away much to the Whitecaps who struggled for ideas as the game went on. Unfortunately, the Sounders were caught napping on the goal they conceded in the 20th minute, when Yeimar Gomez Andrade was beaten to a ball by Ryan Gauld, who nodded it past Stefan Frei to level the match. Schmetzer noted after the game that those are the types of plays that send teams home in the playoffs, when an otherwise solid defensive performance can be undone by one lapse in concentration.
Decision Day Dud
The schedule seemed so tantalizing. Ten of the 13 matches on Decision Day had the potential to impact the standings, with every goal scored having the potential to send teams up, down or out of the MLS Cup Playoffs. In the end, not much changed. The Eastern Conference basically ended the way it started, with all of the teams that started the day in the playoffs staying there. And with Colorado blitzing LAFC early and often, and the Sounders and Sporting Kansas City stuck in neutral, the only mystery was whether MLS would miss out on having any teams from California or Texas in the playoffs (the Terrible Texas Trio being eliminated long ago). As it turned out, the best was saved for last, as a 95th goal from Damir Kreilach sealed a 1-0 victory for Real Salt Lake, and catapulted them past the LA Galaxy into the 7th spot, where they’ll face...the Seattle Sounders. As for the California and Texas teams, they can resume their arguments over who has the best Mexican food.