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Postgame Pontifications: Form matters until it doesn’t

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By failing to win any of their final six, the Sounders’ vibes have been left in tatters, but they can still turn it around.

Jane Gershovich / Sounders FC Communications

To state the obvious right off the bat, ending the season on a six-game winless run is not how anyone wants to head into the playoffs. Unfortunately, that’s the exact situation the Seattle Sounders find themselves in after their 1-1 tie on the road against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday.

The performance itself was not particularly bad, but also continued some of the problems that have plagued the Sounders through this winless run.

The Sounders managed to take a lead for the first time since Oct. 9 — with Cristian Roldan drawing the penalty on a flicked header that was handled by a defender and Fredy Montero converting the penalty in the 8th minute — but it was relatively short-lived. The Whitecaps equalized in the 20th minute when the defense lost track of Ryan Gauld, who was able to get an open look at a header despite the Sounders having numbers in the box.

Gauld’s shot was one of just five for the Whitecaps — yes, five, which tied a season-low for the Sounders defense — but those shots were mostly high quality, with an average xG value of more than .2. To put it in simpler terms: The Sounders did a good job of limiting shots but a poor job of limiting chances. The goal was the product of seemingly losing just a little bit of focus at the worst possible time.

“We had a good season, but the lapses in concentration in the last five games let us down or we could have been in first,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said after the game. “Playoffs are often decided by one play, and you can’t have a lapse in concentration on any play. We need to do a little bit better.”

As I pointed out last week, the margins between success and failure are always pretty thin. That’s been especially true during this slump. The Sounders have actually had the xG advantage in four of the past six games and were at least .5 better in two of them. If the Sounders had collected even one more point, they’d have finished first in the Western Conference.

In many ways, the Sounders looked good against the Whitecaps. They had a decisive advantage in duels (46-33), out-shot Vancouver 10-5, and had a couple late chances to grab all three points. But it would also be overly charitable to say the Sounders decisively deserved better in this game or in any others. Schmetzer doesn’t have to be overly critical to find lapses, and what’s most frustrating is that they seem to be similar situations where someone just sort of loses a mark. They’re the kind of mistakes players make when they’re mentally spent.

In that sense, maybe this break comes at just the right time. Five players will be off to join their respective national teams. Even if they don’t play, they’ll be in situations that require maximum attention. Thanks to the way the playoff schedule worked, they should all get close to a full week of training with the Sounders before the playoff game on Nov. 23.

Perhaps even more important to the Sounders’ chances to make another long playoff run will be some of the players who are sticking around — namely João Paulo, Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris. These are their four highest-paid players, all of whom have proven themselves to be big-game performers.

What’s been almost taken for granted at this point in the season is how much the Sounders have already accomplished this year without full-season contributions from any of these players. João Paulo, Lodeiro and Ruidíaz weren’t even available for the Whitecaps game and Morris was only able to come off the bench. Collectively, they’ve only played about 43% of the available minutes this year. Of that group, João Paulo played the most with 2,536 minutes, which ranks 58th in MLS. Ruidíaz logged 2,147 minutes, which ranks 144th in the league.

Part of why I’ve been so bullish on the Sounders’ chances, even during this stretch, was the belief that most of these players would be at something close to 100% by the playoffs. Whether or not that’s actually going to happen is now a very open question.

If you’re looking for a positive spin, it’s that by finishing second the Sounders have one more game to integrate these players. To the degree there’s added risk by playing an additional game, I’m not sure there’s a compelling argument that suggests they would have fared any better against the winner of Timbers-Minnesota United than they will against RSL.

This team has shown itself capable of putting together a good run and I’m inclined to believe the first 28 games are at least as predictive of their future performance as their last six. But I understand why the mood around the team is bad. Whether you think the more recent form matters more or less is now a bit beside the point. Form matters until it doesn’t. They need to perform now or they’re going home early.