SEATTLE — The stage was all set. The Seattle Sounders had their biggest in-stadium crowd of the season — including a reasonably packed Brougham End — and a broadcast television audience to boot. The Sounders entered the match on a roll that seemed nearly as sustainable as it was impressive. Their opponent was another in an ever-growing line of challengers for their status as marquee team in MLS.
Not that they needed it, but a win would have put an emphatic stamp on the start of Seattle’s season and sent them into their final game before the June international break on a dead sprint.
The crowd was juiced. As the players entered the field, the rhythmic boom-boom-clap welcomed them with a noise and energy unseen around these parts for at least 15 months. There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.
Just to cap it all off, the sun broke through the clouds moments before the opening kick, bathing the field in a perfect afternoon light.
The match began with the frenetic energy you’d expect. Both teams seemed happy to trade punches and counter-punches, racing out into transition. The Sounders struck first off a corner, Raúl Ruidíaz rising above his defender to score his sixth, and it looked like all the world that the Sounders would get the latest of what has been a string of statement wins.
Except they didn’t.
For all the good feelings surrounding the match and the way it started, the Sounders were never able to harness that momentum. The transition opportunities, on which they’ve been so lethal this year, kept fizzling out for one reason or another. A misplaced pass here, a missed runner there. The will was ever-present, but the usual crispness was more flat.
“It’s always easier to destroy things than create things,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the post-game press conference. “You need to have the right balance of defending and attacking movements, but today we fell short in one of those areas.”
Going through the game, I found no fewer than four pretty massive scoring opportunities on which the Sounders did exactly that. Without boring you with each of them, these are two particularly egregious misses:
I'm sorry, but here's yet another one. Bruin is basically in on goal with a better pass, instead he's put out way wide. pic.twitter.com/WuLe6exQq1— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) May 24, 2021
The first one is a bit tougher because Cristian Roldan’s passing lane is a little complicated, but he looks like he gets caught between trying to pass and trying to shoot. If he had been able to get it to Will Bruin, however, he could have basically walked it into the net.
The second one is probably the more painful because the Sounders had already done the hard work. Roldan is in space, the near side defender has to commit and leaves Bruin all alone. All Roldan has to do is roll the ball forward and Bruin is in. Instead, he mishits it, sends Bruin wide and the chance fizzles.
The game was full of moments like this. Whether that’s comforting to know or adds to the frustration is hard to say.
Perhaps more concerning was how little the Sounders were able to dictate the pace of the game. While they were surely going into this one willing to let Atlanta hold the bulk of possession — they lead the league in that category — the Sounders were effectively forced to transition from a 3-5-2 into a 5-3-2 where the wingbacks were mostly stuck in their own end, as illustrated by the passing network.
“We did create half-chances throughout the game,” Roldan said. “We didn’t get too many numbers into the box unfortunately. I think that’s due to not having possession in the final third. We can’t get numbers in the box if we can’t keep possession.”
The good news is that despite all their frustrations with failing to dictate tempo or push forward as much as they would have liked, the Sounders were in position to win this game until the 85th minute, and not just through last-ditch defending. For all their possession, Atlanta failed to create almost anything from open play. If you remove the penalty, they had basically the same expected goals as the Sounders (0.3).
We’re almost getting to the point where the Sounders can assume they’ll get a good defensive effort. The three-man backline has proven that it can hold up. But this game also provided a reminder that transition moments are likely where the Sounders are going to win and lose matches. The Sounders should be proud that they’re officially off to the best start in franchise history (17 points through 7 games).
But make no mistake — three points were there for the taking. Over the course of a season, points will be unexpectedly dropped and these are hardly disastrous. But for probably the first time this year, the Sounders did not rise to the moment.
“The lesson learned was similar to the question I asked after LAFC: Was it two points dropped or one gained?” Schmetzer said. “There was a feeling then among some guys it was a good result against a quality team. But I don’t think anyone can say it was anything but two points dropped tonight.”