Deep down, we all knew this day was coming. As much fun as it might have been to dream about an MLS team joining the ranks of the world’s “invincibles”, I don’t think many of us were even willing to talk about the prospect of the Seattle Sounders going undefeated as a thing to realistically aspire to.
That the Sounders’ first loss of the season came in July, 14 games into a season in which they’ve been missing key starters in literally every match, is not just an MLS record, but something we should take a second to appreciate.
“I’m so proud of how the players adjusted, fought adversity,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in a rare moment of reflection after the game. “It’s a sign that the standard at this club is very, very high. I’m proud of the fact that we started the season with 13 unbeaten. They never quit. In that sense, I’m very proud of putting another record together.”
How much adversity did the Sounders face during this record-breaking start?
In Sunday’s game, for instance, they were missing 12 first-team players through injury, international call-up or loan, which left them with just 13 available outfield players prior to making two short-term signings. Those 12 missing players accounted for about 55% of this year’s salary budget, more than 30% of the total available minutes this year, and 56% of last year’s goals and assists. All but one of those 12 players had been unavailable for at least two games this year and among the nine who weren’t missing due to loan, the median number of games missed was six (or about 43% of the season). Brian Schmetzer has been forced to field 11 different starting lineups this year and the only player to have started every game is Raúl Ruidíaz.
All of which is to say that the Sounders not only put together the longest-ever unbeaten run to start a season in MLS history, they did it with a patchwork lineup that often featured remarkably inexperienced players.
Just as remarkably, the patchwork was often hard to spot. While it would be silly to suggest that the Sounders have always looked like world-beaters, they’ve been competitive in every match, including the loss to Minnesota. The Sounders have beaten their opponent by xG in 11 of 14 games — despite rarely playing from behind when those numbers often get inflated — and the United loss was the first time they were beaten by at least 1.0 xG. (United won the xG battle 1.8-0.6, but it was essentially even prior to the 80th minute).
Prior to the sequence that started with Robin Lod being tugged down from behind by AB Cissoko and ended with Lod finishing off a deflected cross for the eventual game-winner, the Sounders had actually looked like the team that was more likely to score. In fact, if Xavier Arreaga had held up his run just a fraction of a second longer, the Sounders probably would have already had the lead. Between the water breaks in the first and second halves, the Sounders were finding pockets of space with Fredy Montero repeatedly putting Ruidíaz and Jimmy Medranda into dangerous positions.
The Sounders certainly weren’t as clinical or as threatening as they had been during their previous meeting against Minnesota, but a 0-0 tie was looking like a perfectly fair result through 80 minutes.
That sequence shortly thereafter can’t be ignored, but nothing about it struck me as particularly concerning as far as signally impending doom.
More than anything tactical, the key to leaving that loss behind will likely be more physical and mental. The Sounders will come home so briefly that they won’t even train here before heading back on the road for Thursday’s match at Austin FC, and they will be lucky to get a full day of training prior to hosting Sporting KC on Sunday. If Nouhou still isn’t fit by Thursday, the Sounders will have to sign three more players to short-term deals just to make up numbers as Xavier Arreaga will miss that game on yellow-card accumulation and the Roldans will still be away at the Gold Cup.
Schmetzer won’t be using any of that as an excuse. The Sounders are still leading the Supporters’ Shield race and intend to go into every game with the mentality of favorites.
“We’ll regroup and start again because that’s what we do,” Schmetzer said. “We’re not satisfied with saying ‘We’ve won 13 and this stretch is going to be pretty tough, let’s see if we can snag a point here …” We don’t do that. It’s not in our DNA.”