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Postgame Pontifications: Emotionally drained

Sounders looked like a team that was running on fumes against Sporting KC.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Sitting in Brian Schmetzer’s postgame press-conference — the first time it has been held in person since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic — there was an unmistakable sound. The press room is basically adjacent to the visiting locker room, and it’s not unheard of to make out the sound of celebrations occurring during the rare instances a road team comes out with a win.

But this was something different. The singing and cheering emanating from the Sporting KC locker room was more sustained and louder than any other that comes immediately to mind. The singing was first audible during the player portion of the press conference, with Shane O’Neill making a note of it. By the time Schmetzer took the podium a few minutes later, the volume was loud enough to be a legitimate distraction.

Asked what he made of it, Schmetzer essentially called it “fair play” given how the Sounders are fond of singing whenever they win a road game.

“I’m sure the opposing teams have heard ‘Jingle Bells’ and maybe that’s a little payback, who knows?” Schmetzer said. “I’ll certainly use it as motivation. But you have to give some credit to KC. They deserved to win.”

While it all may have seemed like a bit much for a win in July against a team missing about half their starters, Sporting KC earned the right to celebrate however they wanted. They had beaten the one team ahead of them in the standings, on the road, while missing a few of their own starters. It was a solid performance in which the visitors didn’t necessarily create a ton of chances, but were absolutely lethal with the ones they had.

The Sounders, for their part, looked like a team coming off an emotional win just a few days earlier. They started slow — especially in the midfield — and faded badly down the stretch. Aside from a promising 20-minute stretch following halftime in which they cut their 2-0 deficit in half and were a spectacular Tim Melia save away from an equalizer, they never really looked threatening after KC restored their two-goal lead in the 71st minute.

In a broader sense, it felt like the Sounders finally slipped off the tightrope they’ve been walking ever since injuries started piling up a month or so into the season. Seattle has never really had a full complement of starters at any point this year, but the list of unavailable players had grown to comical levels over the past month.

Still, they’d been grinding out results. In the three previous games in which they were short-handed enough to qualify to make “Extreme Hardship” signings, the Sounders had still managed to go 2-1-0. That, of course, included Thursday’s dramatic road win over Austin FC in which they started five teenagers, which kept them atop the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Maybe a letdown was almost inevitable, especially against a team that was clearly highly motivated.

“We had talked internally about this being a trap game,” said Schmetzer, noting that in some ways this mirrored the emotional roller-coaster of beating Minnesota United in last year’s Western Conference finals, only to come out flat in MLS Cup. “It’s just hard sometimes to get back up on the horse and provide another inspired performance. I thought we were lacking that a little bit, that little bit of inspiration. That we are at home, that we are going to come out on the front foot and we are going to do what we do. We just didn’t have that.

“We did not perform up to the standard of this club.”

Hoping to counteract that, Schmetzer had tried to tap into a bit of emotion surrounding the game. Former Sounders player and coach Jimmy Gabriel had passed away a couple weeks earlier, and his memory was being honored during the game. The Sounders wore “JG” patches, played a video tribute during the pregame and Schmetzer draped Gabriel’s old No. 6 jersey over his sideline chair.

“Unfortunately ... Jimmy I’m sorry,” Schmetzer said, briefly looking skyward and his voice briefly breaking. “It didn’t work tonight.”

Rather than giving off a sense of frustration, though, Schmetzer seemed more disappointed. It wasn’t so much in his players’ lack of effort — he never questioned that — but that he couldn’t inspire them to a better performance.

It’s in moments like these that Schmetzer stands out from his peers. While there was ample room for him to rant, rave and criticize, Schmetzer only offered potential areas for improvement while pointing out positives like the fight Josh Atencio continued to show late in the game.

Tape will be broken down, performances analyzed and, especially for some of the younger players, this will surely serve as an educational opportunity. But Schmetzer was more inclined to look forward, including two more games against this opponent.

“We’re going to give them two days just because they need a mental break,” he said. “The guys are mentally tired, you could see that in the game tonight.”

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