SEATTLE — For the first time in their modern history — dating all the way back to their original rebirth in 1994 — the Seattle Sounders played a game without any playoff implications. It was not a position many of us could have imagined as recently as a couple of months ago, but few could argue it was a well-deserved one.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the season finale against the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday ended up being a bit of a microcosm of the season.
There was the promising start, a potentially redemptive middle and ultimately a frustrating ending as the Sounders were unable to hold 1-0 or 2-1 leads before settling for a 2-2 tie.
Despite getting the second earliest goal in franchise history — coming off a beautiful strike from Nicolás Lodeiro just 23 seconds in — and adding another Lodeiro golazo in the second half, this marked the ninth time this year the Sounders failed to secure three points in a match they led. Those nine games have cost the Sounders 23 points. A year ago, the Sounders dropped points from winning positions just four times that cost them a total of 10 points. If the Sounders had been able to equal that, they’d have secured enough points to finish third in the Western Conference.
The Sounders allowed the first equalizer just three minutes after taking the initial lead, another persistent problem this year. It was the fifth time they had surrendered a goal less than five minutes after scoring and the third time that had happened in their last 10 games. The Sounders dropped six points in those last three games, enough to have made up the difference between missing and making the playoffs.
“It was a frustrating night,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland, who got his first start in about three months after it was revealed that Stefan Frei had been playing with a detached ligament in his ribs. “We controlled the game really, really well and gave up two goals we’ll be disappointed in when we look back at them.”
Depending on your perspective, these stats can lead to several different conclusions.
On the optimistic side, it’s tempting to chalk this up to the kind of thing that might be fixed by the re-introduction of an on-field leader like João Paulo. The defensive midfielder appears to be progressing well from ACL surgery and should be back in time for next season. It’s at least within the realm of possibility that he’ll return to something close to his MVP-caliber form of 2021 and the Sounders will just return to their winning ways.
The more pessimistic will probably seize upon these struggles as evidence of systemic failure. They’ll see it as proof that the Sounders simply aren’t responding to their coaches or that the talent just isn’t there. In this version, the Sounders are only at the start of a much-needed rebuild that could take years to actually be completed.
It will be, perhaps, unsurprising that I fall somewhere in the middle. Hope, it is often said, is not a plan. For all the Sounders have done well over the years, even great organizations can fall into bad habits. A winning organization is often reluctant to make changes for fear of unnecessarily rocking the boat. As General Manager Garth Lagerwey recently said in an interview, missing the playoffs provides an opportunity to take a serious look at various processes.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer hinted that one of those things may be in how he handles players.
“I’ve been pretty much a players’ coach — if that’s a label I want to put on myself — and there are times when guys take advantage of that,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll try to tighten things up as far as timings, trainings, we’ll take a look at that.”
Schmetzer didn’t really elaborate on what he meant, but I think part of it could be related to the idea that the roster felt a little stale. That’s not just because it only changed slightly from last year and even less during the season, it’s that there never seemed to be a real sense of internal competition for spots. With rare exceptions, the depth chart never really changed from week to week. If starters were available, their spots were effectively written in ink. That may sound a little counter-intuitive when you realize that 21 different players got at least five starts — two more than last year — but that mostly speaks to how much rotation was forced by injury or international duty.
Fostering this sort of internal competition has long been a challenge for MLS teams who still don’t have the roster flexibility that facilitates it, but there is enough young talent on the roster to suggest it’s at least possible.
I’m hardly the first to observe that this was a very strange Sounders season. The historic failure of making the playoffs must be placed into the context of coming only months after the massive accomplishment of winning CCL. Suggesting this season was a failure is to be completely trapped by the present. But that’s not a reason to resist change. In order to remain one of the top teams in MLS, the Sounders must evolve. Hopefully, this facilitates the next big step.