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Postgame Pontifications: Tainted glory?

How did a season with so much promise go off the rails?

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After months of waiting — even assuming — that the Seattle Sounders would finally turn around their regular season, the final nail was applied on Sunday. The 1-0 loss on the road against Sporting KC not only officially eliminated the Sounders from postseason contention — marking the first time they missed the MLS playoffs in 14 seasons — it also served as a broad commentary on how much of the season unfolded.

The goal the Sounders allowed was, once again, the product of sloppy play more than anything else. Yeimar Gomez Andrade started it with an ill-advised pass into the middle of the park that Sporting KC easily intercepted and immediately turned into a chance. Yeimar then compounded the problem by doing a poor job of tracking his runner and the Sounders went into the half trailing 1-0 despite a near Herculean effort in goal from Stefan Frei.

The Sounders mustered a couple decent looks on goal in the second half, most of them through Fredy Montero. At one point he finished a beautiful spin move by putting his 1-v-1 shot just wide, he drew enough contact in the box to warrant a VAR review of the play — only for referee Ted Unkel to stick with his on-field decision — and then he forced John Pulskamp into a tough save, his only one of the game.

Most frustratingly, though, the Sounders didn’t really look like a team playing for their season over the final 15 minutes or so of the match. During that stretch — again, with their season literally hanging in the balance — the Sounders mustered just a single shot, a 90th-minute attempt by Ethan Dobbelaere.

This did not go unnoticed.

“I was a little disappointed that there was some lack of urgency that we’ll assess and look at,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said, clearly showing some frustration. “That won’t happen against San Jose [in the season finale]. We just won’t let it happen.”

Frustrating as that ending was, it’s very clearly not the main reason why they will play their first-ever game with literally no ramifications on the MLS playoffs next week. The cause for that can be found at various points throughout the season.

There are any number of ways to illustrate how this season fell apart. Perhaps the most telling is the Sounders’ record in games decided by one goal or less: 7-15-4. Heading into the final week of the season, no other team in MLS has lost more than 12 games by one goal. Compounding that, the Sounders lost just two games by multiple goals. That’s tied with Supporters’ Shield-winning LAFC for the fewest in the league.

In other words, the Sounders were in basically every game they played this year, but did a remarkably poor job of getting points out of those games.

Another telling stat, although not applicable to this game: The Sounders lost five games in which they scored first, including two in which they led 2-0. Over the previous three seasons, the Sounders had only lost one game in which they scored first and they had never before in their MLS history lost a game in which they led by two goals.

“It would be wrong of us to say the season was lost just today,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said, after making 10 saves. “To keep losing games by one goal and have ourselves in advantageous positions where we are still finding a way to lose is very frustrating and very demoralizing.”

The bulk of those points were dropped during a summer swoon in which the Sounders seemingly forgot how to get points. In the 11 matches they played between a 2-0 road win over Toronto FC on July 2 and a seemingly season-salvaging 2-1 home win over the Houston Dynamo on Sept. 4, the Sounders went 2-8-1. That stretch included seven one-goal losses, three of them in games in which they scored the first goal, another loss where they gave up the game-winner in stoppage time, and a tie in a game they led after falling behind 2-0. Historically a very good road team, the Sounders finished with just one point in their final nine road games and just 12 road points all year, among the worst marks in the league.

Despite these failings, I think a lot of people both inside and outside the organization — like me — felt a turnaround wasn’t just possible, but likely. It wasn’t a purely faith-based argument, either. Not only had the Sounders been in similar slumps during previous seasons and managed to spring to life down the stretch, but this was also virtually the exact same team that won the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. It was the same team that went on a 6-2-1 tear almost immediately after the CCL and looked far more likely to make a run at a top seed in the Western Conference than one that would miss the playoffs entirely.

Following the win over the Dynamo, I interviewed Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey and he seemed especially confident about salvaging the season. Maybe it was an act, but there was a distinct sense that if the team could just settle on a lineup and string together a few positive results, it would be fine. Instead, there’s now a lot of soul-searching going on.

“To taint such a historic positive with a historic negative is tough to swallow,” Frei said. “We won the Champions League early on and at that point we made a conscious decision — ‘We don’t have to play the season if we’re done for the year.’ But we made a decision to put in a lot of effort, a lot of work and a lot of months of blood, sweat and tears. It wasn’t enough. That’s very frustrating. That means it’s about five months of work with nothing to show for it.”

As an isolated failure, missing the playoffs once in 14 seasons is hardly damning. There’s a version of this story where the Sounders come back mostly intact in 2023 and just get back to their winning ways.

That feels a little too easy, though, and probably a little naive, too. That Frei and Montero — the team’s two oldest players at 36 and 35, respectively — were probably their two best players in such a pivotal game is at least a little concerning. That in-their-prime stars Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris were both removed around the 75th minute due to fitness concerns and that Designated Player Raúl Ruidíaz didn’t even travel due to an injury suffered on international duty was at least illustrative of the season where the Sounders never seemed to have their best players available at the same time. The only two games where they had all of their ideal starters was for the two legs of the CCL final, and they only ended up playing four matches with as many as 10 of their ideal starters.

I don’t know if this was specifically a frustration, but Nicolás Lodeiro at least hinted at some problems that were a little bigger than a stretch of bad results.

“It was a very strange season for sure,” Lodeiro said. “We can’t say it was a bad season because we won CCL, but MLS was really a disaster. We paid for all the mistakes we made and we didn’t demonstrate what we are capable of delivering. The CCL was a great thing that happened, but it happened a long time ago and we weren’t able to rise to the moment on the MLS side.

“There were many mistakes, not only at the game. That’s the most visible side. There are many mistakes that happened at the player level, the coaches level and the club level. The CCL covered up many of these mistakes, but what happened will hopefully help us recover from these things and being able to solve them for the future.”

On paper, the Sounders don’t have a ton of flexibility. Virtually every player making significant money is already guaranteed for next year, meaning the Sounders will probably need to get creative if they want to seriously change the roster. Even if they don’t make moves, there’s enough talent here to suggest their championship window remains open for at least another year.

There’s a distinct sense, though, that we’ll start to get an idea of who the Sounders see as part of their future in the season finale against the Earthquakes.

“This game is over, this season is over for us, but in a way the next season starts right now,” Frei said. “We have one more game to play for the badge, to show what we can do, to play for jobs, to play for some honor in front of our fans.

“We have one game to display that and give people a taste of what we’re capable of. The last few months haven’t been very satisfying but hopefully we can give fans something.”

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