Under the vast majority of circumstances, the Seattle Sounders losing at home to a team as bad as Inter Miami would justifiably elicit rage, if not necessarily panic. One such exception, however, might be the circumstance that unfolded on Saturday.
Coming off a highly emotional and physically taxing match against New York City FC on Wednesday — from which the Sounders earned a spot in the Concacaf Champions League finals — head coach Brian Schmetzer opted to swap out 10 of 11 starters. Most of those players got back into Seattle around 4 AM on Thursday and only got one full day of training together. Perhaps predictably, the Saturday’s starters played like a group that was pretty unfamiliar with one another, even if they were individually pretty good players.
Even given those circumstances, it’s probably a good thing that the players seemed genuinely frustrated and maybe even a little pissed that they lost 1-0 to a team that had never beaten a Western Conference team, came into the match having given up a league-high 15 goals, were sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table and were missing several of their highest-paid players.
Add in Garth Lagerwey’s first-of-its-kind live pregame address to fans and Marcus Hahnemann’s “scarves up” beer chug, this had the look and feel of a game the Sounders should have won easily no matter who they put on the field.
“For a team that is as deep and as quality as ours, every game we should be expecting results,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland, who was making just his second appearance of the season. “Everyone is frustrated. Here, every game is the most important game. We were all excited about Wednesday, but that was Wednesday and we needed to focus on tonight. To be fair, I think we did. Nobody is reminiscing on Wednesday, but we can’t do anything more about tonight. Now we have to focus on San Jose.”
I think that’s probably the right attitude all the way through. For all the changes the Sounders made, I have a hard time questioning the decision-making process behind it. I’m also of the mind that the lineup had plenty of talent to get a result, especially against this opponent.
“They’re pissed,” Schmetzer said. “I think it’s great. You have a lot of players out there with a lot of pride. You can go down the roster… they aren’t happy.”
For the players to be upset about a missed opportunity is understandable and maybe even admirable, as Schmetzer suggests. But they were also put into a very suboptimal situation.
If there’s room for second-guessing, it’s that Schmetzer may have overplayed his hand. I think you can go down the lineup and justify each individual decision. Whether it was veterans like Will Bruin, Fredy Montero or Kelyn Rowe or younger players like Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva and Abdoulaye Cissoko, all have done enough to justify turns in the starting lineup, especially in a game as eminently winnable as this one.
But the result suggests that such a full rotation was a significant gamble. On the balance, the Sounders played well enough to have at least deserved a point. Based on the various statistical models, a 1-0 Miami win certainly wasn’t the most likely outcome, but it was one well within the margin of error.
The Sounders held a 20-9 shots advantage, fired off 11 of those shots from inside the penalty area, and were the better team almost across the board statistically. But they also surrendered the single-highest value scoring chance, and Robbie Robinson’s goal came on a shot that was at least twice as likely to score as the Sounders’ best effort.
The question then — was it a justifiable risk? I think the answer to that is still “yes.”
Schmetzer often talks about how the most important game is always the next one, regardless of the competition. But that’s something designed to shape the attitudes of players, not one that is supposed to exclusively determine tactics. This was a great example of the coaching staff setting reasonable priorities.
“The objective was to lower the risk of injury for the starters, give a chance to some experienced guys to lead some young guys, and bring in some substitutes to try to win the game. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as planned.”
To take it a step further, Schmetzer has managed to oversee a team ethos in which there are no games on the schedule that are simply conceded. Over the course of the season, I think that will pay dividends and it’s part of why I’m not too worked up about the Sounders sitting on seven points through six league games. This is a team, let’s remember, that’s 5-3-4 in all competitions this year. Plug that 1.58 points per game into the Supporters’ Shield standings and they’d be 8th overall. Their overall goal-difference is +9, which would rank third-best in the league on a per-game basis.
None of this makes the loss to Miami any more acceptable, but it does fairly temper my frustrations.