SEATTLE — One of the enduring strengths of the Seattle Sounders under head coach Brian Schmetzer is their ability to perform in big games, especially at home. The Sounders are 12-0-1 at home in the MLS Playoffs and 6-0-1 at home in Concacaf Champions League play under Schmetzer. That includes home wins in 2019 MLS Cup and 2022 CCL final.
For whatever reason, that dominance has not always translated into the regular season and especially not against the Portland Timbers.
The latest frustration came on Saturday, a 3-0 loss to the Timbers. Not only was it the Sounders’ worst shutout loss to the Timbers in the nearly 50-year history of the rivalry, but it also ran their home winless run against their biggest rivals to six regular-season games.
“To fall flat on our faces like that really sucks,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters. “This much I can guarantee you, we’re going to try and fix it so that the next time they come up here, we won’t have this storyline any further.”
What was particularly hair-pulling about this particular loss wasn’t so much the lopsided scoreline. I think anyone who watched the proceedings understands that the Sounders were very much in this game until the late penalty and that there were large stretches in which they were legitimately the better team.
Give credit to the Timbers, though. They came in with an idea of how to play — absorb pressure and be lethal on the counter — and executed just about perfectly. There’s no shame in anything they did.
But the Sounders didn’t do themselves any favors, and weren’t done any either. There were several missed scoring chances in the first half. Most painful was Raúl Ruidíaz striking the post off a wide open shot from about 10 yards out. That’s a shot that seems so automatic that watching a replay feels like an optical illusion.
“Raúl isn’t going to miss that chance ever again,” Schmetzer told me on Monday.
Another self-inflicted wound was Jackson Ragen managing to pick up two relatively pointless yellow cards on either side of halftime. The first one came on a contested header in which Ragen won the ball but got his elbow up a little high, which ended up being one of the last plays of the first half. After being reminded to “be careful” at halftime by Stefan Frei, Ragen made another silly mistake less than a minute into the second half. Seemingly caught between two minds of falling back or attacking the ball, Ragen was late to a tackle in an attempt to break up a counterattack near midfield.
It wasn’t entirely Ragen’s fault — the Timbers had already eluded some pressure — but playing it conservatively would have been prudent, especially since he still had cover.
“Great, great learning experience for him,” Frei said about Ragen’s tackle. “That’s what he needs. Those are growing pains you need to have. If everything goes smoothly, you’re never going to learn.
“I have full confidence in him. He’s a very good player and I’m happy he’s on our team. He’s got a very bright future.”
The second goal was another problem somewhat of the Sounders own making, as it came while they were effectively playing with nine men. Fully three minutes before the goal, Ruidíaz began signaling for a substitute after appearing to re-aggravate the muscle injury he had just returned from. With coaches and players both screaming to play the ball out, the Sounders managed not to get a substitute in despite winning a free kick and a corner during that time. The sequence that led to the goal, in fact, came directly off that corner.
“In some ways, I can admire a team that wants to go, go, go, but we have to be smarter about it,” Schmetzer said.
In a different category of frustration was the no-call on Nicolás Lodeiro being taken down in the box a few minutes after Ruidíaz’s miss. Replays clearly showed that Lodeiro won the ball and that José Van Rankin got nothing but man on his poor tackle. Yet neither referee Chris Penso nor VAR official Daniel Radford felt compelled to formally review it.
Not to make too much of it but broadcast showed a replay that’s very cut and dry. Lodeiro clearly wins ball, van rankin clearly takes out leg. No debate by @stuholden and @JohnStrong. pic.twitter.com/vUpHLsJP06— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) July 10, 2022
That call is not why the Sounders lost, of course, and the team understands that. Schmetzer spent much of the following 24 hours thinking about what could have been done differently.
One idea he comes back to is that it’s possible the Sounders were a little too amped up. Not normally one for fiery pregame speeches, Schmetzer said he was more animated than normal prior to the Timbers game. Cameras caught Frei sharing in those emotions during his on-field speech just before kickoff. When the Sounders didn’t convert their early chances and then watched the Timbers score on one of their first, maybe there was a let off.
But Schmetzer also isn’t inclined to overreact too much. Maybe more than anyone, he understands how important it is for the Sounders to end this ridiculous winless streak at home against the Timbers. He’s also inclined to keep in perspective.
“That team we have gets up for big games,” Schmetzer said. “That’s one of their strengths and it shows. We’re also not perfect.”
Schmetzer is also confident that this loss won’t have a hangover effect during this upcoming road trip, in which they’ll play two games in quick succession against Nashville SC and the Chicago Fire.
“They have a sense of pride,” he said. “I think they’ll come back strong, but it’s not anything more than the normal course of business for a veteran-led team.”