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Postgame Pontifications: Not up to their potential

Sounders are stuck in a bit of a rut right now.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It was only nine days ago that I wrote a relatively glowing review of the Seattle Sounders’ first half-season. The Sounders had already won Concacaf Champions League, were solidly in the MLS playoff race and had realistic hopes of climbing into the top 2 of the Western Conference. It’s not that weren’t any concerns, but they felt pretty surmountable.

Two consecutive losses later — and three in their last four — I don’t think the fundamentals have really changed, but the mood out there seems to be a lot more dire.

It might be a good time to take a step back and both re-assess my earlier optimism and address some of the problems we’ve seen in the last couple games.

Let’s start with the Sounders’ position in the table. Thanks to most of the other Western Conference teams struggling to do much, it’s not really that different than it was two games ago, despite the Sounders slipping to eighth. While a run at the top 2 spots in the West feels a bit less likely — the Sounders would need to make up a 13-point gap — getting into the top 3 is as doable as ever. The Sounders are just four points out of third and two out of fifth with a game in hand. If the table outlook is not as good as it could be, it’s also far from dire.

Of perhaps more concern is the actual play and some of the weaknesses that seem to have been exposed during this stretch, a fair amount of which can probably be chalked up to rotating personnel. Beyond João Paulo’s absence, the Sounders have been missing presumed starters Obed Vargas (five games), Raúl Ruidíaz (five games), Xavier Arreaga (four games) and Stefan Frei (two games) for varying amounts of time in recent weeks. The replacements for these players have at times all performed well, but it’s been hard to gain any consistency when the Sounders have used three different pairings in their double-pivot and three different centerback combinations in the last four games.

That’s not to let the Sounders off the hook completely, however. Simply put, the Sounders have been close enough to full strength during this period that they shouldn’t be struggling to score as much as they’ve been, nor does that explain the defensive lapses that have led directly to goals.

On Wednesday, the Sounders were playing solid defensively — if a bit stuck in their own end — until Nicolas Lodeiro badly misjudged how much time he had and gave the ball away in the midfield. Certainly, a regrettable error. But Nashville was able to turn that into far too easy of a counter-attack opportunity by simply putting a ball over the top. Despite having three centerbacks on the field, two Nashville attackers were able to get behind the defense and score what amounted to a tap-in.

“We can’t lose the ball in that area of the field and our active defending has to be better,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said of the sequence. “If a team comes out and beats us fair and square, that’s one thing. But I hate losing when you give away goals that, in my opinion, are preventable. You have to be able to keep a clean sheet. Tonight we weren’t able to do that.”

Of course, that’s just one goal. The Sounders have scored at least two goals in nearly half of their games this year and had enough first-team attackers on the field to be dangerous. In the first half they were anything but, with just two shots and none between the 3rd and 45th minutes.

A formation and personnel change when Danny Leyva and Will Bruin entered in the 57th minute at least allowed the Sounders to finally hold some possession and create some decent chances. Leyva was particularly effective, completing 26 of 27 passes and putting in the defensive work that allowed Nicolas Lodeiro to move up a line into his more natural No. 10 role. Leyva also came inches away from scoring his first MLS goal, a shot he ripped from about 25 yards out that went just wide.

Danny Leyva’s action map.

Bruin’s stats didn’t jump off the page quite as much — he was credited with just nine touches — but his willingness to just be a presence in and around the penalty area seemed to give the Sounders midfielders more space. Bruin also came inches away from scoring, but his redirection of a Nouhou cross went agonizingly wide as well.

Their performances were in contrast to the Sounders attacking starters. Fredy Montero (one), Jordan Morris (one) and Cristian Roldan (two) combined for just four touches inside the penalty area and one total shot during the first 57 minutes. The Sounders as a team attempted only 67 passes in the attacking third of the field during that time, about half as many as Nashville. Over the final 33 minutes, the Sounders attempted 105 passes in the attacking third, compared to just 31 for Nashville.

Some of that disparity is down to the gamestate — Nashville was content to protect their lead — but a good deal of it was also the Sounders just being more active in their passing and pursuit of second balls.

“As a team we struggled in the first half,” Roldan said. “We have to look at ourselves, not just the starting XI, the guys on the bench and the coaching staff. As a unit we have to be better.”

The Sounders’ problems are not lack of talent or know-how. This is a team that has already shown they can play with some of the best teams on the continent. In Brian Schmetzer’s words, though, they currently aren’t playing up to their potential. For this season to fulfill its potential, that needs to start as soon as possible.

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