Sometimes even the best marketing campaign can’t help a box office flop.
The Seattle Sounders' “Summer with the Champs” was cleverly billed as a way to take a bit of a victory lap after their historic Concacaf Champions League triumph in the spring. The celebration of that victory — which might seem like a lifetime ago at this point — was to culminate with the banner drop in front of the Portland Timbers. Which it did. Of course, that party was decidedly spoiled on the day, and the Sounders haven’t had a chance to celebrate since.
The latest spoilers came courtesy of the perennially cellar-dwelling Chicago Fire, although after their 1-0 victory over the Sounders Saturday evening, Seattle has little reason to look down their nose at one of MLS’s most hard-luck franchises. Once again, the Sounders didn't necessarily play poorly, but the Fire were hardly great, and one mistake left Brian Schmetzer’s side behind early, as has often been the case during this rut.
The early deficit left the Sounders scrambling, and but for some heroics from Stefan Cleveland, things might have been done and dusted before the final whistle. The Sounders managed to turn things around throughout the second half, but they never had the real quality to truly challenge Gabriel Slonina.
So much like the weather in Seattle, the “Summer with the Champs” show has been late arriving and underwhelming. For now, the Sounders will have to hope for a revival on the second run.
Sounders look like they’ve hit a wall
There’s a reason that teams that make a deep run in CCL typically have a difficult time in the league season. They take a physical and emotional toll on the side, which many don’t recover from. The Sounders have played significantly more matches than most sides, and they’ve racked up a fair bit of frequent flier miles to boot. The Sounders built their squad to withstand some of the fixture congestion, but MLS squads still have limitations on how deep you can truly construct a squad. And even then, most coaches will rely on their top players — as anyone would. But the consequences are there to see.
The offense has disappeared
If the Sounders’ tired legs are cause for concern, three shutouts in a row is “press the red button” time. The absence of Raúl Ruidíaz has obviously hurt the Sounders, but this is still a team with the likes of Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and Nico Lodeiro fit and playing. Dropping Albert Rusnák back a line may have been borne out of necessity, but this is a player with a history of double-digit goals and/or assists, who has one of each thus far. And while nobody expects a Chad Marshall-less backline to rack up the goals, one would hope for more of a contribution from a group that has tallied only two goals on the season.
The depth—where is it?
Ruidíaz’s absence has brought into stark relief the scoring issues, but João Paulo’s (and later Obed Vargas) injury perhaps was the most damaging of all, as it had a cascading effect that has forced a rotating cast at the defensive midfield positions. Dropping both Lodeiro and Rusnák back hasn’t worked, and while Lodeiro said after the match that he will always do whatever is necessary to help the team, he much prefers the ‘10’ or advanced role. Given the Sounders’ roster issues, they may need to find reinforcements outside the organization, though the “unicorn” plan should best be reserved for fairytales.
Set piece offense not taking up the slack
The Sounders were a little more effective from dead ball plays on Saturday, which to be sure is not saying a whole lot. When the offense is sputtering, a solid set piece attack can generally grab a handful of goals on the year, which can be the difference between a top-4 place in the playoffs and not. Or making the playoffs...or not. One would think the Sounders could have accidentally grabbed their share of goals on set pieces, but the delivery has generally been so pedestrian that there haven’t been many opportunities to make their own luck.
If it wasn’t early then, it definitely isn't now
Thanks to MLS’s almost pathological need for parity and a tightly bunched middle of the conference, the Sounders recovered quite nicely from their early season struggles, but continuing to hope for favorable results while they drop points is a good way to end up 6 points below the MLS playoff line in September while clinging to ever more fantastical playoff scenarios in the faint hope you’ll squeeze in as the 7th seed. It happens to be sure in MLS, but the season is well past the mid-point, and with no DP’s walking through the door, the Sounders are going to have to find it within themselves to cure what ails them.