LOS ANGELES, CA — Coming off their come-from-behind, shorthanded victory against the similarly struggling Colorado Rapids, the Seattle Sounders got a taste of how the other half lives Friday night. The Los Angeles Football Club have — again — been all but anointed the inevitable MLS Cup Champions. If you’re tired of this narrative, you’re not alone. But in true Mean Girls fashion, MLS will keep trying to make LAFC happen, and the content will continue until morale improves.
Still, LAFC has more than a little bite to back up their bark, having used some creative negotiation to bring in some midseason firepower in their quest to finally add more silverware to the no-doubt glitzy (and barren) trophy case.
The Sounders, of course, have a mantle that is all but overflowing, adding the long-coveted Concacaf Champions League trophy in the spring. But the crown lies heavy, and coach Brian Schmetzer’s side has struggled to back up their continental bona fides in MLS play. Below the red line with 13 games remaining as they entered Friday night, the time is now.
Unfortunately for the Sounders, the time wasn’t right in LA, as despite a bright start to the game, they couldn’t maintain the momentum, and eventually succumbed to the LAFC’s pressure, and couldn’t really provide any of their own in a 2-1 loss. To be sure, a loss to Supporter’s Shield favorites on the road isn’t one they’ll likely lose much sleep over, but the increasing prospect of missing the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time ever is sure to cause a few restless moments, particularly as the days — and season — grow shorter.
Fast start for the Sounders
There may not be many good things to take away from this loss, but the the first 25 minutes of the match offered legitimate highlights that the Sounders can focus on. Schemezter’s side matched LAFC straight up, dealing with their pressure and giving as good as they got. It could easily be argued the Sounders were the better side in the opening half hour or so, and they got their reward in the 14th minute when Cristian Roldan turned LAFC over and dribbled into the penalty box, where his pass (shot) was somewhat comically deflected into LAFC’s net by Jesús David Murillo.
While the Sounders were still able to match LAFC for most of the first half, things changed about 30 minutes in, and they spent the remainder of the half trying to withstand sustained pressure from the home side. They received a brief reprieve when a Carlos Vela goalazo was called back by VAR due to a hand ball. But the equalizer always appeared to be coming, and the Sounders defense was finally breached in the 35th minute with another banger, this time from Kwadwo Opoku. The winning goal from Carlos Vela in the 43rd was less aesthetically pleasing but more than effective, though Stefan Frei would likely love another chance, as he nearly kept it out.
The Sounders pride themselves on making second-half adjustments, but whatever the team talk was during halftime didn’t land. The Sounders opened the half turning the ball over in dangerous positions, leading to a handful of chances that on another day (without some great goalkeeping by Frei) would have seen this match over and done with early. LAFC prides themselves on turning teams over in the midfield and creating chances in transition. And the Sounders seemed to play into that, with some sloppy passing or questionable decisions that left players exposed.
When a one-goal loss isn't close
There’s always the saying about games not being as close as the score indicates, and this would be Exhibit A in the dictionary. Particularly in the second half, save a quasi salvo at the end, the Sounders never looked particularly likely to score, and but for a lack of composure by LAFC in the final third, this game probably should have been wrapped up much earlier. Asked after the match if the Sounders could take anything away from keeping LAFC to zero on the scoresheet in the second half, both Jordan Morris and Will Bruin mostly demurred, lamenting the performance overall. Much like a cheetah that catches an injured gazelle and lets it run around for a bit, yes, it’s still alive and something crazy could happen, but nine times out of ten, you know how it’s going to end.
A gulf not in class, but in depth
What Saturday’s game laid bare is that the injuries sustained by the Sounders have finally exposed some glaring depth issues. To be sure, LAFC is a high-spending club, and has used the salary budget rules with ruthless efficiency. But that (and a relatively short injury list) has allowed them the luxury of bringing in the likes of Gareth Bale and Brian Rodríguez off the bench. The Sounders have essentially used their depth to cover the losses of Raúl Ruidíaz, João Paulo, and Obed Vargas, and without the ability to spend to bring in coverage, the they’ll have to do what they can with what they have. Or, they need to find some creative accounting gimmicks and marketing plans to bring in reinforcements.