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Postgame Pontifications: Finally, reason for hope

It wasn’t a perfect performance or even an ideal result, but Sounders showed us something they haven’t shown in quite some time.

Photo courtesy of Sounders FC Communications

Ever since the Seattle Sounders scored a thorough road win over Toronto FC on July 2, they’ve been in a pretty steady decline. Thanks to the logjammed playoff field, though, the Sounders have managed to stay in the race despite going 2-6-0 in the next eight games following that match.

While they’ve stayed in the race, there have been precious few signs that they’re poised to make a serious run.

Disappointing as the ultimate result was in Friday’s 3-3 tie with the LA Galaxy, I think there’s reason to believe it could prove to be a turning point.

This was the first time in almost two months that the Sounders looked anything like the version of themselves that stormed to the Concacaf Champions League title through a combination of grit and quality.

Not to paper over the flaws — most notably a defense that is still allowing soft goals at a frustrating rate and an inability to close out the match — but I found the ability to rebound from a 2-0 deficit and to look genuinely dangerous for an extended period of time to finally be some real evidence that this regular season is salvageable.

“They put everything into the game and deserved three points,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “I couldn’t be any prouder of the way the guys dug down deep against a team that was desperate, too. That’s a massive positive.”

But before I dig into those positives, it’s probably worth ruminating on the first part of that statement. Despite falling behind 2-0 on the kind of goals the Sounders have been surrendering far too often during this slide — both the product of failing to close down an attacker — the Sounders stormed back to take a 3-2 lead only to surrender it on a stoppage-time penalty. Whatever you may think of VAR’s role in calling that penalty — while following the letter of the law, it seemed an unnecessary intervention as the Sounders did not gain an unfair advantage when the ball deflected off Xavier Arreaga’s arm — it came after an extended period in which the Sounders had been forced to defend deep.

From the point that Schmetzer benched Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro and replaced them with defenders Jackson Ragen and Josh Atencio in the 83rd minute, the Sounders were out-passed 77-16, outshot 4-0, and gave up three corners (one of which ultimately led to the penalty). In the 83 minutes before that, the Sounders had outpassed the Galaxy 444-427, outshot them 16-7, and had a 5-3 advantage on corners.

I think it’s an overstatement to say the “equalizer was coming”, but the Sounders were at least increasing the level of difficulty by going into more of a defensive shell than they had at any point until then.

The Sounders hadn’t exactly started out making it easy on themselves, either. Even though they were doing a good job of dictating the tempo, creating some good chances and generally looking like a team capable of grabbing a road result, they still managed to go into halftime trailing 2-0. The first goal came when they inexplicably allowed Chicharito Hernandez to gather the ball in space inside the penalty area, which he promptly punished them for. The second goal was a bit fluky, but came when no one closed down Victor Vazquez following a throw-in, giving him the time and space to float a ball to the back post that beat Stefan Frei.

At that point, it would have been easy for the Sounders to hang their heads. They didn’t.

Seattle responded by continuing the work they had started in the first half, and even dialed up the intensity. The first goal was mainly the product of Raúl Ruidíaz showing exactly why he’s so important to this team, beating his defender and then hitting a perfect cross to Kelyn Rowe at the back post. It was the exact kind of cutback pass that seems to have gone missing for the Sounders of this year and Rowe finished it perfectly.

If there was one sequence that changed my outlook of the team, it was the second goal. The whole sequence was about a minute long, featured Albert Rusnák putting two shots off the woodwork, Jordan Morris having a close-range shot blocked, the Sounders keeping pressure by winning rebounds and second-balls, and ultimately getting the reward when Nicolás Lodeiro found Ruidíaz for an open header.

I don’t know if one sequence can turn around a season, but I think this is the kind of play that has that potential. There was skill, tenacity and, most importantly, execution. We’ve known the Sounders had all of this, but it has rarely been put together like it was here. That the Sounders followed it up by getting the go-ahead goal about 10 minutes later only served to bolster the point.

The problem facing the Sounders right now is not mathematical. Another week of reasonably friendly results has left them still just a single point out of playoff position and still vaguely within striking distance of a top 4 spot. The bigger concern has been one of form. Until this result, there was little reason to think they could actually string together the necessary results to make a serious move not only up the table but in the playoffs. This performance at least allows for that possibility.

“This team believes we can do great things,” Lodeiro insisted. “We deserved to win. It serves as a push, every point counts and this gives us motivation for the next.”

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