Like a slowly deflating bounce house, the air seems to have been coming out of the Seattle Sounders’ season over the last few months. What once was an exhilarating experience that featured arguably the highest high this organization — or maybe any MLS team — has ever enjoyed has devolved into something far less entertaining.
Following the tie against the LA Galaxy, head coach Brian Schmetzer suggested that was hopefully the low of the season — surrendering two points on a late VAR-awarded penalty — but the Sounders’ most recent result showed they clearly had a little bit more left to fall. It’s hard to imagine the mood getting much lower than it felt following Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers.
Coupled with results elsewhere around the league, the Sounders now find themselves four points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot and less in control of their ability to qualify for a 14th straight postseason than they have been before. It’s not that it’s remotely impossible for the Sounders to turn their season around, it’s just hard to imagine after their latest performance.
“Words are one thing and actions are another,” Schmetzer told reporters in what was probably his most somber postgame press conference of the season, in which he highlighted the failings of everyone from coaches to players. “The words are slowly not good enough anymore. The actions, their body language on the field, when they go into those duels or they have a half chance where they can maybe make it a full chance. We all have to do more instead of just talking about doing more.”
The frustrations on Friday were ample. There was a highly questionable penalty — just the latest example of VAR seemingly working almost exclusively against the Sounders this season — and there was a late look at an equalizer that hit off the underside of the crossbar, but managed to stay out. But the most galling aspect of the match was just how bad the Sounders looked for most of it.
Even after grabbing the lead, the Sounders never came close to controlling the match through at least the first 70 minutes. They struggled to string passes together or create any sort of cohesive attack. After Yeimar Gomez Andrade scored in the 7th minute on a well-worked corner kick routine, it was another 40 minutes until the Sounders attempted a second shot. They then went another 20 minutes before taking their third shot of the game. By the 70th minute, the Sounders were being out shot by the Timbers 14-2. The midfield was especially lost, with Danny Leyva and Albert Rusnák combining for just 65 touches, zero shots, no key passes and one successful tackle in their 138 minutes. That the score was just 2-1 probably said more about the Timbers’ inefficient attack than anything the Sounders were doing well.
Schmetzer often talks about the importance of scoring the first goal because it allows a team to dictate the game. That the Sounders failed to do anything like that was perhaps his biggest frustration. The Sounders lost possession 16 times during that 63-minute stretch. By comparison, they only lost possession 14 times in the entire LA Galaxy match a week earlier.
“The crux of the issue is we didn’t play well enough to win,” Schmetzer said. “If you remove the penalty — which we all know it wasn’t a penalty — that’s one portion of the game. The key for me was when you play from the lead you should be able to establish your tempo to the game.
“We weren’t able to control possession. If you don’t control possession you don’t control tempo.”
Somewhat miraculously, though, the Sounders were still close enough to potentially find an equalizer when the tide started to turn around the 70th minute. That’s when the Sounders finally got some control over the match, nearly tripling the Timbers’ possession and outshooting them 6-0 over the final 20 minutes.
The best look at an equalizer came in the 84th minute on a play that was a near carbon copy of the one Yeimar scored on earlier in the match. Alex Roldán collected a short corner and was left unmarked near the corner of the penalty area, allowing him time and space to whip in a nearly perfect cross. Jackson Ragen was first to it, rising well above the defense for an open look, only to have his header clang off the underside of the crossbar. Even more frustratingly, if Ragen had let the ball go — an unrealistic ask, granted — both Fredy Montero and Raúl Ruidíaz were waiting to tap it in at the far post.
Combined with the rather astounding penalty that allowed the Timbers to equalize — Eryk Williamson appeared to basically throw himself at Yeimar, who seemed to be trying to get out of his way — it was not hard to see how the Sounders could have salvaged a result in this game.
While a point — or even three — would have been very useful in terms of pushing the Sounders toward the playoffs, it wouldn’t have really changed the underlying reality that they continue to struggle. It might be true that simply gutting out a tough result is the first step on a tough path toward a genuine turnaround, but with each disappointing result it’s harder to see happening. The loss to the Timbers had the added gut-punch effect of marking the first time in the MLS era that the Sounders had been swept in the season series, something that never even happened during the A-League/USL era of the rivalry.
Still, I suppose there’s something positive to find in the players who see air in the bounce house and are determined to make the most of it.
“We have time, we have points,” Sounders captain Nicolás Lodeiro said. “We believe in our team, of course. We have a great team, we have many games. We know the situation is difficult, but we never give up.”