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Postgame Pontifications: Hope that kills

Loss to Orlando may have been the most painful one yet.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Orlando City SC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

They say it’s the hope that kills you. Right now, the Seattle Sounders seem to be finding ways to die in increasingly excruciating fashions.

One can only hope it won’t get any more painful than Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Orlando City. Not only did the Sounders blow a two-goal lead for the second time this year — something they hadn’t previously done once since 2009 — but the winner came on a stoppage-time shot that deflected off Jackson Ragen. Just to twist the knife a little more, the goal was initially ruled out for an Orlando player being in an offside position, but was put back on the board following VAR’s determination that he was not directly influencing the play.

Combined with results elsewhere, the Sounders now find themselves six points out of a playoff spot with six games left to go. The Sounders’ streak of 13 straight postseason appearances is not officially over, but even players are now acknowledging the near hopelessness of the situation.

“There’s a mathematical chance, but this was a must-win,” Albert Rusnák said during one of the most honest postgame interviews I’ve ever seen on a Sounders broadcast. “We’re so many points behind the last playoff spot. We’ve been saying it for the last three months that there are so many games that we’re going to catch up, we’re going to catch up.

“We all have to look in the mirror and we probably should have a long time ago. It’s not an easy situation, I’ll be honest. It’s not an easy situation for us players. We always seem to find ourselves in tough positions at the end of the games or we get ourselves into tough positions by giving away PKs. All those small details add up and in the end, they mean we don’t get points.”

What made this result so hard to take wasn’t just the math or even the ultimate result, it was how all that contrasted to the way the match started. For the first 50 minutes or so, the Sounders finally seemed to be making their own luck, something Stefan Frei had urged them to do earlier in the week.

Even though they didn’t necessarily look sharp — hardly a surprise given the nearly two-hour weather delay — the Sounders still managed to grab the lead in the 26th minute through an absolutely brilliant Rusnák free kick. It marked the third straight game in which the Sounders led at some point.

Even after conceding a penalty a few minutes after taking the lead, the Sounders continued to make their luck. Frei came up with a massive save on the penalty and Jackson Ragen alertly blocked the rebound attempt. It genuinely seemed like the Sounders had finally turned a corner.

That belief was bolstered a few minutes after halftime when the Sounders put together a sequence that recalled some of their best play during their Concacaf Champions League run. Danny Leyva pushed a ball forward from deep in his own end, Nicolás Lodeiro found Jordan Morris on the wing and Morris dribbled around his defender to put in a dangerous cross. The ball deflected off the goalkeeper and Raúl Ruidíaz put away the rebound.

For a brief moment, it felt like the Sounders might actually find a way to turn this thing around.

But then a familiar fissure opened. On the ensuing possession, Facundo Torres found some space at the top of the penalty area and unleashed a shot that gave Orlando instant life. The Sounders did a decent job of calming the game in the immediate aftermath but then surrendered a second penalty on what was a rather innocuous corner when Morris got caught with his arm raised above his head. Orlando didn’t waste their second opportunity.

Frei did his best to at least preserve the tie over the final 20-odd minutes — making three saves on close-range headers — and the Sounders had a couple decent looks at their own winner, but Orlando was clearly on the front foot from the equalizing goal onward.

“It’s similar to what happened in Portland where we get the first goal and are on top of them, but then immediately a switch happens and we’re under it through at least the half,” Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio said. “We got a decent goal and then it happened again. It seems like right after we score our goals something is changing. We have to endure those times better and bend but not break.”

While the Orlando game may have been the most painful example, it also fits a larger trend. Ever since Brian Schmetzer took over as head coach in 2016, the Sounders have made a habit of coming up big when it counted most. They weren’t always at their best, but more times than not they were strong enough to weather storms and come out the other end. Over the last few months, particularly, they’ve simply looked fragile. The effort remains, but their confidence seems shaken in a way that feels completely foreign.

Just in the last five games, the Sounders have allowed three goals that cost them points in stoppage time; they’ve twice conceded goals on the possession immediately following a score; they’ve been whistled for four penalties; and they’ve lost four one-goal games. The Sounders have somehow managed to go 6-13-3 in matches decided by one goal or less, accounting for all but two of their now franchise-worst 15 losses.

There is a faint chance the Sounders can turn this around, but it seems almost cruel to count on that.

“It’s still a determined group,” Schmetzer insisted. “They are emotionally drained. They put a lot of effort into that game.

“But breaks aren’t going our way. It’s tough — really tough.”

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