One of the challenges of approaching each game like a “final” — as the Seattle Sounders have been saying they’re doing for the last several weeks — is that losing one of those games feels an awful lot like the season is over. That black/white approach served them well enough in seeming statement wins against the Houston Dynamo and Austin FC, but backfired pretty spectacularly in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The narrative of the game played out like so many others in this frustrating regular season. The Sounders started OK, had a defensive lapse that led to one goal, started pressing a bit and allowed another. They then made some halftime adjustments, created a few more chances but didn’t actually score until the 89th minute and then were forced to settle for yet another one-goal loss.
It was, amazingly, their 14th one-goal loss of the season. No other team in MLS has more than 12 one-goal losses.
“We put ourselves in this situation,” Fredy Montero said. “Now we have to lift our heads and recognize today wasn’t great, but the next few games are vital to keep alive our chances.”
Even securing a tie in a handful of these games would have put the Sounders in a much better position. But even as it stands, they’re only four points out of the final playoff spot with a game in hand on all but one of the five teams they’re plausibly chasing. With nine possible points still on the board, there is a realistic path, even if it’s one that has precious little room for error.
The path is clear enough that I’ll go as far as saying that winning out will almost certainly result in the Sounders extending their playoff streak. That would leave them on 48 points and looking at the schedules of those other teams, I think that’s going to be enough possibly even with room to spare.
The bigger question, then, is can the Sounders actually win out?
To be clear, that’s looking like an increasingly tall order. The first test might be the biggest: a home match against a much-improved FC Cincinnati in which the Sounders will be missing Nicolas Lodeiro (who picked up a very regrettable yellow card and will be suspended) as well as several internationals. After that they’ll visit Sporting KC, a team that has been eliminated from the playoffs despite claiming 14 points in their past six games and who’s riding a five-game home winning streak. The Sounders will close out the regular-season at home against the San Jose Earthquakes.
All three of those are winnable, but so was the Whitecaps game and we know how that turned out. Notably, this would also require the Sounders to win three straight games for the first time since winning four straight between Sept. 26-Oct. 9, 2021.
I say also understand there’s a big difference between believing a turnaround is possible and believing that one is imminent. The Sounders have been saying all the right things about knowing time is running out for months. They’ve acknowledged that their words are empty without actions that back them up. They’ve identified a host of recurring problems — mental lapses on defense, a seeming lack of urgency on offense, etc. — but failed to seriously remedy them.
It’s entirely possible that whatever is ailing the Sounders isn’t just going to get better, but I’m also inclined to leave room for hope.
The good news is that this team is full of veterans who have won plenty of big games, even relatively recently. For all their struggles, I think they’ve also shown that they’ve not given up on themselves and that there’s still plenty of fight. There’s no harm in us doing the same.