SEATTLE — It wasn’t as dramatic as the collapse against the Portland Timbers, but in its own way the loss to Sporting KC on Sunday was nearly as frustrating. The Sounders came into the match 17 points clear of Sporting KC in the Western Conference standings, riding a five-game home unbeaten streak in which they had not allowed a goal and were facing an opponent that was one result away from equalling the longest winless streak to start a season in MLS history.
It took the Sounders less than four minutes to concede their first goal and they found themselves two goals down just about 30 minutes into the game, the most goals Sporting KC had scored in a single game this season and more than they had scored in their previous 535 minutes.
The Sounders eventually pulled a goal back and had some decent looks at an equalizer, but never were able to apply the type of sustained pressure that you’d expect in a matchup like this.
Perhaps more concerning is that it extends a run of less-than-ideal results that extend to that aforementioned Timbers game, a stretch in which the Sounders have scored just three goals in four games.
I don’t think it’s time to panic or anything, but the reality is the Sounders are entering a tricky stretch that could leave them in a much less positive position if they aren’t careful.
Here are some of my observations from the game:
Getting left back all wrong
The Sounders had to make at least one big gamble with their lineup. With both Nouhou and Kelyn Rowe out, there were no obvious left back replacements. Complicating that decision was knowing Johnny Russell was going to be running at whoever was in the spot. Schmetzer decided to go with experience in moving Alex Roldan across the field. Roldan had previously played left back against the Galaxy and didn’t exactly look great doing it, but the alternative choices were to play equally inexperienced Reed Baker-Whiting or Cody Baker.
Unfortunately, Roldan looked even worse against Sporting KC. He never looked comfortable on the left side, either defending or in possession and was probably lucky not to have been sent off. Moving him over also took away his biggest attribute, which is acting as an extra attacker.
Mercifully, Schmetzer moved Roldan back to the right about 60 minutes in and Baker actually played the position about as well as could be asked (save for a brain fart toward the end where he apparently thought Russell was going to go to the corner but instead let Roger Espinoza sneak in for a quality chance).
In Schmetzer’s defense, I think the decision was designed at least in part to protect Baker from being in a very tough position. As good as Baker looked in his start at left back in the Open Cup, that was against an opponent nowhere as good as Russell.
My assumption is that Baker starts against the Galaxy on Wednesday. If he looks reasonably good in that game, I’d expect him to start again on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo. Who knows it goes on after that?
Overthinking the formation
Regrettable of a decision as Schmetzer made at left back, I think even Schmetzer will agree he got a little too cute with how he set up the front four. In what I assume was an attempt to move Jordan Morris back to forward where he had so much success the last time the Sounders played Sporting KC, Schmetzer dropped Héber back to the No. 10 and moved Nicolás Lodeiro to right midfielder.
I’m not going to say this never had any hope of working — Schmetzer is still trying to figure out the Sounders’ best collection of personnel — but this was the wrong game to try something new.
More than the attacking consequences, what I didn’t like about this formation is how it affected the way the Sounders press. Sporting KC was a team the Sounders should have been able to pressure into cheap giveaways. Instead, they moved their most effective presser — Lodeiro — to the wing where he was barely involved in disrupting Sporting KC’s buildout.
This is the third time that Schmetzer has used Héber in that spot and I’m not sure it’s been particularly effective in any of them. The first time was late in the St. Louis game, a stretch that looked reasonably promising. The last time, of course, was in the Timbers game, easily the most disastrous 20-minute stretch of the Sounders’ season. I’m not ready to say this formation can’t work, but I don’t need to see the Sounders starting with it anytime soon.
Test of depth
At one point early this year, I suggested the Sounders appear to be about 17 or 18 players deep. I’ll stand by that, but it’s definitely being tested. We’ve always known that they’re only two deep at left back, for instance, and their depth at other positions is now being tested to its most extreme.
The frustrating thing is I’m not really sure how much there is to be done about that, aside from hoping some guys get healthy and hope some players step up that weren’t originally on that list of 17 or 18 players. I suspect, for instance, that we’re going to see a lot more of Dylan Teves, Cody Baker, Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere and maybe even Sota Kitahara than we originally thought was likely. That’s what happens when seven of your top 20 players are missing for one reason or another.
Saving opponents’ season
Maybe the most annoying thing about this run of recent results is how the Sounders have given seemingly listing teams a lifeline. If they had been able to hold on for a win against the Timbers, there’s a good chance Gio Savarese gets fired. I’m not as convinced that Peter Vermes was as close to getting canned, but the Sounders could have effectively knocked them out of playoff contention. It would have at least been some retribution for Sporting KC doing just that to the Sounders last year.
Beyond all that, I do wonder if there’s something to the idea of the Sounders’ inability to match their opponents’ desperation. In both situations, the Sounders faced opponents who knew they needed to win. In both situations, the Sounders seemed to be caught flat-footed.
The details around how that happened in both games are, of course, quite different but the net result was the same. Championship teams should not be losing games to opponents like this under any circumstances.
Everything else you need to know
- The Sounders are back in action on Wednesday when they play the LA Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 32. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM and will air on the Golazo Network, which is available for free on PlutoTV, Paramount+ and CBSSports.com.
- The mystery ailment that was keeping Nouhou from playing has been revealed to be malaria. He’s apparently on the mend, but has not been medically cleared to play.
- Léo Chú is the latest Sounder to show up on the injury list. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to play in either game this week.
- OL Reign are back on top of the NWSL standings after winning their 100th game in franchise history.
- We’re recording tonight. If you have questions you’d like answered, please feel free to leave them here.