SEATTLE – There’s something about playing the Portland Timbers that seems to bring out the worst in the Seattle Sounders.
It’s been well documented how much they’ve struggled against their biggest rival, especially over the last two-plus seasons. The 6-2 win at Providence Park now seems like some sort of monkey-paw moment, as if some Sounders fan somewhere closed their eyes and whispered “I’d give just about anything to embarrass the Timbers in front of their own fans.”
Since that fateful day, the Sounders have now gone 0-4-2 against the Timbers after the 2-2 tie on Saturday.
Say what you will about the five previous meetings, but there’s really no good reason the streak shouldn’t have ended last week and I’m not sure how much to take away from the reasons behind that.
I’ll admit that I fully expected to win this game. I don’t know why I felt that way, but even after the scoreless tie against the Timbers over the summer, I just felt like this winless streak at Lumen Field was bound to end in this game. I suppose I was falling into the betting fallacy of “well, they’re due!” but I was also simply looking at how bad the Timbers were. This is a team that just fired their manager, who spent $10 million to bring in a player who’s putting up very pedestrian numbers, and which is the worst road-performing squad in the Western Conference.
For 53 minutes, the Sounders did exactly what I had expected they’d do. Raúl Ruidíaz ended his 740-minute scoring drought with a header off a corner kick, Léo Chú did his best João Paulo impression to add a second, and the Sounders generally looked like a team that was playing with the type of confidence and verve that has been totally absent for better part of five months.
Sure, the Timbers were generating some chances here and there, but the way the Sounders handled those moments only gave me more faith. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say the stadium was at its 2023 buzziest after the Sounders blocked two shots off the line and then had Nouhou make an acrobatic clearance to keep it at 2-0 late in the first half. Going into halftime, the vibes were absolutely fantastic. Maybe, I thought, this is their turning point.
Less than 10 minutes into the second half, however, that all changed. I’ve rewatched Chú’s challenge a dozen times, if not more, and I’m still not convinced it’s a foul, let alone a yellow card. After trying to control the ball, he takes maybe two steps and clearly tries to pull up before making slight contact with Zac McGraw’s foot. I think there’s an equally valid argument that McGraw fouled him. But I have to admit that Chú has no one to blame but himself for being in that situation. If you’re going to knowingly take a yellow card by taking off your shirt to celebrate a first-half goal, you simply have to know you’re walking a tightrope and adjust accordingly. You can not play with the same sort of reckless abandon you might otherwise.
I’ll also say that I’m sympathetic to head coach Brian Schmetzer’s decision to leave Chú in despite knowing all this. Players are going to pick up first-half yellow cards – hopefully not as silly as this one – and coaches need to be able to trust that they can control themselves to get through as long as needed. I would hate to think the next time Schmetzer is faced with a similar situation that he’d choose to take off arguably his most effective attacking player unnecessarily early.
That the choice backfired so spectacularly, though, is emblematic of how things have gone against the Timbers recently. The Sounders are undeniably a better team right now, with an arguable talent advantage at most spots on the roster. In their three meetings this year, the Sounders have collectively held the lead for 74 minutes and been trailing for just 14. Yet, they’ve been outscored 6-3 and have just two points despite playing two of those matches at home.
Outside of a roughly five-minute stretch where the Timbers scored their two goals and fired off a couple of other shots, the Sounders actually did a pretty good job of controlling this match even after going a man down. Over the final 15 minutes, the Sounders outshot the Timbers, 4-0. I don’t think you can faithfully argue many of those shots were particularly dangerous, but I suppose it counts for something that they didn’t completely melt down the way they did in the Providence Park meeting earlier this year.
It all leaves me not knowing how to feel about the Sounders right now. They’ve been undeniably bad at home for months. Their last win at Lumen Field was on July 1, and they’re just 1-2-4 in their past seven games at home. The defense that had been carrying them has now allowed at least one goal in seven straight games, not bad but also not the elite level it was at.
We are, however, seeing some signs of life on offense. This was the second straight time the Sounders scored two goals in a game and the third time they’ve at least scored in a game. Those seem like really low bars, I know, but it’s also the first time they’ve managed either of those things in almost four months and the five goals they scored in that span is their best three-game scoring stretch since early April. Individually, Ruidíaz was more active and dangerous than he’d been since his two-goal outburst on June 10. Chú was borderline unplayable until his red card. The set-piece offense that has looked so feckless for most of the season also seems to have finally come to life (which seems to have come at the cost of set-piece defense, where the team has now conceded in 6 of 7).
When Schmetzer was asked to talk about his takeaways, he highlighted the effort the players put forth while also acknowledging, “There are some positives but I can’t quite comprehend them right now.”
This is somehow a team that with just six games remaining seems almost equally likely to win the Western Conference as it is to miss the playoffs entirely. They’re actually all alone in second and sit six points behind first-place St. Louis City. Even by points per game, they’re fourth in the West and they still have the second best Expected Goal-Difference in the whole league. The most likely outcome at this point is that they’ll probably get just enough points to get home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but what they do beyond that is anyone’s guess. At least I don’t think we’ll have to play the Timbers again.