SEATTLE – The suddenness with which most MLS seasons end never feels normal. One day, the team is preparing for a game with the assumption there will be more, the next they’re making offseason plans.
Remarkably, in Brian Schmetzer's eight seasons in charge of the Sounders, fully half of those seasons have ended on the last possible day. That only serves to make nights like Sunday even more stark.
The mood around the Sounders heading into the Western Conference semifinal was calm and confident. Sure, LAFC were the defending MLS Cup champions and arguably the most talented team in the league, but the Sounders had been playing as well as anyone over the past couple of months and were loaded with experienced players who had won more than their fair share of matches like this one. They were also playing at home, where they had a 17-0-2 postseason record over the past decade.
What they didn’t have turned out to be the decisive factor. Namely, a player like Denís Bouanga, who scored the game’s only goal in LAFC’s 1-0 win to put them one step away from appearing in a second consecutive MLS Cup.
“They had one good chance and that was the goal,” Sounders midfielder Albert Rusnák said in a somber postgame locker room. “They were clinical in that moment and they scored.
“We put them under some pressure, but it didn’t go our way. We were missing that final piece, that last pass, the last touch, the shot, it was not as sharp as previous games.”
While the Sounders created more and arguably better chances, Bouanga made the most of LAFC’s one decent look. Perhaps the only time he got the ball with room to run, he came flying off the right wing and headed straight for goal in the 30th minute. Alex Roldán, who by design had been far up field when the ball turned over, made an admirable effort to get back in time but couldn’t stop Bouanga from blasting his shot from a sharp angle inside the far post.
It was exactly the kind of chance that Bouanga has feasted on this year on his way to 37 all-competition goals and exactly the kind of chance the Sounders knew they’d need to be mindful of, but were mostly helpless to stop.
On the other side, there were multiple inflection points for the Sounders. Their best look came in the 4th minute when Cristian Roldan made a line-breaking pass to Jordan Morris, who deftly touched it around one defender then pushed it past another while outracing Giorgio Chiellini in the open field to create a 1v1 chance with goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. With Chiellini still close behind and Crepeau seemingly expecting a left-footed shot, Morris opted for quick chip with the outside of his right boot. Crepeau reached back against his momentum to paw away the shot and keep the game level.
Crepeau would end up making eight saves in the match, most of them from longer-range attempts but several forcing him to go into a full stretch to keep the ball out by the thinnest of margins.
The Sounders finished with roughly triple LAFC’s expected goals (1.25-.39), outshot them 16-7 and had 69% possession, including almost 80% in the second half.
“We carve out good chances in the beginning, we have them under pressure and they have a moment of brilliance from a guy who’s on fire and takes his chance really well,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “At that point you’d think we have to open up and they’d find us on the counter, but they had nothing. We were able to extinguish fires early on. We deal with everything so well. Crepeau makes some good saves.
“As weird as it sounds, it was one of our better performances all year.”
That the Sounders’ basically executed their gameplan only served to ratchet up the sense of missed opportunity. The Sounders would have had another home game against an opponent they've already beaten twice this year for a chance to play in MLS Cup.
At the same time, it's hard to shake the reality that this was a roster that maybe wasn't quite ready to win it all. The season's end may have felt premature, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say they squeezed a lot of out of what they had. Yes, there was a ton of experience, but two of the most accomplished players – Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz – are now more role players. The team leaders mostly seem more cut out to be supporting actors, not leads. This is a team that feels like it's in the middle of a transition.
"What I’m proud of is we changed the way we played this year," Schmetzer said. We fundamentally changed the way we played. The coaches did a good job, the players did a good job of adapting to that.
"What I’d say is we were pretty close to doing something pretty special. We did a lot with this group and I’m proud of that fact. We will continue to drive to make sure our success continues. Is this season a failure? In some ways, yes it is, because we had a big opportunity. But at the end of the day, I’m proud of the success we did have."