SEATTLE — The one constant truism in MLS is that there is almost always a point in the season where form dips and results aren’t going the way you want. What usually defines the season is how long a team gets stuck in that rut.
The Seattle Sounders seem to be firmly entrenched in one such run right now. Perhaps to their credit, they’ve managed to keep this six-game stretch from being terminal. Despite scoring just four goals, the Sounders have still managed to go 2-3-1.
But it’s impossible to ignore the reality that their three losses have come against teams who were riding 6-, 8- and 10-game winless runs — the three longest winless streaks in MLS this year. What should have been a stretch of games where the Sounders were padding their lead has instead been one where they’re a little lucky to be treading water.
The 2-1 loss to Austin FC on Wednesday was probably not the worst of these losses — Austin are a better team than Sporting KC and not anywhere near the rival of the Portland Timbers — but it was still frustrating, especially in the context of the five previous games.
“We messaged that loud and clear,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said about the trend of playing the opponents’ slump-buster. “I don’t have an answer. We jumped-started Portland, Kansas City and now Austin. I don’t know what it is. We were very good at home for the first few games of the year. Clean sheets, good defensively. We will try and correct that for sure.”
In some ways, the Sounders actually played pretty well. Both before and after Austin scored, the Sounders created plenty of chances. It wasn’t as if they were leaking chances, either. In fact, both the Sounders’ 2.5 xG and +1.9 expected Goal-Difference were their best marks since the Week 2 win over Real Salt Lake.
All that only contributed to the postgame frustration.
“I don’t think anyone in that dressing room is happy,” Schmetzer said. “I watched the highlights of the goals we gave up. We have to be better at home, we can’t give up goals like that. Goals have been drying up for us, we have to find a way we can believe we can score.”
The one area where the Sounders didn’t dominate statistically was duels, much to the chagrin of Schmetzer. Austin FC won that metric 48-35, which could be argued they simply had more intensity than the Sounders.
Schmetzer also expressed frustration with the ineffectiveness of the Sounders’ press, something that was a significant part of their early success. The Sounders forced Austin into just three turnovers in the defensive third, less than half of what Seattle has been averaging this season.
Still, re-watching the game I tend to think that there was more positive play than it probably seemed live. As the xG data shows, the Sounders were effective at creating chances and they did it in a variety of ways. They had several chances on counters and a couple others from some decent build-up play.
For the season, the Sounders remain at the top of the league standings in terms of xG (22.7), non-penalty xG (21.9) and open-play xG (17.99). They’ve also created the second most “big chances” (23). But they’re also leading the league in missed big chances (21) and are underperforming their xG by almost four goals. The Austin game was the fourth straight in which their actual goal total was at least .5 less than their xG.
The poster child for this dichotomy is Héber right now. After a fast start in which he scored a goal in each of his first two appearances, he’s not scored since. He leads MLS with eight missed big chances and is under-performing his xG by the second largest amount (-2.32). Against Austin, Héber was especially dangerous and piled up 1.94 xG+xA. He was also involved in seven shot-creating actions, a total exceeded by only two other Sounders this season. Just one of those chances led to goal, however.
There’s something to be said in all of this about the importance of process and at least against Austin, there were signs of progress. But I can also understand why that feels like little consolation. The Sounders’ once-promising season feels like it’s going into a tailspin similar to what happened last year.
There is, of course, time to correct it and a win in Saturday’s match at the Vancouver Whitecaps would obviously be a good place to start.
“It’s about keeping belief,” Fredy Montero said. “The quality, the energy, the professionalism has to be there every day. We move forward knowing we have a chance to go to Vancouver and get points we lost here at home.”