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Postgame Pontifications: Plenty of fight, but no finish

The Sounders did the hard work of building a lead, but shot themselves in the foot, yet again.

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4 min read

SEATTLE — As the game clock inched toward 90 minutes and the Vancouver Whitecaps prepared to take a dangerous free kick, a palpable tension filled the air at Lumen Field.

Ryan Gauld, one of the league’s most lethal left-footed players, stood over the ball, presumably ready to swing in a free kick. Only instead of shooting or crossing, Gauld laid it off to Sebastian Berhalter at the top of the penalty area. Nouhou —perhaps eager to make up for his poor foul that set up the free kick — recognized the danger almost immediately and came rushing out to challenge the shot. He made a desperate feet-first slide, blocking the likely goal-bound shot.

Nouhou jumped up immediately, celebrating the play.

For a moment, it looked as if the Sounders had escaped danger, preserved their 1-0 lead and appeared poised to register a hard-fought win. For all their struggles this year, a win over the Vancouver Whitecaps would have put the Sounders in playoff position.

But any relief they felt in that moment quickly vanished as play was delayed for VAR to have a closer look.

Replays quickly confirmed that Berhalter’s shot struck Nouhou’s arm. The Sounders’ only hope to escape disaster was if the officials deemed that Nouhou’s attempt to bring his arms into his body were sufficient, which coincidentally they had apparently decided to do about 10 minutes earlier when a Jordan Morris shot just as obviously hit the elbow of a Whitecaps defender.

The Sounders received no such grace. After a lengthy review, a penalty was awarded, Nouhou was shown a second yellow card — he also got a yellow on the foul that led up to the free kick — and Gauld smashed home his penalty. The Sounders were ultimately forced to settle for a 1-1 tie.

While certainly not the worst result of the season, it may have been the most deflating.

“It sort of sums up our season,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said in the postgame locker room. “We work hard, we’re in a good position, the calls don’t go your way, but it’s not going to get you points and that’s frustrating.”

Prior to the final sequence, the Sounders had put together and imperfect but effective performance. It started about as well as anyone could have imagined.

Frei won the coin-toss and elected to attack the Brougham End, where the Sounders have tended to find more joy over the years. The gamble paid off when Morris scored in the 9th minute, the Sounders' earliest goal of the season and just the second home game in which they’ve scored from open play.

The goal came from the type of play head coach Brian Schmetzer has been asking for, with multiple runners in the box, all ready to pounce on second-balls or rebounds. In this case, Morris was perfectly positioned to make a left-footed swipe at a rebound from an Obed Vargas shot that itself came from a blocked João Paulo attempt.

Unfortunately, the Sounders were unable to do much with that momentum. Their next shot didn’t come until the 45th minute, a speculative effort by Raúl Ruidíaz from the top of the penalty area. The second half wasn’t much better, with their next dangerous look not coming until Morris’ header that deflected off Javain Brown’s elbow in the 80th minute.

“There’s a lot of issues we need to overcome,” Schmetzer said. “Generating chances from set pieces, moving our possession higher up field faster, generating goal-scoring from transition moments. There are final third issues. The movement on the first goal, guys were active. That was the first 15 minutes and then it slowed down.”

A recurring theme during the match was that the Sounders would do a decent job maintaining possession around midfield, find an opening to enter the attacking third, but then pull it back.

What makes this lack of transition play even more frustrating was that they seemed poised to lean into it after repeatedly gashing the Philadelphia Union on counters several weeks ago. But in the four league games since, they’ve managed just two “direct attacks.”

“We’d keep breaking lines and slow the game down and let them get set,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “That’s the frustrating part because our transition seems to be non-existent. When have a 1-0 lead, you can dictate tempo and one way is through transition. The team is going to be open and that’s a way to attack. That’s when we were so good, we punished teams when they opened up. We need to get back into it.”

To their credit, no one in the Sounders locker room is publicly pointing fingers at one another. Defensively, the Sounders put in another strong effort. Despite trailing for 80 minutes, the Whitecaps managed just .20 non-penalty xG.

But it become obvious long ago that something has to change. Maybe it’s a mindset, maybe it’s personnel. The Sounders are now more than 40% of the way through their season and are on pace for their lowest-ever point total while posting anemic offensive numbers.

Almost impossibly, they are still within touching distance of a playoff spot. If they beat St. Louis City next week, that’s exactly where they’ll be. This season is far from lost.

If they are to salvage this season, though, they must get to the point where results don’t hinge on an official’s decision. This was the second time in six home games where an avoidable foul led to a dangerous free kick that ultimately resulted in a late game-tying goal.

“I appreciate the effort, but in terms of controllables we give away a shit free kick at a dangerous time to a dangerous player,” Frei said. “That’s a controllable that we need to do better. We found a way to leave it up to a judgement call and shoot ourselves in the foot.”