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Postgame Pontifications: Gut punched

The Sounders found a new and excruciating way to drop points at home.

Last Updated
6 min read
Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Three times this season, the Seattle Sounders have taken a one-goal lead deep into a match at Lumen Field. Three times, they’ve been forced to settle for just a single point.

This time, the late equalizer came in especially excruciating fashion. The Sounders had seemingly grabbed an insurance goal, with Reed Baker-Whiting intercepting an errant pass, racing into space, shrugging off a defender and setting up Danny Musovski for what seemed to be a 2-0 lead.

The goal was eventually disallowed by VAR after it was determined Musovski committed a foul just before Baker-Whiting’s interception. Less than a minute after that decision, Real Salt Lake found the equalizer to seal a 1-1 result and extend their 12-game unbeaten streak. Never before has a Lumen Field crowd gone from elation to depression quite so quickly.

The goal came in the 9th minute of added time, four minutes later than the previous latest goal the Sounders had ever allowed at Lumen Field. The previous latest goal? That came in the 1-1 tie with the Vancouver Whitecaps in their last home game. Those came on the heels of an 88th minute equalizer they allowed to the Colorado Rapids earlier this year. Add those six dropped points to the Sounders’ record and they’re sitting fifth in the Western Conference, as opposed to the No. 10 position they now occupy.

Although there was room for criticizing the decision that overturned the goal or even the seemingly unwarranted amount of stoppage time, the Sounders seemed to understand those were deflections. They only had themselves to blame for being in that position in the first place.

“It’s another game where we take a lead at home and don’t close it out,” said midfielder Albert Rusnák, who had scored a wonderful free kick to give the Sounders their lead. “It’s a habit where we stop playing, start launching balls forward.

“This has to be fixed. We have to sort it out. It’s been happening too long and we can’t keep going on like that.”

To Rusnák’s point, the Sounders had been the better team through 70 minutes and his goal came at the end of a particularly dominant stretch of play.

During the first 25 minutes of the second half — basically up until Rusnák’s goal — the Sounders had completely tilted the field in their direction. They had a 7-0 shot advantage, held 58% of possession and had not even allowed RSL to register a single touch in their offensive third. It was as if an impenetrable wall had been built 40 yards from goal.

But after Rusnák’s goal, the field effectively flipped. Suddenly, the Sounders were struggling to complete passes while RSL was throwing numbers forward. Over the game’s final 20 minutes plus stoppage time, the Sounders were out-passed 200-64. The problems were especially stark after the 85th minute, when RSL fired off eight shots that accounted for nearly 80% of their 1.34 xG.

“They obviously were throwing everything at us in the last 10 minutes,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “That’s normal momentum shifts. But how do you break that momentum? It’s by extending possessions in that last 10 minutes. Instead of just clearing the ball, maybe you find that pass. I know your legs are tired but open up your hips so your teammate can pass you the ball.”

Although the gamestate dramatically changed around the same time Schmetzer started using his subs, he insisted the intention was not to simply see out the game. To that end, none of the subs were overtly defensive in nature and they mostly seemed designed to get fresh legs on the field. Baker-Whiting replaced Cristian Roldan; Musovski replaced Raúl Ruidíaz; Josh Atencio came on for Jordan Morris; and Paul Rothrock spelled João Paulo.

“There’s a technical and physical piece, but it’s more the mental piece for me,” Schmetzer said. “You need guys who want to have the ball in those tough moments. That’s something we work on.”

To some degree, tight games like this are a product of an offense that has scored just 19 goals in 16 matches — including just eight in seven home games. But what’s not as predictable is how poorly the Sounders have managed leads.

The RSL result was an extreme example, but it also fit into a larger pattern. As encouraging it is that they have gone 4-1-4 across all competitions in their last 9 games to somewhat steady their season, they have not been making it easy on themselves.

That trend goes all the way back to the 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union when the Sounders were forced to hold on for dear life after taking a 3-0 lead into halftime. In the U.S. Open Cup they blew a 2-0 lead to Louisville City before winning in penalties. Against St. Louis City on Saturday, they were outshot 9-1 over the final 20 minutes after going up 2-0 and were probably a little lucky to escape with a 2-1 win. The Sounders have now dropped nine points from winning positions this year.

How do they fix it?

“It’s the million-dollar question right now,” Rusnák said. “I don’t think we know how to do it. Maybe it’s mentality. It could be that. It’s a mentality of not defending for 30 minutes, trying to get that second goal and being on the front foot. We made some mistakes in the first half, but we didn’t stop playing until we went 1-0 ahead. We can’t get scared of making mistakes.”

It’s hard to imagine the Sounders 50th anniversary celebration going much worse. A season removed from their worst-ever home record, they’ll need to almost double their points per game output over the final 10 just to reach that laughably low bar.

Fans are clearly noticing, too. The announced attendance of 29,244 was the first time they’d dipped below 30,000 since 2009, when they had a lower capacity, and there were clearly far fewer people actually in their seats.

Their big offseason signing has barely gotten on the field and it’s unknown when he will play again.

By the time the summer transfer window opens, the season will be two-thirds done and it’s not even clear if the Sounders have the budget to make any truly impactful signings.

It’s unfair to put all of the onus on getting this right on the players, but to the degree they can make an impact, it will almost certainly be the ones who are already here doing the heavy lifting.

Depressing of the result may have been, this group still offered a glimmer of hope. When Musovski’s sliding shot nestled into the net, there was a sense of relief splashed across his face. The triumphant roar Baker-Whiting released felt like a cathartic culmination to a journey that was filled with setbacks and cost him nearly six months of playing time. The run, the physicality, the calmness to find the pass were all there.

It may not have counted, but it did happen.

“That play as a whole is still positive,” Baker-Whiting said. “The refs’ decision doesn’t change what we did there. Being able to get the ball in the net is a good sign for us. The end result didn’t do anything for us, but if we keep putting ourselves in those positions things will go our way.”