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Postgame Pontifications: Critical errors

Facing one of the league’s worst teams, the Sounders had an opportunity to get right. Instead, they got it all wrong.

Last Updated
4 min read
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Winning on the road in MLS is always hard. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. But rarely do teams get gifted opportunities better than the one the Seattle Sounders had on Saturday.

Sporting KC came into the match on a 10-game winless run, losers of seven straight and had claimed just six points in their first eight home games. No team in the Western Conference had fewer home points.

The Sounders even did their part to take any available wind out of Sporting’s sails by scoring an early goal. Jordan Morris’ 12th minute strike was the exact kind of play that had the potential to emotionally ruin Sporting, as it came when the defense was slow to react to a free kick. That allowed João Paulo to place a perfectly weighted ball over the top, and Morris ran by his defenders to slot it past Tim Melia.

Instead of turning up the pressure, though, the Sounders basically backed off. In the roughly 60 minutes between Morris’ goal and Reed Baker-Whiting’s game-changing red card, the Sounders were outshot 11-6 and seemed mostly content to look for counter-attacking opportunities.

While that’s not a completely indefensible strategy in most road games, it underscored a passivity that seems to now pervade the Sounders’ approach. By just about any metric, Sporting have been one of the worst teams in the league this year. Their .97 xG per 90 is the second-lowest figure in MLS, they came into the game having allowed a league-worst 18 home goals and they do it with a defense that is not particularly aggressive (only six teams allow more than their 14.1 passes per defensive action). On top of that, the Sounders came into this game on 10 days of rest and were somewhat lucky to get weather that was neither particularly hot nor humid.

The Sounders responded by setting their lowest line of confrontation of any game this season and generally looked just as out of ideas on offense as they have all year.

I’m sure that’s at least somewhat influenced by the red card, but head coach Brian Schmetzer did himself no favors by choosing to wait as long as he did to make any subs. The big one was Baker-Whiting, who had several genuinely bright moments but should not have been on the pitch long enough to get his second yellow. Making his first start since late 2023, Baker-Whiting probably should have been pulled shortly after he picked up his first yellow in the 61st minute. Raúl Ruidíaz — who had just four passes, one speculative shot and two defensive actions in the second half — probably should have been replaced by Léo Chú while the game was still there to be won.

The obvious time to make those subs was the 70th minute, when the game was stopped for an injury to Daniel Salloí. Sporting head coach Peter Vermes sensed the opening and made three changes, one of whom was Alenis Vargas. Apparently, Vermes gave Vargas the explicit instruction to attack Baker-Whiting, who they knew was relatively inexperienced, probably feeling some fatigue and sitting on a yellow card. Schmetzer, in contrast, waited to make his first sub until Baker-Whiting was sent off.

Given that Ruidíaz has struggled to positively influence any of the past five games — ever since he scored the game-winner against the Portland Timbers — I was particularly curious what Schmetzer thought of his starting No. 9’s performance.

“He wasn’t involved as much as I would have liked,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t know what the final outcome is going to be. We’re going to have to think of changes. My gut feeling is we needed more from him, we need more out of [all the Sounders’ top players].”

For all those problems, though, the Sounders still should have come out of this game with no worse than a point. That they didn’t is mainly due to the performance of one player who has been their rock for most of the past decade. On the first goal, Stefan Frei gets a solid hand on Johnny Russell’s speculative strike from about 25 yards but can’t keep it out of the net. The game-winner is even worse. Although Cody Baker gets beat on the pass that puts Vargas into the penalty area, the Sounders have the cutback so well covered that Frei only has to worry about the shooter. Still, Vargas manages to put the no-angle shot through Frei’s legs. The combined xG value on Sporting’s two goals was .04.

Allowing goals like this is obviously always bad, but they are absolutely killer when the Sounders are struggling to score as much as they are now. This was the 12th time in 17 games that the Sounders have failed to score more than one goal and they currently rank second-to-last in all of MLS with .82 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes.

Compounding their scoring woes is the Sounders’ inability to reliably make leads they do get stand up. The Sounders have now failed to win five games in which they scored first, costing them 12 points this season (tied for the fourth most in MLS). In four of those games, they’ve dropped points after picking up a red card.

At the midway point of the season, the Sounders are in serious need of some soul-searching. Their veterans leaders are making critical errors, their highest-paid players aren’t living up to their contracts and their promising youngsters are too often being put in positions to fail.

“The truth is it’s more our fault than their ability to score,” a clearly frustrated João Paulo said in the postgame press conference. “It’s just lack of focus. We need to be sharper in those plays. At the end of the day, those moments make the difference.”