SOCCER

Finally, Sounders gives us reason to hope

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Since the Seattle Sounders earned a comprehensive road win over Toronto FC on July 2, they’ve been on a pretty consistent decline. Thanks to the stalled playoff field, the Sounders managed to stay in the game despite going 2-6-0 in the next eight games.

Although they have stayed in the running, there have been few signs that they are ready to make a serious run.

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Disappointing as the end result was in Friday’s 3-3 draw with the LA Galaxy, I think there’s reason to believe this could prove to be a turning point.

It was the first time in almost two months that the Sounders looked like the version of themselves that stormed to the Concacaf Champions League title with a combination of grit and quality.

Not hiding flaws – including a defense that still allows weak goals at a frustrating pace and an inability to close the game – but I found the ability to bounce back from a 2-0 deficit and look really dangerous for an extended period of time to finally be real proof that this regular season is salvageable.

“They put it all in the game and deserved three points,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “I couldn’t be prouder of how the guys dug deep against a team that was also desperate. It’s a huge positive.

But before digging into those positives, it’s probably worth ruminating on the first part of this statement. Despite falling behind 2-0 on the type of goals the Sounders have surrendered too often during this slide – both the product of a striker failing to shut down – the Sounders have taken storming to take a 3-2 lead only to give it up on a timeout penalty. Whatever you think of VAR’s role in appealing that penalty – while following the letter of the law, it seemed like unnecessary intervention as the Sounders didn’t gain an unfair advantage when the ball deflected off Xavier’s arm Arreaga – he came after a long period in which the Sounders had been forced to defend deep.

From the time Schmetzer benched Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro and replaced them with defenders Jackson Ragen and Josh Atencio in the 83rd minute, the Sounders were outshot 77-16, drew 4-0 and allowed three corners (one of which eventually led to the penalty). In the previous 83 minutes, the Sounders had passed the Galaxy 444-427, outscored them 16-7 and had a 5-3 advantage from corners.

I think it’s an overstatement to say “the equalizer was coming”, but the Sounders were at least upping the ante by stepping into a more defensive shell than they had at any time up until then.

The Sounders hadn’t exactly started to make it easy either. Although they did a good job of dictating the tempo, creating good chances and generally looking like a side capable of grabbing a result on the road, they still managed to enter half-time trailing 2-0. The first goal came when they inexplicably allowed Chicharito Hernandez to win the ball into space inside the penalty area, for which he quickly punished them. The second goal was a bit haphazard, but came when nobody shut down Victor Vazquez after a throw-in, giving him time and space to float a ball to the back post that beat Stefan Frei.

At that point, it would have been easy for the Sounders to put their heads down. They did not do it.

Seattle responded by continuing the work started in the first half, and even increased the intensity. The opening goal was mainly the product of Raúl Ruidíaz showing exactly why he is so important to this team, beating their defender and then hitting a perfect cross to Kelyn Rowe at the far post. It was the exact kind of discount pass that seems to be gone for this year’s Sounders and Rowe finished it off perfectly.

If there is a sequence that has changed my vision of the team, it is the second goal. The entire streak lasted about a minute, featuring Albert Rusnák shooting twice at the woodwork, Jordan Morris having a point-blank shot blocked, the Sounders keeping the pressure on by picking up rebounds and second runs, and finally getting the reward when Nicolás Lodeiro found Ruidíaz for an open header.

I don’t know if a streak can wrap around a season, but I think it’s the kind of game that has that potential. There was skill, tenacity and, above all, execution. We knew the Sounders had it all, but it’s rarely been put together like here. The fact that the Sounders followed up by getting the go-ahead goal about 10 minutes later only reinforced the point.

The problem facing Sounders right now isn’t math. Another week of reasonably friendly results left them with just one point of playoff position and still vaguely within striking distance of a top-4 berth. The biggest concern has been one of form. Until that result, there was little reason to think they could actually string together the results needed to take a serious step not just to the top of the table but into the playoffs. This performance allows at least this possibility.

“This team believes we can do great things,” Lodeiro insisted. “We deserved to win. It’s a boost, every point counts and it motivates us for the next one.

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