SEATTLE — Contrary to popular belief, the Seattle Sounders’ first 13 seasons haven’t all gone smoothly. Sure, they never missed the playoffs and never even finished below fourth in the Western Conference standings, but there were many years where that position was very precarious.
In three seasons – 2013, 2015 and 2016 – the Sounders were unable to clinch a playoff berth until the final game. As recently as 2018, the Sounders were in a very similar position to which they are now at this point in the season – two points from a playoff spot with 10 games to go – despite being also in the midst of a record winning streak. .
But after Sunday’s disheartening 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, I have to admit this time around is a bit different, and not just because the clock is ticking as hard as ever.
“I agree with everyone in the room and with all the fans that time is running out,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in his postgame press conference. “We have to figure that out very quickly.”
The greatest hope lies in simple mathematics. Despite losing 7 of 10 games, the Sounders are still only one point away from playoff position. If they can string together a few good results, their position will improve considerably. A victory against the LA Galaxy on Friday could propel them up to sixth place.
The problem is that we’ve been saying something similar for over a month. On July 2, the Sounders were coming off a 2-0 road win over Toronto FC and found themselves fourth in the Western Conference. That was immediately followed by a three-fight losing streak, and they’ve been falling on the ladder – seemingly banging heads on every rung – pretty much ever since.
It’s been tempting to blame much of that on an ever-changing lineup. While it’s true that the Sounders failed to settle on a starting XI, the core group remained virtually intact. It also amplified frustrations over the loss of RSL. With Raúl Ruidíaz back in the starting lineup for the first time since July 9, it was about as good as the Sounders are currently able to field, at least on paper. The performance wasn’t exactly awful – and few of their losses in that unforgettable summer were – but it was far from inspiring.
It didn’t start so badly, of course. The Sounders came out on the front foot and appeared to score the goal when Ruidíaz worked a bit of magic with a shot that hit the crossbar and went into the net on the back of Zac MacMath’s head. Unfortunately, VAR intervened and correctly pointed out that Cristian Roldan was slightly offside on the build-up, wiping the goal off the board. It seemed to kill any momentum for the Sounders and they eventually found themselves playing from behind for the sixth time in nine games when they allowed Sergio Cordova to fall behind on what was a pretty basic counter attack.
The Sounders were able to regain some momentum in the second half and mostly dominated possession and chances, but were their own worst enemy again almost immediately after the equaliser. The Sounders’ goal had the potential to be something they could build on. Albert Rusnák, against his old side, hit a low, hard shot that swept through traffic and beat MacMath at the near post after some smart passes. But before the crowd could even settle in, RSL had equalized when Andrew Brody was allowed to sneak in for an unmarked shot at the far post, despite three defenders to score two forwards.
The last 30 minutes or so were mostly spent with the Sounders doing everything but scoring. MacMath seemed particularly insistent on providing scoring opportunities, repeatedly knocking down balls or getting out of position, only for the Sounders to fail to capitalize. The Sounders’ best chance for an equalizer came deep in stoppage time when Jimmy Medranda laced a cross into the box, where Jordan Morris and Fredy Montero awaited. Montero appeared to arrive in time to take a look at a wide-open net, but could only touch it lightly and the ball went safely out of bounds.
Even though it looked like a game to be won, it was not one in the literal sense. There are still nine games left and the Sounders are just one result away from changing the narrative. But they unnecessarily increase the level of difficulty. They are now embarking on a three-game road trip that could potentially topple or sink their season.
There are plenty of reasons to think the Sounders won’t come out of this tailspin, but the players seem to be keeping a level head at least.
“There is confidence that this team has talent, this team has experience, this team is not going to give up and let the season pass,” Kelyn Rowe said. “We are nowhere near that, and we never will be. There’s too much youth, too much exuberance, too many coaches making sure we don’t become complacent or too down on ourselves. I have no doubt that there is a race ahead.