To put the obvious straight away, ending the season on a scoreless six-game run is not how anyone wants to get into the playoffs. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the situation the Seattle Sounders find themselves in after their 1-1 road draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday.
The performance itself wasn’t particularly bad, but it also continued some of the problems that plagued the Sounders from this scoreless run.
The Sounders took the lead for the first time since October 9 – with Cristian Roldan converting the penalty on a flipped header that was handled by a defender and Fredy Montero converting the penalty in the 8th minute – but it was relatively short lived . The Whitecaps equalized in the 20th minute when the defense lost sight of Ryan Gauld, who was able to get an open look at a header despite the Sounders having numbers in the penalty area.
Gauld’s shot was one of only five for the Whitecaps — yes, five, which was a seasonal low for the Sounders defense — but those shots were mostly high-quality, with an average xG value of over 0.2. To put it more simply, The Sounders did a good job limiting shots, but a bad job limiting chances. The goal was the product of seemingly a little bit of focus on the worst possible moment.
“We had a good season, but the concentration problems in the last five games let us down, otherwise we could have been first,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said after the game. “Play-offs are often decided by one game, and you can’t lose a moment of concentration in any game. We have to do a little better.”
As I mentioned last week, the margins between success and failure are always quite thin. That was especially the case during this slump. The Sounders had the xG advantage in four of their past six games and were at least .5 better in two of them. If the Sounders had collected one more point, they would have finished first in the Western Conference.
In many ways, the Sounders looked good against the Whitecaps. They had a decisive advantage in duels (46-33), defeated Vancouver 10-5 and had a couple of late chances to take all three points. But it would also be overly charitable to say that the Sounders definitely deserved better in this game or any other game. Schmetzer doesn’t have to be overly critical to find faults, and what’s most frustrating is that it seems to be similar situations where someone just loses a point. It’s the mistakes players make when they’re mentally exhausted.
In that sense, this break might come at just the right time. Five players leave to join their respective national teams. Even when they are not playing, they are in situations that require maximum attention. Thanks to the way the playoff schedule worked, they should all get nearly a full week of training with the Sounders before the playoff game on November 23.
Perhaps more important to the Sounders’ chances of making another long playoff run are some of the players who remain – namely João Paulo, Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris. These are their four highest paid players, all of whom have proven to be big players.
What has almost been taken for granted at this point in the season is how much the Sounders have already accomplished this year without contributions from any of these players for the entire season. João Paulo, Lodeiro and Ruidíaz were not even available for the Whitecaps game and Morris was able to get off the bench on his own. Collectively, they have only played about 43% of the available minutes this year. Of that group, João Paulo played the most with 2,536 minutes, which is 58th in the MLS. Ruidíaz recorded 2,147 minutes and is therefore in 144th place in the competition.
Part of the reason I was so optimistic about the Sounders’ chances even during this period was the belief that most of these players would be close to 100% by the playoffs. Whether that will actually happen is a very open question.
If you’re looking for a positive spin, it’s that by finishing second the Sounders have one more game to integrate these players. To the extent that there is more risk from playing an extra game, I’m not sure there is a compelling argument to suggest they would have done better against the Timbers-Minnesota United winner than they did against RSL.
This team has shown that they can put in a good run and I am inclined to believe that the first 28 games are at least as predictive of their future performance as their last six. But I understand why the mood around the team is bad. Whether you think the more recent shape matters more or less is a bit off the mark now. Shape matters until it doesn’t anymore. They have to perform now or they go home early.