SEATTLE – The faces of Christian Roldan and Stefan Fry at the post-match press conference were unmistakable. Far look, red eyes, lowered looks, crowded lips, fidgeting. This was a bitter disappointment look, on players who enjoyed an appalling degree of success after the season, but suffered a fate usually reserved for others.
Their words effectively emphasized a great deal.
Roldan described it as a “bitter end to the season”. Fry bemoaned the missed opportunity. Head coach Brian Schmitzer was even more blunt, saying that “losing in the first round is a failure.”
The feelings, of course, were understandable. None of them had ever seen a season at the Sounders end in disgrace. Saunders has never failed to advance at least to the Western Conference semifinals. You’ll have to go back to 2010 – long before Frei or Roldan joined the team – to find the last time the Sounders failed to win at least one post-season game. In Schmitzer’s previous five seasons, the Sounders had a collegiate 15-4-2 and qualified for the MLS Cup four times.
That surrender came at home – they came in a 15-game winning streak – and after a regular season that ranks among the best in franchise history, only added to the unexpected nature of it all.
The Sounders clearly expected more of themselves and I think it’s perfectly fair that fans are totally frustrated with this outcome. But where I urge some caution, is reading a lot into what all this means.
I also think it’s fair to say that the Sounders team did some things really well in the game. While a lot of the post-game comments have focused on how Pablo Mastroini figured out how to progress without his team attempting a single shot was a bit of tactical professionalism, I think we probably need to give the Sounders some credit for that as well.
It wasn’t as if RSL simply stopped trying to attack, the Sounders did a very good job of not giving up relocation opportunities. On the other side of the ball, the Sounders have already created many opportunities with numerical advantages, but they have failed to do much with them. Perhaps the best example of this came early in the second half when Shane O’Neill made a spin and then pressed in attack with what started as a 4-on-2 break. The opportunity ended with O’Neill’s passing to the open Morris, whose curved shot was high.
I find it hard to blame anyone in particular for failing to take this opportunity, but it was symbolic of the evening. O’Neill put in a great show but found himself in an uncomfortable position as the playmaker. He ended up waiting too long for his initial pass, but still eventually found Morris open. I’ve watched Morris hit these chances almost spontaneously for weeks in training, but his movement is a bit off and he can’t keep his shot.
The Sounders had a similarly promising look in the first half. Nico Benezet Morris monument For a high-quality look only on the shot that will be blocked. Brad Smith gets Freddy Monteiro’s goal streak But he struck his cross on the right David Ochoa. Obviously, these weren’t opportunities RSL wanted to give up, but the Sounders still needed to end them.
But as the match went on, the opportunities seemed to run out. While the Sounders continued to dominate the ball, the RSL settled more into a lower block and practically dared the Sounders to beat them in a steady piece. There, too, the Sounders found a few good looking but lacking the final quality to draw from.
Roldan even suggested that the game itself was sort of a summary of the season as a whole. The strong start, the promise flashes in the middle, the fallen end.
Even before the Sounders started their 2021 pre-season, there was a strong feeling that they would be cut short for at least part of the year. Morris’ loan to Swansea City had confirmed that. Either he will play well enough to start a permanent sale or he will be back in the summer. In both scenarios, the Sounders will play the first half of the season without Morris’ talent and no space for the hat.
The Sounders’ team responded by changing their formation and heading to other strengths on the roster. She has been remarkably successful for most of the season. But their unbeaten 13-game run at the start of the year may have raised expectations unrealistically. Over the last 21 games, the Sounders have gone 9-8-4 (1.47 PPG). That’s basically a 50-point pace, still a solid playoff team, but not necessarily the record for a team you’d expect to compete for the MLS Cup.
Perhaps focusing on those last 21 matches is a more accurate way of watching this team. This game series was defined by inconsistencies, both in the way the Sounders were played and in the people who used them. Halfway through that period, the Sounders were at their most dynamic, scoring 8-2-0 on one point and scoring 22 goals. But they’ve gone 1-3-1 in the five games before that period and 0-3-3 after that, and have not scored more than one goal in any of those 11 games. They’ve also failed to replicate a single line-up in any of those 21 games.
Throughout that 21-game run, there was a sense that reinforcements would arrive any day. But once players return from injury or an international absence, the others will not be available.
It was as if the Sounders were creating a puzzle while searching for all the pieces. Every time they find one, the other disappears.
At no time did the Sounders put together a starting lineup that was particularly close to the perfect XI. The playoff against RSL was the closest we got to having that all year, but many of these players still struggled with injuries and, perhaps more relevantly, barely trained together.
As all this has been disappointing, I am inclined to believe that the case for the list is still stronger than it was at the end of last year. It looks like the Sounders have finally opened up a talent pipeline designed to flow from the academy to the first team. The veterans out here seem to have a few years of production ahead of them. Depth has been determined and tested in nearly every position.
If this season is a step back, I’m inclined to think it will facilitate two steps forward. The Sounders may not have completed the puzzle, but I think they at least now know where to find the pieces.