MONTREAL — They at least got the “slow start’’ thing out of the way, which enabled the Sounders to stumble out of the 2019 season’s unofficial first half in relatively good shape.
But in climbing within a game of the halfway mark of the schedule Wednesday night at 7-4-5 — with a two-week FIFA break now upcoming — the overall record isn’t quite what most had in mind after the Sounders began the year 5-0-1 to erase their previous slow-starting legacy. Let’s face it: The measuring stick for this team has never been about making the playoffs, but how deep in the postseason they go and whether they’ll ever host the MLS Cup final.
And at third place in the Western Conference and fading given their two wins the prior 10 matches — leaving them 11 points out of first — the Sounders need to pick things up if they hope to play most of this fall’s playoff games at home.
The obvious area for improvement is road play. They appear a far inferior team on the road compared to at home, which makes the need to secure a high playoff seeding all that more imperative.
“We want to play the same at home and away,’’ veteran right back Kelvin Leerdam said after the team’s third straight road loss to the Montreal Impact. “We had a good start to the season and we need to get back to that in our playing.’’
While few MLS teams are ever as good on the road, no squad this season has as many home wins and road losses as coach Brian Schmetzer’s group. Part of the Sounders’ recent struggles can be blamed on a condensed schedule that’s caused fatigue and multiple injuries, Chad Marshall’s retirement and a ridiculous number of international call-ups that turned Wednesday’s ill-advisedly-scheduled game into somewhat of a farce.
But while the Sounders were missing nine regulars — eight of them reporting to national teams — the Impact had five key players absent as well on Wednesday, including injured star Ignacio Piatti. Dealing with adversity is the mark of any champion, and the Sounders’ depth was supposed to carry them through this year’s multiple grueling stretches of three games in a week.
Instead, they’ve started leaving points behind against teams well beneath them in the standings.
“The message is that we’ve got to regroup,’’ Schmetzer said. “The break actually comes at a good time. We will reassess, we will get healthy, we’ll get some players back and we’ll be OK.’’
Schmetzer has more than just blind faith working for him on that front. His Sounders have enjoyed stellar midseason turnarounds the last three campaigns, including a 15-2-2 stretch the final 19 games of last season.
The better start to this season means the Sounders won’t have to go on a record run just to make the playoffs with a higher seeding that guarantees them needed home games in the new single-elimination format. Throw in the additions of left back Joevin Jones and center back Xavier Arreaga and the team does indeed appear poised to play stronger than it has of late.
The injury status of midfielder Victor Rodriguez and center back Kim Kee-hee will be paramount. Rodriguez had missed much of his first two seasons with the Sounders and then skipped another four contests with a hamstring issue before returning in Wednesday’s loss and scoring his team’s lone goal on a penalty kick.
Kim was the best remaining center back the Sounders had after Marshall’s retirement and he is dealing with a knee injury, which is always unpredictable. Pairing Kim and Arreaga on the back line with Roman Torres also battling for time has the makings of a title contender.
But losing Kim for any serious length with Marshall already having called it a career would be a serious diversion from what this team’s plans initially were.
Same with Harry Shipp starting too many more games with Rodriguez down or, as he did on Wednesday, with Jordan Morris, Nicolas Lodeiro and others away on international absences. Shipp has proved an above average bench player who can start in a pinch during last season’s record second half and this year as well.
But the Sounders likely don’t want to see Shipp starting too many more games, especially with Jones available to bump up a line to the midfield once he’s in full playing shape. To contend for a title, they’ll need Rodriguez healthy with Jones there to serve as his midfield backup when he isn’t needed at left back.
To win more often and climb in the standings, the Sounders will need to start controlling games the full 90 minutes without the lapses so frequent as the season’s first half progressed.
“I think that’s something we’ve done super well at home but we haven’t done on the road,’’ Shipp said. “I thought we did a decent job of it (in Montreal) until the last 15 minutes of the game … then we started to get tired. The little mental things that are easy the first 60 minutes all of a sudden become difficult.’’
And overcoming that in-game difficulty will be the key to determining whether this season finishes as well as it began.