MONTREAL — An unhappy group of Sounders trudged slowly around the visitors’ locker room, having all-but finished off the first half of their season knowing they’d allowed yet another road game to get away.
Sporting a Wednesday-night lineup and bench better resembling a Tacoma Defiance roster, a Sounders team missing nine regulars had somehow found itself in the lead with the scoreboard showing a tad more than 15 minutes to go. But then, with quick and devastating effectiveness, Montreal Impact midfelder Saphir Taider struck for a pair of goals just minutes apart to send the Sounders to a 2-1 defeat and into the mid-season FIFA break winless in their last four contests.
It was a bitter pill for coach Brian Schmetzer and his players, who’d seemed poised to steal three valuable road points after Victor Rodriguez put them ahead on a 64th-minute penalty kick despite his team managing just two shots all game. Instead, they’ll have to regroup these next two weeks knowing their strong start to the season atop the Western Conference is slowly sliding into distant memory 16 games into a 34-game schedule.
“The guys worked too hard, they’ve come too far, to allow that game to slip out of their hands,” Schmetzer said, adding he told his veteran players they needed to do a better job of playing disciplined and without “fear” on attack and defense once Rodriguez gave them the lead.
“Somebody needed to step forward to help us win that game.”
Instead, it was Taider stepping forward, first by getting by Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam along the left side of the box to draw a foul and ensuing penalty where he tied the score 1-1 in the 74th minute. The cheering from 13,037 fans at Saputo Stadium had barely subsided when Taider was left all alone in the box to the right of goalkeeper Stefan Frei and easily converted an ensuing Omar Browne cross for the eventual 78th-minute game-winner.
The loss means the Sounders have won only two of their last 10 matches to fall to 7-4-5 and 11 points behind first-place Los Angeles FC with both having played an equal number of matches. In a year in which conference seeding and homefield advantage in the playoffs could be crucial, it wasn’t the half-season ending envisioned by a Sounders team that began its 2019 campaign so promisingly.
“Me as an older guy and some of the other guys, I think we helped the young guys pretty well the whole game,” Leerdam said. “But in the crucial moments — like with the PK in my moment — that’s where you should be a better leader for the team.”
That the Sounders even had a lead at all was somewhat remarkable given they’d managed no shots at all in the first half and would put only one on target the entire 90 minutes plus five minutes of stoppage time.
Up until Harry Shipp was fouled to draw the Rodriguez penalty try, it had been a rather dull night perhaps best appreciated by lovers of Sounders prospects and backups. Non-regulars Jonathan Campbell, Saad Abdul Salam, Jordy Delem, Alex Roldan and Handwalla Bwana all got starts, while Henry Wingo and teenagers Danny Leyva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez were on the bench.
Leyva made his Major League Soccer debut in the 82nd minute at age 16, becoming the third-youngest player in the circuit’s history.
This Sounders’ lineup had more to do with the in-demand talent of their first team and Major League Soccer scheduling than anything. They entered the match minus Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Roman Torres, Brad Smith and Xavier Arreaga – all called to duty by their respective national teams – while Kim Kee-hee remains sidelined by a knee injury.
They were at least spared losing Joevin Jones and Delem as well, the two players remaining with the team ahead of their coming national-side appearances.
And style points aside, the Sounders had done just enough to win the match once Jones was subbed on in the 54th minute and Shipp was bowled over ahead of Rodriguez converting the penalty.
And then, they stopped doing just enough.
“It was frustrating for us,” Shipp said. “We were in a good spot, up 1-0, and I think there were obviously some little indvidual mistakes. But before that, collectively, we’ve got to have a little more patience when we get the ball in their half. Make them work. Not make it so easy for them in terms of dropping back and letting them get in our half and dictate the tempo.”
The Sounders had done a decent job of tempo-dictating up to that point, compared to previous road losses this season. But ultimately, they couldn’t keep going the full game.
“We just had to be a little bit better defensively,” Campbell said. “Whether that’s holding positions, keeping better shape and then active defending and marking our men who are attacking forward — that’s defensively. And then, on the flip side, I thought we had a couple of chances where we could have put another one away and sealed the game from there.”
On the positive side, the offensive impact by Rodriguez — playing his first game since missing four with a hamstring injury — and by Jones coming off the bench bodes well for a team that will be counting on both down the second-half stretch. Schmetzer said his players can use the upcoming two-week break as they attempt to regroup.
“What you saw was some tired legs out there, some heavy legs because of the travel,” he said. “But there was no excuse there. They needed to complete that one more play at 1-0 and we seal off the game. ”