Major pro sports teams that set single-season winning streak records in their leagues, like the Sounders recently did, often face adjustment periods once those victorious runs end. And not all of them adjust in time.
One journey ended and another began for the Sounders last week when their single-season Major League Soccer record win streak ended at nine.
Rebounding off a record like that can be a mixed bag for any professional team trying to do so in the same season their streak ends. The previous MLS post-shootout era record was set by Sporting Kansas City in 2012 after it captured its first seven games of the season.
But it won only 11 of its final 27 and was bounced by current Sounders forward Will Bruin and his Houston Dynamo side in their opening playoff round. For the Sounders, who began their post-streak journey with a 3-0 defeat on the road Sunday to the Los Angeles Galaxy, there is little time to reflect on a nine-game win streak that is now a two-match losing stretch.
“I think maybe we were a little tired,’’ Bruin said after the match, in quotes supplied by an MLS official. “We could have kept better possession and let the ball do a lot of the work but … I have to go back and watch a little more (film).’’
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Bruin’s near miss of a golden header opportunity in the box prevented the Sounders from tying things up after an early penalty kick had put Los Angeles ahead. Instead, the Galaxy scored late in the first half to go up by two after several Sounders slowed down — wrongly thinking the play would be whistled offside.
On the night the streak ended last week in a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia on a stoppage time goal, Bruin talked about how the Sounders might have been too focused on keeping their winning run alive. About how the pressure of maintaining the streak may have caused them to get away from some of the things they’d previously done well.
Other sports have also seen teams underwhelm after league record streaks ended.
The Pittsburgh Penguins losing to the New York Islanders in the 1992-1993 conference semifinals came after they’d won 17 consecutive games right at the end of the regular season schedule.
The streak only ended with a tie against the New Jersey Devils the final regular season game. Pittsburgh then played the Devils their first playoff round and won three in a row before dropping a rather meaningless Game 4 for their first loss in weeks.
They clinched the series in Game 5, but then struggled against the Islanders and wound up eliminated in overtime in the seventh game. In essence, that Islanders series provided the first real adversity for the Penguins in more than two months.
Football can be even tougher for record-streaking teams because the single-game playoff elimination format leaves no time to shake off unfamiliar adversity.
Famously, the 2007 New England Patriots went undefeated throughout a record 16-0 regular season and two more playoff games before facing a New York Giants pass rush they struggled to contain in losing the Super Bowl. Likewise, the 2015 Carolina Panthers and 2009 Indianapolis Colts both started 14-0, lost meaningless games at season’s end and cruised through the playoffs. It wasn’t until their Super Bowl games that they faced their first serious adversity and neither adjusted in time.
Unlike football, soccer and other sports have a much longer schedule. That means — aside from the NHL Penguins in 1992-93 — teams almost always have time to readjust well ahead of the playoffs once streaks end.
The Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72 set an NBA record by winning 33 consecutive regular season games. Once the streak was snapped in January, the Lakers actually dropped four of six before settling back in and going on to claim the title.
So, there is hope for the Sounders.
For now, coach Brian Schmetzer must correct flaws exposed the last two defeats: including a failure to put away chances and not always playing to the whistle. That latter flaw was responsible for the second Galaxy goal on Sunday.
“That second goal was the one that really killed us and that is the one I will take responsibility for because the team needs to be coached in a fashion that they play until the whistle is blown,’’ Schmetzer said.
The Sounders actually allowed three goals Schmetzer felt were “not indicative of what this team really usually is all about.’’
But questions linger as to what these Sounders truly are about. Whether the streak accurately reflected their team, or merely obscured more troubling issues — like a lack of finish and focus — that had been there beforehand.
“I thought we were too slack at times,’’ midfielder Cristian Roldan said of the offensive and defensive play against L.A. “We had three mistakes that cost us three goals and good teams take care of those chances.’’
Roldan attributed it partly to breaks not bouncing their way.
“With streaks, even losing streaks, you get unlucky as well and that is part of the sport.’’
But the fact remains not all record win streaks are held by great franchises.
Few question the 1971-72 Lakers, the 2007 Patriots, or the 1992-93 Penguins being great teams, as reflected by their overall records. But the MLB record streak of 26 wins is held by an otherwise ordinary 1916 New York Giants squad.
The Giants, much like this year’s Sounders, began in terrible shape at 2-13 before the winning streak kicked in. Alas, they were sub-. 500 the rest of the year.
So, the Sounders, like those Giants, now get to define whether their season will be a mediocre one interrupted by a streak. Or whether they truly are a great team that flashed their brilliance over an extended period of consecutive games.