At a time when MLS teams are supposed to be adding the finishing touches to a polished look headed into the postseason, the Sounders FC is showing some cracks.
Seattle was flat-footed on defense, leading to early goals in two of its past three matches. And while the goal conceded against Colorado in the second half on a set piece was executed perfectly by the Rapids, creating opportunities for opponents to get attempts off set pieces shouldn’t be allowed so late in the season.
The Sounders going 0-2-1 in their past three outings has the MLS Western Conference leaders in a tough spot for the final three matches of the season. Saturday’s loss to second-place Sporting Kansas City was particularly damaging, as SKC has a game in hand and trails by only three points.
Seattle (17-7-7) heads to Los Angeles FC for a match Tuesday at the Banc of California Stadium. LAFC (11-12-8) is three points outside the seventh and final postseason slot after a draw with Minnesota United FC on Saturday.
“This game was just like a playoff game,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Sporting. “And we’re going to make sure Tuesday is just like a playoff game. Then the (Los Angeles) Galaxy game (Nov. 1) is going to be a playoff game. You’re going to see a team that’s ratcheted up, because we understand it’s coming down to the end of the season and it’s money time.”
But can the Sounders be formidable enough to essentially not drop another match until the MLS championship trophy is in their hands?
Normally it would be unreasonable to demand perfection, but with the way SKC and Colorado are challenging Seattle’s lead, draws are all the Sounders can allow. The No. 1 playoff seed not only assures home-field advantage through the conference championship, but it also grants a first-round bye.
Despite having a better road record (9-3-3) than home (8-4-4), the Sounders insist they’re best at Lumen Field. The club hasn’t lost a playoff game in regulation time at home since 2013. In 2018, Seattle beat visiting Portland in the Western Conference semifinals, but the aggregate scoring sent the sides to penalty kicks, where the Sounders lost the series.
Schmetzer said his team played its best against SKC on Saturday, falling asleep twice, which led to the scores. The Sounders outshot Sporting 12-1 in the second half. Midfielder Johnny Russell knocked home the game-winner in the 79th minute.
“We were so good,” Schmetzer said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get a second goal. They put everything into the game. Is it one lapse of concentration? Is it one little technical thing? Is it one little thing that allows your opponent to get back into the game? That’s pro sports. That’s why everyone in that locker room, in their (gut), they feel horrible. They put their hearts and souls into the game, and I commend them for that. But we came up short. That’s the reality.”
The lapse in concentration was a defensive debacle.
SKC keeper Tim Melia played the ball out of the back, but neither of Seattle’s forwards challenged the soft pass. Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio, who was subbed on in the 72nd minute, was then beat on a through ball, which Roger Espinoza collected and dribbled unmarked until Russell made his run on the right flank and was in position to score.
Everyone in Rave Green was beat on the play.
“We gave up a few mistakes that we’re going to look back and we’re not going to like in the video,” Kelyn Rowe said. “But we’re going to make sure we clean them up.”
The Sounders will play the LAFC match without defensive midfielder Joao Paulo due to a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Striker Raul Ruidiaz is likely also out due to a left-hamstring injury. He returned Saturday from a call-up with his Peru national team.
Schmetzer has used 26 players in his starting lineups this season, so even missing forward Jordan Morris (knee) and co-captain Nico Lodeiro (knee) hasn’t been a problem. It’s the tiny communication errors that allow goals to slip through that are proving to be damaging at this point in the season for Seattle.
And now, the Sounders are basically in a six-game, single-elimination scenario to close the season. A loss in any of the final three regular-season games coupled with Kansas City and Colorado picking up point would mean the Sounders drop from the coveted No. 1 spot.
Seattle has advanced to MLS Cup in four of the past five years, winning in 2016 and 2019.
“We have to have a playoff mentality for three more games,” Rowe said. “Going into the playoffs, that could help us in many ways. We have to make sure we’re on the front foot at all times for the next three games.”