Largely due to injuries and the loss of a few of their best players to international duty, the Sounders have endured several sketchy stretches, none as significant as the current one, which includes a season-worst five consecutive matches without a victory (two draws, three defeats, two points). With two regular-season matches remaining, this dubious run is not only untimely, it’s beginning to resemble more of a gangplank walk than a slide.
Six weeks ago, the Sounders defeated the Portland Timbers in front of a record crowd of 67,385 on national at CenturyLink Field. The victory launched a five-match winning streak in which Seattle recorded four shutouts and outscored the Timbers, Columbus, Chivas USA, Chicago and Real Salt Lake by a combined 7-1.
At that point (Sept. 13), Seattle lolled amid positive vibes: best record in the league, first place in the Supporters’ Shield race, and control of the Cascadia Cup, the annual derby involving Northwest rivals. Above all, the Sounders had – or seemed to have — a grasp on a No. 1 seed in the MLS Cup playoffs with at least two games in hand on every postseason aspirant.
Now, all of that has been frittered away. After drawing 1-1 with Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy (Sept. 13, Sept. 21), the Sounders lost three in a row (Colorado, Vancouver, Portland) in an eight-day span by a pulverizing 10 goals to 2, blowing three chances to qualify for the playoffs.
The Supporters’ Shield is gone. Vancouver now hoists the Cascadia Cup, and the Sounders have slipped to third in the Western Conference, also losing their games-in-hand advantage. In fact, the fourth-place Galaxy, due at the Clink Oct. 27, has a game in hand on Seattle. The Western Conference race is so tightly bunched – seven points separate the top six clubs – that even a playoff berth, which once seemed a lock, is not guaranteed to Seattle.
“We were really in a strong position and we’ve dropped that a little bit so it’s a bit frustrating,” Steve Zakuani told reporters Saturday after a 1-0 loss to Portland. “As a team we’re united, we’re together. This is still the same team that won all those games in a row, still the same team that has been in the postseason every year so far. It’s still the same team, still the same players.”
And Mr. Hyde is still Dr. Jekyll.
The Sounders have two regular-season games remaining, at FC Dallas Saturday (11:30 a.m. kickoff) and the Galaxy match. A win Saturday will vault Seattle into the postseason, but a tie will require help from other clubs. A defeat means 8-ball time.
Even if the Sounders clinch, they are no longer assured of entering the playoffs as one of the top three seeds, a bad thing in MLS. As a top three, the Sounders would play home-and-home playoff matches. But if they finish fourth or fifth, a real possibility given their recent results, they would be forced into a one-match, single-elimination contest, the winner advancing to face the No. 1 seed, currently Portland.
For Seattle’s fanatical support base, adding to the angst is that so many key operatives are either injured or not playing to form. Two of the club’s leading scorers, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, are ailing with uncooperative groins and ankles and have been for weeks. Clint Dempsey suffered a separated shoulder Sunday night in Seattle’s 1-0 setback to the Timbers.
Osvaldo Alonso, the key to almost everything Seattle does, is still looking for the head he lost in Portland Sunday. By misplacing it in his elbow-throwing joust with Portland’s Will Johnson, which drew a red card, Alonso will be forced to miss the Dallas match, and perhaps additional time if MLS determines further disciplinary action is warranted.
Alonso, otherwise one of Seattle’s smartest players, should have recognized the consequences of a mental blink-out before his elbow shut Johnson up. His elbow found Johnson’s jaw, perhaps deservedly so, as coach Sigi Schmid suggested, but now Alonso’s teammates must pay. Alonso’s was a wasted retaliation.
And, for at least Sunday’s match in the Rose City, Schmid felt it necessary to bench regular goalkeeper Michael Gspurning in favor of 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann after Gspurning absorbed a nine-goal battering by Colorado and Vancouver. Gspurning’s confidence level has to be somewhere around DEFCON 2.
The Sounders had a miserable start to 2013, winning twice with four draws in a nine-match stretch from March 2 through May 4. They struggled at other points during the longest season in professional sports, notably absorbing an embarrassing, third-round ouster to the low-rent Tampa Bay Rowdies in the U.S. Open Cup.
But the Sounders righted themselves starting July 28 with eight wins in nine matches, including five in a row. Now, after the last eight days, the Sounders can control only their own match preparation and scheduled sessions with team shrinks, who are scrambling madly to find out WTF.
While it’s premature to speculate specifically on what might happen if the Sounders fail to reach the postseason, or sustain another early ouster due to poor seed position, final-month collapses in other pro sports typically lead to coaching changes and roster gutting.
Hard to imagine Schmid in trouble – he seems to have managed through injuries and absences remarkably well, no thanks to the U.S. National Team — or that the front office would overreact, but the Sounders have only two matches left to avert a late-season fade unprecedented among our pro sports franchises.