Any witness to the proceedings Tuesday night at the Loo would have no difficulty identifying the superior team.
Just as any followers of the Seattle Sounders in 2021 would have no difficulty understanding how their team, on a late-season fade, ended up losing to a foe that never managed a shot on goal in 120 minutes of professional soccer.
Still, it was still hard to comprehend how dominance turned to despair for the most successful team over the past 13 Major League Soccer seasons. A 15-game home winning in the playoffs, one short of the MLS record stretching back to 2014, fell to dust.
The Sounders were the second-seeded Western Conference playoff team playing seventh-seeded Real Salt Lake reeling from the news their captain and second-leading scorer, Albert Rusnak, was home sick with Covid-19.
But after RSL’s Justen Glad scored the deciding goal in the sudden-death sixth round of a penalty shoot-out after a scoreless draw, dumbfoundedness swept the same joint, and its 34,012 customers, as it did Sunday after the Seahawks lost to the Arizona Cardinals. Except that was not an upset.
Gobsmacked after out-shooting RSL 21-0 through regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, Cristian Roldan struggled to explain crashing out of the season in the first round, something the Sounders had never done.
“It was a successful season — without any trophies,” he said. “That’s hard to say, because we expect so much as a club. We had to deal with a lot of injuries. Guys in and out because of national team (obligations). Covid. Just a difficult year, and I think the group came together.
“The amount of guys that played a part this year was, I think, unprecedented. So although we didn’t win anything, I wanted to end this in the right way, in a positive way, because we have gone through a lot. I think we’re better for it.”
It’s an understandable sentiment, especially in the moments right after being stunned. But, no, they are not better for it, because the Sounders have the highest standards in MLS, and have so often hit their marks.
Coach Brian Schmetzer, who seemed consumed from April to November with personnel headaches, was more realistic.
“I’m trying to get myself to agree (with Christian),” he said. “I mean, the standard that we set for this club is a high bar. So this is a failure.”
The failure came after the final stretch of the regular season that had three draws, three losses and no wins. Then in the playoff opener, the road underdog packed in its defense to muck up the Sounders’ attack in the hope of a shoot-out that could advance into the crapshoot round of PKs.
The strategy worked brilliantly. Both clubs hit all five scheduled shots before sudden death, when Kelwyn Rowe was denied by keeper David Ochoa.
“The challenges of last six games were injury-related, and form-related,” Schmetzer said. “You can say there was a little bit that of tonight. Our execution in the final third just wasn’t there.
“They certainly defended deep, they defended well at times. I think they wanted to hit us on the counter attack. I think their keeper (the theatrical Ochoa, booed lustily throughout), wasting time, their team playing the slower tempo . . . it did affect our rhythm at times. We really couldn’t kick it in the high gear. There were times in the second half we got some momentum going, but it wasn’t sustained long enough.
“Was it their defending, or was it our lack of sharpness? I don’t know.”
Because of the international break, the Sounders hadn’t played played since Nov. 7. While the break allowed injuries to heal, there little practice time among the key players.
Jordan Morris, who played 75 minutes combined off the bench in his first two games, got his first start since his February knee injury. He went the full 120 minutes. But was he effective? Raul Ruidiaz subbed in for the second half, Nico Lodeiro came in late. Should they have started? Should they have played at all?
Said Schmetzer: “You’re willing your team to just find that one spark, that one moment of brilliance, where they they figure out a way how to score.”
No spark Tuesday night. No moving on. No MLS Cup appearance.
The Seattle sports malaise has claimed another victim.