PORTLAND, Ore. — Three straight losses have turned the Seattle Sounders' season on its head.
Following their 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers on Sunday, the Cascadia Cup is gone, the Supporters' Shield is no longer theirs to lose and suddenly the playoffs aren't even a guarantee.
But after suffering lopsided losses in their previous two matches, the Sounders at least attempted to see this game as a step in the right direction.
"I was proud of our team tonight," head coach Sigi Schmid told reporters. "I thought we came in and I thought we battled, I thought we competed. I didn't think we deserved to lose this game at all, I thought we deserved a tie."
The Sounders were, undeniably, better against the Timbers than they had been in previous losses. If not for three balls that hit off the woodwork and some other close chances that went wanting, the result could have been quite different.
Among the close calls were Lamar Neagle’s 13th-minute header that forced Donovan Ricketts into a diving save that still ended up hitting the goal post, a Clint Dempsey header in the 14th minute that hit the underside of the crossbar and a Steve Zakuani shot in the 92nd minute that ricocheted off a Timbers defender and then hit the crossbar.
Seattle even had another chance off the rebound from Zakuani's shot, but that ball was cleared off the line. That sequence came after the Sounders had been playing a man down for several minutes.
"You hit the crossbar and it goes out and you think our luck is against us," said goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who only faced two shots on goal in his first start since Aug. 10. "The only way you can change your luck is through hard work, which is what we did tonight. That's how I've done it throughout my career, you work your ass off in training everyday and you become lucky.
"That's what we did today and that's what we need to keep on and doing. Tough games like this are what's going to happen in the playoffs. It's a pretty good test for us and we could have easily come out on top today, a bit unfortunate that we didn't."
The Sounders have two more games remaining to attempt to both qualify for the playoffs – a win in either would clinch it – and get the season heading back in the right direction.
They'll need to play at least one of those games without Osvaldo Alonso, who was shown a red card for elbowing Will Johnson, and could also be missing Eddie Johnson, Obafemi Martins and Dempsey. All three forwards are currently nursing injuries, after Dempsey suffered a shoulder sprain on Sunday night.
It's a situation not so unlike the way Seattle started the season, when they were winless in their first five and seemed to be constantly missing players to injury or suspension.
"We were really in a strong position and we've dropped that a little bit so it's a bit frustrating," Zakuani told reporters. "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. We don't question the quality we have right now.
"The only way out of this is to stay together.”