If this is a ‘crisis’ for the Seattle Sounders, it’s one plenty of other MLS clubs would pay good money for.
Even after Saturday afternoon’s tepid 0-0 stalemate with their bitter antagonists the Portland Timbers – the first scoreless draw in the MLS era of this historic rivalry – the Rave Green sit near the top of the Western Conference and league tables.
Nearly 40,000 fans flocked to sun-splashed Lumen Field for this game, a doubleheader with the teams’ NWSL siblings OL Reign and Portland Thorns, and both the Sounders faithful and head coach Brian Schmetzer were heartened to see the talismanic Cristian Roldan return from concussion issues to make his first appearance in nearly two months, and on his 28th birthday, no less.
“Certainly, a tie is a tie, you know, it's not great,” said Schmetzer after the Matchday 17 contest. “But if you look at the season as a whole, 27 points; 54 probably gets you in the playoffs. We've been hovering around first and second [place] all season. I know there's a ton of games to go today and a couple of teams have games in hand. But overall, I would say that the team has done well.
“We're in a stretch here where the results could have been better. I think we'll certainly reflect as a coaching staff next week when we have a full preparation before the Charlotte game. But overall, I can't be horribly upset.”
Nevertheless, there’s a distinct feeling the Sounders simply aren’t themselves at the moment. They’ve now won just two of their last eight league matches (2W-4L-2D record), scoring just four goals over that milquetoast stretch.
They’ve taken 17 of a possible 30 points at home, suggesting an erosion of what was once a commanding home-field advantage. And they only rarely looked like scoring on Saturday, directing just one shot on target and posting a dour expected-goals tally of 0.3.
The list doesn't end there, with defender Nouhou missing extended time after a bout with malaria, and homegrown midfielder Josh Atencio (quad) and utility man Kelyn Rowe (meniscus) also recently returning from sidelining ailments.
“Look, it's tough sledding out there in the heat, when the turf gets a little sticky," said Schmetzer. "But the question I asked them was, did we really create enough chances? And I think you could say the answer is probably not. We need to create a little bit more."
The result also extends the Timbers’ track record of head-to-head superiority in recent years: Seattle haven’t beaten their Rose City adversaries in nearly two years, and you have to go all the way back to 2017 to find their last regular-season home win over PTFC at Lumen.
“That is a sore spot. It's kind of a black hole on the résumé, for sure,” said a reflective Schmetzer of his opposite number Giovanni Savarese’s advantage in their Cascadia Cup face-offs. “He has had my number since he started with Portland. There's no denying that; that's a fact.
“I thought the tactics were OK,” he added. “Did they accomplish what we wanted? No, because we didn't score. But certainly we kept another clean sheet and if we defend well, we're going to win a lot more games than we're going to lose.”
What’s good enough at many clubs, however, does not meet the high expectations that are now well-established in Seattle. There was perhaps a measure of symbolism in the fact that their middling match against the old enemy took place one day before they officially surrender their title of reigning Concacaf Champions League kings, to whoever comes out on top in Sunday night’s CCL final second leg between LAFC and Club León.
One year after reaching a Concacaf mountaintop that no MLS team had ever scaled, a certain sense of ennui seems to have set in around the Rave Green. Schmetzer sounded optimistic that the return to full bore of Roldan and the injury-plagued Ruidíaz, combined with the ongoing maturation of Seattle’s academy-fueled youth movement, will mend it.
“I'm not sure I have a complete answer as to why we've dropped as many points at home in the last little bit as the beginning of the year,” said the coach. “Because if you go back to the beginning of the year, I thought we were very good at home.
“The message tonight was about mentality, gutting out a win, hopefully, against our archrival. And we didn't accomplish that,” he admitted. “The facts are, we've dropped points. But I believe in the process that we have. I think getting Raúl back healthy, I think getting Cristian back healthy will help.
“We're getting young kids considerable minutes. And what I mean by that is in years past, maybe the kids have gotten a start here or there – but kids have had opportunities,” Schmetzer noted of the likes of Atencio, Cody Baker, Obed Vargas and Reed Baker-Whiting pushing a veteran core that’s occasionally shown its age. “Those kids have played significant minutes in some important games. And I think that development will help us down the road as well.”
“Halfway through the year, there's room to grow, is what I would say,” said Schmetzer. “But I'm not completely disappointed.”