The Seattle Sounders have been through this before.
If there's any positive to take from Seattle going 1-3-1 over their last five games and falling to fourth in the Western Conference standings, it's that this club knows all about second-half surges. It seems like every year, the Sounders endured a stretch of poor form that puts their postseason aspirations on the ropes. Yet, they seem to go on a second-half tear that kickstarts a lengthy playoff run.
Coming off Wednesday's 3-0 road thrashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake, the Sounders are far from out of it. But if they plan on maintaining their spot above the playoff line, they'll need to pull off some similar tricks at the risk of getting leapfrogged in the air-tight Western Conference table.
“Smaller teams, teams that haven’t gone through the seasons that we’ve gone through over the last couple years, can easily fold," midfielder Cristian Roldan said. "They can easily say, ‘You know what? We might not even make the playoffs.’ But the reality is, we’re going for it. We know that it’s a tough stretch and it’s going to be a tough rest of the season, so we just have to embrace the challenge."
For Seattle, this season's swoon presents a different variable than in years past.
In recent seasons, it was often attacking struggles that led to the downturn in form. This year, it's the defense. After conceding three more times to RSL on Wednesday, the Sounders have yielded 11 goals in their past five games, including eight at home.
Part of that can be attributed to circumstance. The Sounders lost arguably the best defender in MLS history when Chad Marshall retired in May after being diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition, and Roman Torres' recent 10-game suspension certainly didn't help matters. In their absence, the Sounders have deployed Xavier Arreaga and Kim Kee-hee at center back, a pairing that has struggled to mesh.
Throw in a hamstring injury to Swedish defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson, and the defensive issues shouldn't come as a surprise.
"We just need to improve a bit on the urgency, awareness, all the way around when it comes to defense, just being a little bit more smart," goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “There are times when we have a corner and we’re actually set up decently defensively for that first initial counter, but we take a second bite at the apple and then put ourselves in terrible positions."
Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer said a solution is simply getting back to basics. After the RSL match, he again cited the duels-won statistic.
“The stats that stick out on the scoreline are the three goals we gave up, but then one of my favorites stats – duels won – they're at 58 percent and we were at 42 percent," Schmetzer said. "Normally, our team competes very well, so that's an issue for me. But we’ve got to start doing some things to stop [giving up] three goals in a game.”
Seattle also hope that getting healthy will provide the necessary shot in the arm. Starting fullbacks Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam have been out with injuries, while Svensson just made his return to the field as a substitute in the RSL game. On the other side of the ball, the most crucial impending returnee is winger Victor Rodriguez, who has struggled to stay on the field all season with hamstring issues. When Rodriguez was on the field with fellow attackers Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz to start the season, Seattle shot out of the gate and looked like one of the most dominant attacking teams in MLS.
The first order of business, though, is figuring out how to stop shipping goals.
"For me, again, it has to come down to the consistency," said Schmetzer. "We’ve got to get everybody back, find the lineup and get some consistency so we end up in second [place].”