SEATTLE – Piling on the usual intrigue surrounding any Sounders match against rival Portland is that this next game could determine the season.
Few players or coaches would admit to a Major League Soccer season being over by July 1, but the Sounders know their math and see the numbers in the standings aren’t adding up well for them. And unless they secure a home victory Saturday against the Timbers at CenturyLink Field, the odds of the Sounders missing the playoffs for the first time will become overwhelming.
Throw in the fact that Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei is in concussion protocol and questionable for Saturday’s game, and the pressure for the home side is infinitely greater than it is for the fifth-place Timbers.
“Obviously, it’s a big game for a lot of different reasons,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Tuesday. “Number one, it’s our arch-rival. Number two, we need to collect points.”
That point thing is a grave concern; even for die-hard optimists who believe this team is capable of repeating its turnaround of two seasons ago. In 2016, the last-place Sounders rallied in July, made the playoffs and won the MLS Cup.
But replicating that would become near impossible without the Sounders compiling a few more points in a hurry. At best, the team will have 16 games remaining by the time Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz and other potential midseason help arrives in late July.
Two seasons ago, the Sounders fired coach Sigi Schmid, added Nicolas Lodeiro and went 8-2-4 down the stretch to squeak into the postseason. That was a two-points-per-game average, which, if replicated over the final 16 matches this season would equate to 32 points over that final stretch.
Problem is, the Sounders have only 12 points in their first 14 matches. So, even replicating their 2016 pace once help arrives – over the final 16 games this time instead of 14 – only leaves them 44 points for the season unless they do something in the four matches remaining before any reinforcements arrive.
Based on current play that has No. 7 Houston on a 48-point pace, it could take 50 points to guarantee the last of six Western Conference playoff spots. Anything less leaves too much to chance.
To reach that, the Sounders would need to win two of their next four games, then pull off a still-unlikely repeat of their 2016 clip over the final 16 contests. One of the four upcoming matches is against woeful Colorado, but two others are far more daunting on the road at Atlanta and New England.
In other words, the season might be riding on the home game vs. Portland.
Midfielder Cristian Roldan says the Sounders are confident enough that they can go on a second-half run. The trick will be staying close enough in the interim.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Roldan said. “We’ve said that for the last couple of weeks.”
The difference between this year’s squad, the one two years ago and even last year’s MLS Cup finalist is the Sounders are no longer dominant at home. They are 2-3-2 at CenturyLink Field – averaging 1.14 points per game compared with 2.24 at home last year and 1.94 two years ago.
That makes a repeat of the 2016 stretch run far less likely. And it raises the stakes for the Sounders to exceed expectations these next four games.
“We have so much to lose at this point,” Roldan said. “We’re at the bottom of the table, and if we continue to lose then Portland can just laugh at us. We have to continue to fight together as a team and realize that it’s survival mode.
“We have to win games, and in order to do that you have to play these big teams and beat them up.”
It’s been the Sounders getting beat up most of the year, and they’ll enter this one possibly missing Frei and likely without injured right back Kelvin Leerdam again. Schmetzer hopes backup Jordan McCrary is healthy enough to start so Roldan can return to his regular midfield spot after spelling at right back last weekend against Chicago.
The Sounders were fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw after allowing the Fire to pounce on numerous defensive lapses the final 20 minutes. Only Frei’s acrobatics before a last-minute injury spared them a devastating home loss, and it’s unlikely the banged-up goalkeeper can repeat such a performance if he even gets on the field.
“For all the chances we gave up in the latter part of the game, I thought through 68 or 70 minutes the game was good,” Schmetzer said, adding “the way the game kind of unfolded, it wasn’t great. We watched film on that, about how the defense needs to react. How the forwards and midfielders need to react to try to defend better.”
And they need to figure it out fast before they run out of enough games with which to salvage the season.
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