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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Sounders face rival Portland (still) searching for some scoring punch

Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Léo Chú goes up for a header from a corner kick against Los Angeles Galaxy, May 5, 2024 in Seattle.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

RENTON, Wash. – Belief must be built. It doesn’t arrive by accident. It’s dependent on evidence, on a precedence of production. It’s powerful and fickle and not easily achieved.

Ask Brian Schmetzer.

Following a scoreless draw against the LA Galaxy at Lumen Field Sunday, the longtime Sounders coach compulsively clicked a ballpoint pen and lamented his team’s lack of belief.

“We’re a good team; we have some really talented players,” Schmetzer told Times beat writer Jayda Evans. “We’ve just got to get them to believe that they can score and believe that they can win.”

Of course, if it was so simple, the Sounders would score (and win) at will.

Instead, Seattle (2-5-4) continues to slog through an uninspiring season, one with a familiar shortage of finishing. The Sounders have failed to find the net in five of 11 matches, and their 1.18 goals per 90 minutes sits 22nd out of 29 teams in MLS.

Which doesn’t underscore an absence of opportunities. On the contrary, Seattle ranks tied for second in total scoring attempts (165), sixth in expected goals (19.28) and ninth in attempts on target (54). Last Sunday’s scoreless draw included 19 total attempts and five on frame, the most agonizing of which was a Leo Chu shot from the penalty box that buzzed above the bar.

“There’s a lot of different ways we’ve tried to (instill belief) – the X’s and O’s of things, showing film to individuals, doing a little extra finishing with guys when it’s appropriate, trying to build our confidence, switching tactics away from home,” Schmetzer said Friday, following a training session attended by season-ticket holders.

“The mental side of it is, you’ve got to find the right balance of showing ‘em what they’re doing wrong, but also giving them positive reinforcement.”

Jordan Morris might need it most. The 29-year-old forward’s 18 shots sit tied for second on the team, but he’s managed a lone goal in 11 games. That’s after the Seattle product notched 13 goals in 27 games (playoffs included) in 2023.

In fact, outside of 33-year-old mainstay Raul Ruidiaz – whose six goals lead the team and mark an improvement over the five he managed last season – no other Sounder has exceeded a single goal.

In the box, where Schmetzer said Sunday it’s “life or death,” there’s been a lack of conclusive quality.

“That’s something we’ve struggled with this year,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan, who has zero goals and two assists in 11 games. “We keep possession. We look good on the ball, maybe a little bit too methodical at times, station to station. But we need to get shots off. We need to get crosses off. We need to get that final piece of quality that we’ve been lacking all year.

“Whether that comes through a set piece or the run of play with possession or even transition, that’s something we’re keeping an eye on.”

Frankly, it’s something Sounders supporters have struggled to see for several seasons.

Here are goals per 90 minutes in the Schmetzer era:

2024: 1.18

2023: 1.12

2022: 1.29

2021: 1.56

2020: 1.91

2019: 1.47

2018: 1.44

2017: 1.50

2016: 1.26 (under Schmetzer and previous coach Sigi Schmid)

A mounting frustration from fans is understandable, considering the Sounders’ scoring woes are far from a fleeting fluke. And though Ruidiaz, Morris, Roldan, Chu, Albert Rusnak, etc., are all established talents, the front office has done little to improve their scoring punch.

Still, there’s evidence to believe in a tangible turnaround. Take 2023, when the Sounders closed their season with a nine-match points streak (four wins, five draws) to finish with the second-most points (53) in the Western Conference. Or 2018, when they started with a 2-7-2 record and eight points through 11 games – two points fewer than their present position – before ripping off a 12-match unbeaten streak en route to the conference semifinals. Or 2016, when they overcame a slow start and a lack of scoring to claim five- and six-game points streaks down the stretch and secure their first MLS Cup.

So might it be time for another Sounders surge? On Sunday, they travel to meet the rival Portland Timbers (2-5-4), who enter on an improbable eight-game winless streak (with five losses and three draws). It’s also possible ascending winger Pedro de la Vega could return in some capacity, after making just two appearances in 11 games due to a hamstring injury.

The Sounders sit two slots and three points back of St. Louis for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, with two-thirds of the season to play.

“The script … it’s writing itself, right?” Roldan said. “We (both teams) feel it’s almost a must-win to catapult our season, to keep it going.”

Come Sunday, we’ll see if the script is flipped, considering the Sounders haven’t topped the rival Timbers since August 2021 (with four losses and two draws in six games since).

“Something’s got to change,” Schmetzer said. “Is it going to be a season-defining victory? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. We still have a little bit of time left if we get a draw or something like that. But it’s a critical game for us to compete. We’ve got to go out and compete and fight.”

Even without the ballpoint pen, Schmetzer coolly concluded: “I need guys that are ready to play.”

Better yet: to score and win.