Sounders Knocked Out of First

On Wednesday, the Sounders ran roughshod over the Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup semifinal, scoring 6 goals in a blowout victory.

On Saturday, a seemingly different, much less creative team showed up at Rio Tinto Stadium and fell 2-1 to Real Salt Lake in league play, while getting knocked out of first place in the western conference in the process.

RSL only has one home loss on the year. This match was obviously going to be a whole lot tougher than a home game against a lousy Fire team, but jeez – the contrast couldn’t have been starker.

The first half saw the Sounders yield possession, and give up a couple heart-rate-increasing chances – but no goals.

That’s good, right? Well, yeah, but the creative spark that was present against the Fire was nowhere to be found. Clint Dempsey barely saw the ball. Nobody was a threat.

And that continued into the second half, where two mental errors lead to two goals.

In the 53rd minute, Joao Plata, the shortest damn player in MLS, found himself utterly unmarked on a set piece and was able to head in a goal. The man is barely five feet tall. AND HE HEADED IN A GOAL. Lamar Neagle didn’t seem to realize what was happening, even though he was standing right there. Gah. Come on, guys.

Four minutes later, Zach Scott attempted to clear a ball … by sending it right into the center of the pitch. A few chaotic seconds later, Ozzie found himself battling for the ball with Luke Mulholland, and while doing so scored what initially looked like an own goal.

Obviously Ozzie didn’t think so, as indicated by his retweet after the match:

Still, it left the Sounders in a deep hole, given their lack of offense up to that point.

Seattle showed some life in the waning minutes, with Chad Barrett pulling on back, and Dempsey awakening from a game-long slumber to rip a few shots on goal, but even that effort felt a bit empty, and it wasn’t enough.

So what was missing? What has to change as the Sounders head home to take on San Jose on Wednesday?

Let’s start with missing players: Obafemi Martins, who scored a goal as a sub in the Open Cup match, was absent due to suspension, while Marco Pappa stayed home to nurse a sore hamstring. Brad Evans was subbed off with a cramp. Djimi Traore still isn’t healthy enough to be a regular starter again.

That’s a lot of talent lost. The Sounders are a deep team with a solid group of rotational players, but it’s clear that there are a few components that, when missing, leave voids that are tough to fill.

Second, Deuce needs to get going again. The partnership with Oba that was working so well must be renewed. At one point, Dempsey looked like a player who’d contend for the Golden Boot even while missing games for the World Cup. That’s the Dempsey the Sounders will need down the stretch.

Finally, Neagle needs to regroup. On the bench. Dude has been gimping around like an old man for several matches now and looks like a shell of his former self. He was bad again today. Something ain’t right.

It’s a silly luxury to sit here stressing out about a team that, on points per game, is still the best in the league. But four losses in six league games isn’t exactly something to brush aside.

San Jose on Wednesday is not a must-win. Neither is the match at Portland on Sunday. But those two games, on the heels of this tough stretch, will be telling. It will be interesting to see what adjustments coach Sigi Schmid will make. Who will be healthy. Who will avoid bone-headed suspensions.

Because we’ve been down this path before. We’ve watched games in hand become losses. We’ve seen this team sputter to the finish.

None of us wants to go through that again.

(image courtesy of Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

About Mike Standish

Sounders writer for You can reach me @mikestandish.