Sounders take step back in loss to Portland, but playoffs still possible

Aug 29, 2016, 1:00 PM
Back from injury, defender Roman Torres has helped solidify the Sounders' defense. (AP)...
Back from injury, defender Roman Torres has helped solidify the Sounders' defense. (AP)

The Sounders finally had their five-match unbeaten streak snapped after falling 4-2 in Portland on Sunday, but their second-half performance showed that they’re definitely not done this season.

The players came out after the break with conviction, and the substitutions made by head coach Brian Schmetzer completely changed the flow of the game. If the Sounders can fix a few key problems that plagued them in the first half and come out swinging after their bye week, a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs is still within their reach.

The first half was an undeniable slaughter by the Timbers. As soon as the Sounders started to get a groove after each Portland goal, they’d lose the ball and get burned on the counter or off a set piece. Seattle was clearly unprepared for the battle ahead, and it took the halftime break for it to get settled and in a proper rhythm. Schmetzer took the blame for the lack of preparation, especially on the goals conceded from set pieces.

In their upcoming matches, the Sounders absolutely has to be prepared for anything. Sure, rivalry games like this one can amplify the little mistakes, but the Sounders have a number of tough road games ahead in which they absolutely can’t play like they did in the first half against Portland. One of the best things that Schmetzer did to steady the ship in the second half and prevent Portland from scoring more goals was to remove the ineffective Tyrone Mears for defensive stalwart Roman Torres and shift Brad Evans to right-back, a position that he says is his best. Not only was Evans better able to defend against Portland’s left side, but his attacking was also a big improvement on Mears. If all players involved are fit, starting Evans at right-back could be key in improving an occasionally leaky Sounders defense.

The other part of that substitution, which was the season debut of Torres, was extremely key in keeping Fanendo Adi quiet in the second half. Because Seattle lacked the security on the right, its center backs were bombarded by Adi, made especially worse after Chad Marshall sustained a bit of a knock that seemed to slow him down. Torres showed himself to be every bit the player that the Sounders hoped he would be after returning from his injury. If he is able to start and play that way in every match, the Sounders’ defense will be much more solid.

While shoring up the defense is probably a much higher priority, the Sounders’ impotent attack in the first half showed an obvious Clint Dempsey-shaped hole that really needed to be filled. Flaco Fernandez was the man that replaced Dempsey in the starting lineup, but he was woefully ineffective and replaced by Herculez Gomez at halftime. Even though Gomez didn’t necessarily provide any direct scoring threats, he was able to stretch the game a little better – especially with Evans pushing up on the right side with him.

Gomez isn’t necessarily the answer for the Sounders if Dempsey isn’t able to return, and finding a good replacement will be key to the club’s fortunes in the rest of the season. Other than Flaco and Gomez, Schmetzer could use Erik Friberg (possibly pushing Roldan to the Dempsey position) or Aaron Kovar when he returns from injury, but no option seems perfect. Once there’s news about Dempsey’s condition and we see who Schmetzer plays in two weeks against San Jose, we could have a better idea of how he’ll approach the attack for the final matches of the season.

There’s no reason to give up hope of the Sounders making the playoffs, but they’ll need to be absolutely perfect in their final four home matches and push for results in at least half of their four remaining matches on the road. If Schmetzer can solve the lack-of-Dempsey problem – whether or not he returns this season – and get the defense solidified and playing well together, there’s no reason to think the club can’t achieve the necessary results.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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