Sounders lose to RSL

Sounders goalie Stefan Frei walks off the field as RSL celebrates its win in penalty kicks (6-5) over the Sounders in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 at Lumen Field, in Seattle, WA. 

SEATTLE — The shot map for the Sounders on Tuesday looked like a rush-hour traffic jam on I-5 near downtown Seattle. The shot map for Real Salt Lake was a deserted highway in rural Wyoming.

To quantify that image: The Sounders took 21 shots in the 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time during their opening-round playoff loss at Lumen Field. RSL had zero shots. Zilch, nada. Stefan Frei could have finished one of his excellent paintings if he had brought an easel to the goal he was ostensibly defending.

"I barely even touched the ball the whole game," Frei mused afterward.

But a funny thing — none of those Seattle shots went in the net, despite a flurry of breakaways and corner kicks. RSL's strategy — a master stroke, in retrospect — was to muck things up for Seattle in the box, and it pulled it off with aplomb.

Yet Sounders fans will have nightmares all winter reliving the golden opportunities that went astray. A breakaway in which Jordan Morris took a sweet pass from Shane O'Neill and then fired a shot well over the net. A spectacular long-range bomb from Raul Ruidiaz that clanged off the cross bar. And a few others.

The playoff game unfolded in a fashion that left one with the growing sensation that a time-honored scenario in sports was inevitably developing, in which one team dominates the game in every aspect but the scoreboard. Let an opponent hang around long enough, and it invariably seizes the opportunity to sneak away with a win.

In a loser-out match, as this one was, it's a nightmare outcome with damning finality. And sure enough, the Sounders were left thoroughly stunned by the result: A defeat on penalty kicks, ending a season that had dawned with incredible promise and sky-high hopes.

Instead, as Cristian Roldan noted, the game was a microcosm of the Sounders season — a blazing start that fizzled in the end. Even the penalty kicks went into overtime as both teams made all five of their kicks before Seattle's Kelyn Rowe missed his in sudden death. Up stepped RSL's Justen Glad with a chance to win it — and win it he did. Frei got his hands on the ball, but it trickled into the goal. Glad's teammates sprinted to celebrate, and the Sounders trudged off in dismay and disbelief.

The Sounders had once been on the opposite end of such a game, winning their first MLS Cup in Toronto on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie in which they didn't have a shot on goal. And in 2018, they were ousted from the playoffs on penalty kicks by Portland, which Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer felt motivated them toward the MLS title they won in '19.

That's part of the shock — the Sounders under Schmetzer have always found a way to be a major factor in the postseason, having made four of the past five Cup finals and winning two of them. They appeared poised to make a run at five out of six.

For the first time, however, the Sounders won't advance at all in the playoffs in their MLS-record 13th consecutive appearance. That's hard to fathom for a team that for much of the season played as well as anyone in the league, and finally had their "Big Three" of Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris all active simultaneously. Yet they ended the regular season with six consecutive games without a victory entering the playoffs, which turned out to be a harbinger rather than an aberration.

"It fuels the fire a little bit," Schmetzer said of their abrupt ouster. "That's what I tried to message the group afterwards."

Roldan called it "a successful season without any trophies won, which is hard to say, because we expect so much as a club."

Roldan's point was that the team came together and got contributions up and down the roster under the strain of injuries, COVID-19 and national team call-ups.

Schmetzer agreed with that premise, but took a harder bottom line: "This is America, and we play for the playoffs," he said. "In that sense, it's a failure."

The Sounders came agonizingly close to pulling off the victory in front of an initially energized crowd of 34,012 that lost steam as RSL's "bend but don't break" defensive strategy took hold. But the finishing touch was missing, to excruciating results.

"You're willing the team to find that spark, that one moment of brilliance where they find a way to score," Schmetzer said.

But it never happened. And now the Sounders' playoff map has them heading home far earlier than they ever thought.