By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TULWILA — About the only thing certain halfway through this Sounders season is that nobody knows for sure just who this Sounders team really is.
Are the Sounders the team that opened the season winless in their first five games, then finished the first half losing two straight on the road? No, they’re more talented than that.
So then are the Sounders the team that, for a stretch in May and June, looked like one of the league’s best teams, winning six of eight at one point? Well, the Sounders certainly hope that’s the team they can be, but have yet to show they can play like that consistently.
The truth is that, 17 games into a 34-game schedule, the Sounders, at 7-7-3, are pretty much what their record says they are — a mediocre team that, while capable of playing very well at times, has failed to produce consistent results.
“If you want to be completely realistic, it’s kind of been a disappointment,” said veteran defender Zach Scott, who has been with the franchise since its USL days. “We go into every year with high expectations, and at this point in the season we expected to be playing a lot better and getting better results.”
And while plenty of teams in MLS would call mediocrity an upgrade, that simply doesn’t cut it for a franchise that came into the season with title ambitions. If anything, those bursts of brilliant soccer only make the struggles all the more maddening.
“Those games where we play really, really well or get a bunch of goals, that probably almost makes it more frustrating for our fan base and our front office to see, ‘This is the team we expected,’” Scott said. “And that’s the team the players out here expect to be. We expect to be a team that can dominate for long stretches.”
Of course there are reasons for Seattle’s up-and-down first half, most notably the combination of injuries and national team call-ups that have forced coach Sigi Schmid to start 17 different lineups in 17 games. Schmid calls his team’s injury situation the worst he has seen in his four-plus seasons coaching the Sounders. Of late it only seems to be getting worse with three players, including starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, leaving last weekend’s game with injuries.
Schmid knows that, injuries or not, his team needs to produce better results in the season’s second half, but he can’t help but wonder what might have been:
w If designated player Shalrie Joseph had been healthy all spring;
w If forward Obafemi Martins, the team’s other big offseason acquisition, hadn’t had to battle nagging injuries;
w If Steve Zakuani wasn’t dealing with another long-term injury;
w If midfielder Osvaldo Alonso hadn’t been out with quad injury for much of Seattle’s latest rough patch;
w Or if … OK, OK, you get the picture.
“I would really like to see what this team looks like when we could get our best players on the field for three or four games in a row,” Schmid said. “I would like to see what we look like at that point. Right now, obviously we haven’t been able to do that, so right now it’s been inconsistent as a result and we’re probably in the right position (in the standings) based upon our inconsistency.
“It’s tough to measure the team where it is because of all the changes. … So right now the performance hasn’t been up to what we would call our standards, and we’ve got to continue to fight and continue to work to get it there.”
Yet the news isn’t all bad for the Sounders.
Martins, when healthy, has looked every bit like the impact player the Sounders were hoping for when they signed him, scoring a team-high six goals in just 11 games. DeAndre Yedlin, who just turned 20, has emerged as one of the league’s best rookies as Seattle’s starting right back, and was just named to the MLS All-Star squad. And on the flip side of the injury situation, reserve players like Lamar Neagle and Servando Carrasco have stepped into regular roles and played very well.
Also encouraging for the Sounders is the fact that, in each of the past four seasons, they’ve been a better second-half team under Schmid, most notably in 2010 and 2011 when they went 10-2-3 and 12-3-2 to close out the year.
Yet the Sounders can’t just assume another strong finish is coming. Whether it comes from players getting healthy, or from the team’s depth — something the franchise has long prided it self on — stepping up, Seattle needs to figure out a way to turn the corner, and turn it soon, to keep this season from being a major disappointment.
“We can say in the past we have done well, but even with all the games we have in hand, it’s going to slowly start slipping away from us if we don’t turn things around pretty quickly,” Scott said.
The Sounders, as Scott notes, have played fewer games than any team in the Western Conference, meaning they can make up ground quickly. And after a road-heavy first half of the schedule, Seattle gets 10 of its last 17 at home, including the next three. But as Scott noted, none of that — not the history of strong finishes, not the extra home games — is going to matter if the Sounders don’t find a way to more consistently look like the team we saw in May and June and not the one that struggled early in the year, then stumbled again in recent weeks.
From a talent perspective, the Sounders still have what it takes to contend for a title. This league’s history has shown that getting to the postseason is a lot more important than where a team is seeded.
So, it’s too early to say the Sounders 2013 season is headed for failure, but to avoid having a disappointing first-half define the season, the Sounders need to find a way to get healthy and get things fixed in a hurry.
“Hopefully we’ll get to that point this season, and we’ll get to it at a point where it’s not too late,” Schmid said.
The Sounders got some good news Wednesday during a week in which they are dealing with an unusually high number of injuries. (“In five years here in Seattle, it’s probably the worst injury run that we’ve had, cumulatively. It seems all to have hit at sort of the same time,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said.)
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders’ team MVP each of the past three seasons, had the red card he received last weekend rescinded by an independent review panel, meaning he is eligible to play in Saturday’s game against Colorado.
According to a league press release, the review panel “determined that the contact Alonso made with San Jose defender Dan Gargan did not reach the required threshold for violent conduct, i.e. brutal or excessive force.”
This is the second time this season a Sounders player has had a red card overturned on appeal. Last month, forward Obafemi Martins was issued a red card in a victory over Chivas USA, but that decision was also overturned by the independent review panel.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.