At some point reality hits and you can no longer remain in denial. For the Seattle Sounders and their fans, that point may have arrived on Saturday, with the 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire.
No longer can it be assumed the Sounders will be okay and back on track in no time at all. With three consecutive defeats and four losses in five, the team has reached a defining moment in their season.
The Sounders need to take a long hard look at themselves, after losing to a team which currently sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. In this respect, here are four takeaways from Saturday's game at Soldier Field.
1) Don't blame Stefan Cleveland
Having no Stefan Frei in the side is nothing to take lightly. He has been the proverbial last line of defense since joining the Sounders in 2014 and a major reason behind the team's success.
As such, with Frei missing the last two games due to being in the health and safety protocols, there was understandable concern. Unfortunately for the fans this concern proved to be warranted, with the Sounder losing both games without their number one goalie.
At the same time however, it is tough to place any of the blame on Frei's replacement, Stefan Cleveland, who has played well. In fact, in terms of the Chicago Fire game specifically, the one-goal deficit would have been worse if it wasn't for Cleveland.
The 28-year-old made several key saves during Saturday's game. Two in particular during the opening half hour kept the Sounders in contention, as he covered for mistakes by Yeimer and Kelyn Rowe respectively.
Even when the Fire did score in the 23rd minute through a Rafael Czichos header, Cleveland wasn't to blame. Speaking to the media afterwards, Schmetzer said, "I don't fault him for the goal. I don't think he could have prevented that. He had a good performance."
The general consensus is that Frei should be back for next weekend's home game with the Colorado Rapids. However, if Cleveland needs to step in again, the Sounders will be in save hands.
2) Not your usual Sounders
There is no doubt the Sounders are in a funk at the moment. This inevitably leads to the question of what is going on with the team?
Nicolas Lodeiro admitted after Saturday's game, that this isn't the same team which won the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this year. However, what is particularly concerning, is the Sounders didn't struggle to this extent when juggling the duel priorities of Champions League and MLS games.
Lodeiro referenced the team looking tired -- three games in eight days will do that to you -- and lacking inspiration. When asked how the Sounders can get out of their current tailspin, he said:
"We have to change our attitude. We have to be more aggressive. We have to have the ball. We have to want to have the ball. Of course, we are the team [everyone wants to beat]. We won the championship of CONCACAF, and everyone looks [forward to] playing us and beating us. And nobody is going to give us anything. No teams are going to be giving us gifts or anything.”
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer added that the team is lacking confidence right now. It doesn't matter how good you are -- and the Sounders are still a very talented team -- anyone can suffer from a lack of confidence.
In this respect, while Lodeiro is right in saying the players need to change their attitude, actually doing it is another thing altogether. If nothing else, fans should at least have faith that in Schmetzer, they have the right man to get the Sounders back on track.
As per Lodeiro's earlier comment about the team looking tired, they will at least now get seven days to prepare for their next game. This includes giving the players two days off entirely, to rest, recover and refocus.
3) Missing that scoring touch
The one thing that stands out more than anything else during the recent poor form, is the lack of goals. The Sounders have scored just three times in the last five games.
Particularly alarming is that the Sounders have now gone 300 minutes without a goal, since they scored their second one in the 2-0 win over Toronto FC. Additionally, the first three-match goal drought is their first since 2018.
In terms of MLS as whole, the Sounders appear to be struggling full stop with scoring. Consider that following Saturday's action, they are tied for the 15th-most goals in the league, placing them essentially in the middle of the pack.
It would be easy to point to the repeated absences of Raul Ruidiaz due to injury, as a factor. In this respect, only having one of the league's most prolific strikers available for nine of 20 league games doesn't help.
However, to put the lack of goals down to one player -- no matter how good they are -- doesn't cut it, especially when you're the Sounders. They have more than enough talent capable of picking of picking up the slack.
Up front, the Sounders have the likes of Jordan Morris, Fredy Montero and Will Bruin. Add midfielders Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan into the mix, and you have a team which shouldn't be struggling so much to score goals.
Pending how much longer Ruidiaz is out for, Schmetzer will likely experiment with the formation, tactics and player roles. Look for Morris to potentially be moved full time to the main striker position and for Leo Chu to become more involved.
4) In need of another late surge
In one respect it's not panic stations yet, despite the three-game losing streak and four defeats in five. As of Sunday morning, the Sounders are just one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
At the same time however, the Sounders still need to buck up their ideas and return to form. Just because they've never missed the playoffs since entering MLS in 2009, they have no divine right to expect to be there again this year.
However, even if the Sounders do still make the playoffs -- and it would be a shock if they didn't -- they want to be as well-placed as possible. Where they are positioned in the standings could make all the difference in determining how realistic a shot at a fifth appearance in the MLS Cup is.
If nothing else, the Sounders are renowned for second-half surges, none more so that in 2016. That season they sat 10 points out of a playoff spot with just 14 games to go.
Add into the equation that the Sounders had parted company with the late, great Sigi Schmid and lost Clint Dempsey for the remainder of the season. Regardless, they went on a run for the ages, ending in capturing their inaugural MLS Cup.
Interestingly, the Sounders again have 14 league games remaining, albeit they are in nowhere as bad a position as the same stage in 2016. Although, as Schmetzer warned following Saturday's loss, 14 games may seem like a lot, but it isn't really.
As a final note, the Sounders won't be able to rely on the significant home-field advantage Lumen Field usually offers, with just half of their remaining games being in Seattle. How this all plays out is anyone's guess, but it's going to be an interesting final 12 weeks of the regular season.
- The Fire have now won four of the last five games against the Sounders outside Seattle
- This is the Sounders' first three-game league losing streak since 2019
- Bruin made his 300th MLS regular season appearance
- The Sounders out-shot the Fire 15-9, but only had two on target (versus five)
- The Sounders are now 3-6-1 in league away games this season
- Cleveland has only one win in six starts, but a 81.3-69.5 edge over Frei in save percentage