In the 85th minute of Wednesday’s game between the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps, Sounders Matchday, the team’s official live play-by-play twitter account, tweeted this: “Speechless.” I suppose if the guy had been more literal-minded, he wouldn’t have written anything, or maybe he'd have gone Meta with the truly self-negating “Textless.” The Sounders, many pundits pick for best team in the league, were getting hammered for the second game in a row: it ended a miserable 4-1. This is a team who went from “resurgent” after a bad start to the season to “rampant” to … well, any number of souped-up adjectives. They were “classy,” they were “sexy,” they lured Clint Dempsey back to American shores. Nobody picked them to get thrashed twice at the tail end of the season, right when results really start to matter.
In the first of the thrashings, the TV commentators talked about how a good team can afford to get beaten, and beaten badly, maybe once a season. They will just, the announcer said, “have to shake it off” for the next game. This was, of course, blindingly obvious: What else are they to do? Wallow and lose on purpose? While critiquing the performance of TV sports commentators is like shooting ducks in a barrel, and brings into question the talent of the critic (why aren’t you critiquing something more worthwhile? Something more challenging? Sports commentary is supposed to be off-the-cuff and light), it is interesting the style in which favored teams are given the benefit of the doubt. A true thrashing is rarely the simple product of an off day, a bad day at the office, or a “road bump.” While it’s a safe bet to say that team that has won a bunch will soon win a bunch again, that’s not how it goes, particularly in the topsy-turvy hey-nobody-has-won-even-half-their-games MLS.
So Seattle went ahead and blew it, and blew it badly, in immediate succession. They’ve conceded 9 goals in their past 2 games, while scoring 2. How do they recover?
“We live and die together. We live and die as team, as a staff – everybody,” Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid said. “We’ve just got to find our form again. The issue is not who we play. The issue is us finding our form.”
This is definitely a rote answer, but what else is a coach to say? The stark terms of life and death are a bit silly, but there is something elemental, even mystical, to the vagaries of form. It’s the quintessential aim of a coach - to make his players more than the sum of their parts. To have, in addition to individual talents and traits, an aura and spirit that can’t be measured, but can be seen, and manifests itself directly in the results of the game. The thing is, you don’t just find your form. It’s like your car keys only in that you can lose it bewilderingly easily. More than being found, form is built.
It looks like the Sounders are suddenly lost and at a particularly bad time. Of course, they can still possibly win the Supporters’ Shield and will probably, barring further and equivalent catastrophe, be in the playoffs. So it’s not like they’ve thrown their season away; more that the sheen has come off and they look ordinary and thoroughly beatable.
The thing is, there are a few events that are tried-and-true igniters of form. The most classic of these is happening this weekend: a derby. When you beat your most hated enemy, your insufferable neighbor, you feel a lot better about yourself. It’s the best palate cleanser of all. This Portland Timbers / Seattle Sounders contest has a lot hanging on it; with a good result, either team could insure a playoff spot. If the Timbers win, they’ll move into second place in the conference. If the Sounders win, people will immediately start to forget how bad they’ve been the past few days. They can get back to being media darlings. Lose it, and there won’t be much chance for form in the last dregs of the season.