SEATTLE - JUNE 23: Head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC gestures against the New York Red Bulls at CenturyLink Field on June 23, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders defeated the Red Bulls 4-2. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
It would be convenient to single out the Manchester United friendly as a cause of the Sounders flat performance in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League qualifier, but it's significantly less likely than other, more subtle factors.
In the wake of the Seattle Sounders 7-0 thumping at the hands of Manchester United, there was some common ground to be had. There weren't many Sounders fans that were especially happy with the result, and some level of embarrassment was felt across the board. Outside of that, the reactions were varied; many were content to chalk it up as a meaningless-if unpleasant-result, the more quickly forgotten about the better as important games in three separate competitions loomed just over on the horizon. It wasn't the most pleasant evening to be certain, but ultimately inconsequential. For an equal (if not greater) number however, the result came at the absolute worst possible time. Not just to lose, but to lose in such humiliating fashion on their own turf; how could the Sounders possibly keep the momentum going? To this faction, not only was the result an embarrassment, it was damaging to Seattle's chances going forward.
The debate raged for a few days before fading into the background as the Sounders CONCACAF Champions League qualifying tie against Panamanian side San Francisco FC began to take precedence. Seattle was-and likely still is-expected to advanced past San Francisco and into the CCL group stage, but they made things tougher on themselves on Tuesday by losing 1-0 in Panama City. A 1-0 hole isn't the most difficult to climb out of, but the lack of an away goal and a performance that could most charitably be described as underwhelming will make for a far more nervy return leg next Wednesday. To be clear, Seattle was in most ways the better side on Tuesday night, largely dominating the run of play and clearly superior in an athletic and technical sense. The penalty that gave San Francisco their lone goal was likely justifiable but unquestionably soft and for the most part the home side showed very little danger in the attack. But it's hard to say Seattle deserved more, either; the back line was disorganized and the entire team looked flat all game. No Sounder had what could be called an above-average day and several were well below their usual standard of performance.
Predictably, that's led some to make the assertion that the Sounders poor performance can be attributed to their shellacking at the hands of Manchester United. To be fair, Seattle looked well below their normal standard on Tuesday night; the passing was sloppy, the defense was horrendous and though Seattle spent a great deal of time in San Francisco's final third they were unable to create much in the way of real danger, their best chances coming in the dying moments of the game. It was as frustrating a performance the Sounders have produced all season, and with the strong performances they've put on display as of late it's tempting to point at the outlier and single it out as the cause of the team's failure to secure a more favorable result.
But as tempting as it might be, it's a flawed way of looking at things. Despite the Sounders projecting something of an air of invincibility this past month or so, there weren't many that expected them to continue to perform at that level throughout the entire season, picking up points in every game and looking every bit the best team in MLS by some margin. At a certain point, the Sounders were going to put up a less than stellar performance and the odds were very good that it would result in a loss. That it came in a match played farther from home in the club's history against an unknown opponent in a competition known to be hellish for MLS teams playing on the road should be less than shocking. That doesn't make the result any easier to swallow, but it's not exactly the kind of thing that doesn't happen to the best teams in the league from time to time.Let's keep in mind, LA Galaxy dropped the first leg of their qualifier against Puerto Rico Islanders 4-1 last season-without a lopsided friendly loss a week beforehand, it should be noted-and they still went on to win the Supporters Shield.
The point then is that there's just too much that can happen to drastically effect the outcome of a single game to take individual results as indicative of much of anything. Perhaps if this turns into a trend there is more of a case to be made that the Manchester United result had some bearing on the Sounders fortunes in the games that followed, but even then it's impossible to prove; last season, the Sounders won seven consecutive domestic games right at the end of the year (including a victory in the US Open Cup final) before dropping the final game of the MLS regular season to the Houston Dynamo and flaming out in the first round of the playoffs to the Galaxy. Hot streaks come and hot streaks go, and to point to any single event as having a cause-and-effect relationship is results based analysis at its worst.
While it would be disingenuous to say that the Sounders weren't bothered by being beaten so soundly by Manchester United, it's important to keep in mind that they're still professional athletes. It's difficult to make it to that level without being able to take such things in stride, and though there was likely a bit of hurt pride in the immediate aftermath of the game it's just as likely that such extraordinarily driven individuals would use that as a motivating factor rather than as an excuse to run and hide.
It's not that some sort of hangover effect from the Manchester United game is impossible, or even implausible. But the odds are far greater that an exhausting road trip, an unusually high number of players having sub-par nights and an opponent that got lucky in scoring first and were effective in bunkering down and holding on were significantly more important factors. It's always going to be tempting to point at one big thing as the reason for a change in performance. But it's almost never going to be the right answer.