Seattle Sounders Still a Work in Progress Heading into Cascadia Cup Clash

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistJuly 15, 2016

Jul 13, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Cristian Roldan (middle-right) and defender Zach Scott (right) take a bow to the fans following a 5-0 victory against the FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes winning can cure everything for a team in turmoil.

But for the Seattle Sounders, their 5-0 home win over FC Dallas on Wednesday night was just a temporary bandage that covered a litany of issues that still linger around the ninth-place club in the Western Conference. 

Sure, the optics look great for the struggling Sounders since they thoroughly defeated the club that will probably win the Supporters' Shield, but the three points at CenturyLink Field also came at a steep price. 

Star forward Clint Dempsey, who isn't exactly the coolest head in the Sounders lineup, was sent off in the first half for putting his hands in the face of Juan Esteban Ortiz. Dempsey is now unavailable for the vital rivalry clash with the Portland Timbers on Sunday at Providence Park. 

Jul 13, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Clint Dempsey (2) stands over FC Dallas midfielder Juan Ortiz (20) after fouling him during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Looking on are FC Dallas defender Aubrey David (2) and referee
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Earning a victory against a depleted FC Dallas side is one thing, but picking up three points on the road against a hated rival has the potential to turn around the dismal season in Seattle. However, achieving that feat will be quite the task given the problems the Sounders still need to address. 

The top immediate issue at hand is replacing Dempsey in one of Major League Soccer's top environments. Providence Park is always dripping with excitement for a soccer match, and that will be amplified tenfold for the Cascadia Cup clash with the Sounders in what is still the league's top rivalry. One day the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will get there, but the two Eastern Conference sides need to build more history before that happens. 

In the six matches Dempsey has missed in 2016, Seattle has earned a grand total of four points and has been outscored 11-5. Among the doom and gloom surrounding the absence of the United States men's national team star is optimism that rookie and fellow USMNT forward Jordan Morris is ready to embrace the pressure and lead the line. 

The Stanford University product impressed in the last game Dempsey missed on July 2 as he powered the Sounders to a 1-1 draw at BMO Field against Toronto FC. But some will put an asterisk next to that match since the Reds trotted out a weakened side due to injuries and Sebastian Giovinco being out of form at the moment. 

Jul 13, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris (13) celebrates with midfielder Clint Dempsey (2) after scoring a goal against the FC Dallas during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated Dallas 5-0. Mandatory Credi
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Morris started as the focal point of a 4-3-3 formation for most of June, and there is a strong possibility he will do the same on Sunday as the Sounders try to break down a sturdy Timbers back line led by Nat Borchers and Alvas Powell.

Portland showed some weaknesses in its midweek draw with Montreal on Wednesday at home, but the Impact are much more organized in the final third than the Sounders will be without Dempsey. 

In addition to solving a temporary problem in the biggest game of the season to date, the Sounders still have some season-long issues to work out in order to come close to resembling a postseason contender by the time fall moves into North America. 

The biggest issue staring Sigi Schmid's side in the face this season has been the absence of chemistry between Dempsey and a fellow attacker. The preseason exit of Obafemi Martins to Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua threw off the rhythm Seattle was in during the first two seasons of Dempsey's tenure in the Pacific Northwest. 

Oct 25, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins (9) reacts following a goal against the Real Salt Lake during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A player of Martins' stature isn't going to make an appearance on the Sounders roster anytime soon. Whoever Schmid and general manager Garth Lagerwey opt to bring in during the summer transfer window at forward will have to develop a chemistry with Dempsey, Morris and the other providers in the Seattle attack.

In addition to that, if a new signing is brought in, the player will have to adapt to the unique qualities of the league. Usually it takes a midseason acquisition a full offseason with the club to fully grasp the features of MLS. 

The potential new acquisition also has to be well-versed in the No. 10 role. On countless occasions this season, the link-up play between the midfielder and forwards in the Seattle lineup has let the club down. In Dempsey's first game back against the LA Galaxy, the Sounders produced 21 shots, but only five went on target. 

Jul 9, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Nelson Valdez (16) dribbles against Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Baggio Husidic (6) during the second half at CenturyLink Field. Los Angeles defeated Seattle, 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In the 1-0 defeat to the perennial contenders for the MLS Cup, the Sounders displayed plenty of positive qualities in certain parts of the pitch, but they missed the presence of a functional No. 10 dearly. If someone can come into the side and fill the need in that role, Seattle will take a step forward. 

Due to the lack of a true No. 10 in the squad, Schmid has been forced to fit square pegs into round holes in recent weeks in an attempt to create a spark. The experiment that gained the most attention was the alignment of Joevin Jones in the front three instead of at his normal left-back position. 

Back at his natural position, Jones has turned in a decent season alongside his defensive teammates as they've let in just 21 goals. Despite the low total of goals conceded, the Sounders' back line has been put under pressure to be perfect for 90 minutes due to the inability of the attack in the finishing department. 

Seattle didn't necessarily have a terrible match on the defensive side of the pitch in the 1-0 loss to the Galaxy, but it was punished for a lapse of effort in the box on the lone goal of the contest. In past years, defensive errors have been washed away by the dominant attack, but that has not been the case in 2016. 

The addition of Roman Torres, who is working his way back from an ACL tear, should help Seattle reinforce its defensive setup in front of goalkeeper Stefan Frei in the coming weeks and months. Yet the Panamanian won't be able to help on Sunday against the Timbers, who possess an aerial threat in Fanendo Adi and a creative midfielder in Diego Valeri who can pick opposing defenses apart in an instant. 

Sunday's contest in Portland, Oregon, also contains a psychological aspect to it since Portland currently owns the title the Sounders have coveted but have come up short in earning every season since they joined MLS. 

If the defending MLS Cup champions have their way with the Sounders, the pressure from the fanbase on Schmid and the squad will grow. Losing to Portland is unacceptable in any scenario, but dropping the first league game against the Timbers since they hoisted the MLS Cup in December would be as close to a knockout blow to the Sounders as possible given the way this season has gone. 

Jun 25, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid complains to the referees following a goal by New York City FC during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

If we were talking about an Eastern Conference side in this situation, we'd claim it's still in the playoff race and one winning streak will get it back in the mix, but out in the treacherous Western Conference, you need multiple wins and help from other teams across the league. 

The Sounders currently sit eight points back of the sixth-place Vancouver Whitecaps. Since FC Dallas and Colorado appear to have postseason spots locked up if they continue their recent form, there will be a pack of eight teams fighting for a quartet of playoff berths over the last four months of the season. 

The good news, or bad news depending on your outlook for the Sounders at the moment, is Seattle plays 14 of its final 16 matches against Western Conference opposition. But that also means the presumably easy point grabs against the Eastern Conference are almost gone. 

With three games against Portland and one each against Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy before the end of August, Seattle's fate may be determined by the end of the final regular-season meeting with Caleb Porter's Timbers. 

If you've learned anything about MLS, it is the unpredictable can happen. It already has to an extent in Seattle this season due to the club's unexpected struggles. But the Sounders may deliver the biggest surprise of the season if they somehow work their way back into the playoff mix. The potential push to play in November starts on Sunday in Portland for a side that is in need of upward movement in the table. 

Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.

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