Thoughts from Sounderland, Week One

A win is a win, 3 points are 3 points.

Well, it wasn’t pretty, but all is well and happy in Sounderland thanks to Chad Barrett’s “scrappy” goal in the 94th minute. What exactly do I mean by “scrappy”, you might ask? Well it was the kind of goal that featured both of SKC’s center backs and goalkeeper all barging into each other and taking each other out of the play – with a little help from Obafemi Martins – then Clint Dempsey rattling a header off the post, then semi-whiffing on a bicycle kick attempt, before Barrett’s side volley helped it in. But if was a fitting goal for the game it ended.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

If there is one thing to take from this game, it is that 27 fouls were whistled in just the first half, 16 on SKC. If that seems like a lot, it is. Last year an average of 24.8 fouls were called per match. Of course, with MLS locking out their usual refs in a CBA dispute, we were treated to scab refs who called 31.3 fouls per game in the 8 matches of opening weekend. The RSL vs LA Galaxy match featured 21 fouls a side, leading the weekend foul-fest ahead of the Wizar…er Sporting-Sounders tilt which ended with 40 total – a whopping 25 whistled on Sporting.

This shouldn’t be construed as a bad thing. Even though I’m not exactly happy about MLS using scab refs, there is something to be said for the fresh refereeing perspective, as my largest complaint with MLS is the rather brutish nature of play – “physical” doesn’t quite cover it – and some of what must logically fall on the officials.

In fact, it seemed as though it was SKC’s collective reckoning that they were going to have a hard time finishing full-strength that seemed to open the door a bit for Seattle. Just seconds into the second half SKC midfielder Benny Feilhaber was whistled for the 5th time and shown a yellow for persistent infringement.

Sweeping proclamations

Given the dumpster fire that ended the 2013 season, I can hardly blame my fellow Sounderlandians for perhaps being a touch worked up that we managed to win. If there is one thing that I take away from this game, it is that I was VERY unimpressed with the defending champs. For the most part, the Sounders were just barely able to rise above it. I certainly came away from the first half pretty disgusted with what I was seeing, and in no particular hurry to go back out in the rain and watch 45 more minutes of it.

If there is one thing we DO know about the Sounders, it is that they did not run the diamond. Until Sigi started making changes, it was what most would call a 4-4-2 with 2 holding central midfielders, although it’s not really worth spending a lot of time describing formations. For all intents and purposes the Sounders played with 4 attacking players, and none of the starting attackers really impressed. Instead it was the “back 6” that really controlled the game with the fullbacks and central mids giving the Sounders the edge in basically all the relevant possession and passing metrics. Brad Evans once again demonstrated what a great partner he provides for Ozzie Alonso in the middle, and Deandre Yedlin spent 90 minutes doing Yedliny things and was probably my Man of the Match. Left back Dylan Remick – making his first MLS start after playing almost exclusively in reserve matches last season- was the game’s leader with 5 tackles, and while his distribution wasn’t quite to the same level as his cohorts in the possession game, he certainly showed an aptitude for playing the LB position at the MLS level.

Center backs Chad Marshal and Djimi Traore did their jobs, and frankly I have little to say about it – which is the ultimate compliment for a center back pairing in a shutout match.

When Dempsey came on the 57th minute for Marco Pappa – who was the nominal left attacking midfielder despite seeming to spend more time in the middle – the attack looked to become a little more focused. Dempsey slotted in as a 2nd striker with Oba, Lamar Neagle switched over to the left, and it seemed as though Kenny Cooper took up what could be considered the Right Attacking midfielder duties. But, like I said, it’s simply not worth spending too much time trying to define the attacking shape of this team. We’ll have plenty of time to come up with a formation for it as the season wears on.

For the most part, though, the attack was a whole lot of missed passes and bad reads. Effective final third distribution was few and far between. Neither side passed particularly well all day, adding to the rather sloppy flow of the game. What flow there was largely went the Sounder way in the 2nd half, to the point where the result certainly seemed justified.

Neagle, particularly, showed his weakness in the distribution aspect of his game, and overall gave the ball away far to easily and often. Marco Pappa seemed to contribute very little other than a deflected shot that very nearly scored. Cooper had only 25 touches in his 78 minutes – to put that in perspective Dempsey had 26 in 33+ minutes – but launched 4 shot attempts. Martins had just 36 touches in his full 90, and mostly played lay-offs and short passes at the edge of the final third. He finished without a single shot on goal despite coming agonizingly close to a tap-in early in the 2nd half.

If Sigi had anything up his sleeve to improve the attacking flow it certainly wasn’t Chad Barrett coming on for Cooper in the 78th, who had 9 trackable actions in the match, and none of his first 8 were noteworthy, nor particularly effective. Another homegrown product, Sean Okoli, came on for Neagle in the 86th and ran hard but mostly missed on making any effective connections. He did send in the cross that eventually resulted in the game winner, but even then the first player to connect with it was SKC’s Matt Besler, who managed to nod it almost straight up in the air before he was knocked down by his own ‘keeper.

Looking ahead

Given the realities of the MLS salary structure, most teams are necessarily built around their DP’s, and as such that it is a little disappointing to hear the rumors of Toronto manager Ryan Nelson perhaps not playing his stars on the questionable turf of the X-box pitch. It’s good news then that Michael Bradley seems intent to play, as much of next Saturday’s luster would certainly come off with his absence. It remains to be seen if Defoe will show up and attempt to justify his astonishing salary – MLS is paying him 4X what he made at Tottenham so he better score a ton of goals this season. It will be Toronto’s first match of the 2014 season as they were one of 3 teams idle last weekend. Hopes are high for Toronto and their attempts to become relevant after being bottom-dwellers for most of their existence. They even managed to sign Brazilian ‘keeper Julio Cesar, who is the apparent 1st-choice for the home side in this summer’s World Cup despite being previously mired to the bench at English Championship (that’s 2nd division, which should confuse those of you who don’t follow soccer as closely) side QPR.

With Dempsey given a chance to actually get some meaningful training time with his team and not having 90 minutes mid-week in Cyprus to wear him out, we can only assume he will be starting, meaning we might actually get a chance to see what Sigi’s first-choice XI – or at least something very closely to it – looks like. We’ve certainly heard a lot about what Sigi theoretically wants to do with Dempsey as a CAM behind 2 strikers, but actually doing so seems to put the the team into a particularly unbalanced look. We may have to wait a few weeks before we really decide on what shape this team uses. In the meantime I hope to see the Sounders tested against a full-strength Toronto side. They will have to play better against better opposition than we saw on Saturday if they hope to achieve the goals that have been set out for them this season.