Sounders head into World Cup break on fire — after rolling Chicago Fire

Thoughts from Sounderland: on to the World Cup

 with another three points and another three goals, the Sounders are lapping the rest of the MLS field with 32 points and 32 goals through 15 matches. The current second place team in points per match – Toronto FC – sits a full 0.4 PPM back (2.13 to 1.73). To put this in perspective, they could win all four of their games in hand (they have only played 11) and still not catch the Sounders. The current second place team in goals per game is Vancouver at 1.92 – .21 back of the lofty Sounder pace; the Whitecaps would need to score 11 goals in their two games in hand to catch up.

At the start of the World Cup break the Sounders are breathing rarefied air, having ascended to this height in a league specifically designed to prevent this from happening. Only three times in MLS history has a team finished the regular season with a PPM of 2.0 or greater: the 1998 LA Galaxy, the 2001 Miami Fusion, and the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes. None of these teams won MLS Cup. The 2010 and ’11 Galaxy teams both finished with PPM’s of 1.97 and the 2012 Earthquakes finished with 1.94; but only the 2011 Galaxy pulled off the double.

Since 2001, only one MLS team has averaged over 2.0 goals per game over the course of an entire season, and that was the aforementioned 2012 San Jose Earthquakes. They scored a stunning 72 goals that season – the league average was 45. In Sounderland, however, we largely dismissed that Earthquakes team as a bit of a fluke – an incredibly fortunate side who seemed to score an inordinate number of penalties and late game-winning goals – and who were inevitably done in by a far more pedigreed LA team in the playoffs. But perhaps the proper way to look at that team was that they were opportunistic. That same season, LA played possum through the first half of the MLS season, ended up fourth in the conference, and went on to defeat our own Sounders on their way to a second consecutive MLS Cup.

Last season, NYRB were the highest scoring MLS team, and the Shield winners; but it was the best defensive team – the Sporks – who won the Cup. The 2011 double-winning Galaxy also boasted the League’s best defense, while the Shield runners-up Sounders, with the best offense, crashed out in the playoffs.

Of course, it’s not worth worrying about the MLS Cup playoffs until they start – or at least until the playoff seedings are locked into place. The primary goal of the Sounders for the next 19 games will be winning the Supporters Shield; anything less will feel like a clear disappointment.

Saturday’s game was not a good one, lacking in style and far too full of histrionics. The Sounders’ broadcasters did their best to sell the default MLS narrative of “exciting and unpredictable, with lots of goalz!1” but the sophisticated soccer fan watching that game ought to know better. In their final match before the World Cup, both sides played a game more befitting a Sunday morning rec league featuring players who drank too much the night before; and fell far short of giving us a proper send-off to the World’s greatest shared cultural experience.

The Fire entered the match averaging the fewest successful passes per match in the League, yet managed to nearly double Seattle in completed final-third passes (77 to 39). A leaky defense meant the Sounders seemed to barely escape with a win in a match they twice led by two goals. Chicago twice put near point-blank scoring chances right at Stefan Frei (although it must be said positioning is probably 90% of the game when it comes to playing ‘keeper). One of the league’s poorest possession teams managed to force more of the action into their attacking third than their opponents. The Sounders did not win this game by way of exerting their style over the game, but rather by being opportunistic.

That opportunity came in the way of building a 2-0 lead off of two unsuccessful crosses from Brad Evans, and two classic poachers goals from Obafemi Martins The first took a deflection of a Fire defender and fell almost perfectly for Oba to finish coolly – but the initial cross certainly appeared to be headed straight for Fire ‘keeper Sean Johnson. On the second a poor clearance from Bakary Soumare left the ball sitting for Oba, and a desperate lunge from J.K. Hurtado was two-footed and resulted in a red card and spot-kick to put the Sounders up two goals and one player.

Then, of course, just as Sounderland was pondering the possibility of another 4-0 drubbing, Harrison Shipp pulled one back, and Oba did… something. And just like that, we had a game on our hands.

I’ve discussed before the low-percentage nature of crosses. In fact, the two teams combined for just two successful open-play crosses – both from the Sounders – one of which turned out to be the game winner. With Chicago chasing the game and pushing players forward, Kenny Cooper rose and beat two Fire defenders to a high cross, flicking the ball on to Neagle – who had so much time to ponder his finish I though he’d taken to long and squandered his chance. But it was a classy finish from perhaps the most opportunistic player in MLS.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. The Sounders leaky team defending would strike yet again, leaving Shipp open in the final third to such a degree he had his own opportunity to break out his survey equipment to calculate his own cool finish. Seattle didn’t have the excuse of chasing the game, though, and three defenders were caught up trying to manage Qunicy Amarikwa’s dribble up the wing while Ozzie Alonso was caught ball-watching.

Amarikwa and Neagle both typified this match in their own, unique ways. Amarikwa was involved in a whopping 10 of the 32 fouls whistled in the match; committing six and suffering 4. He provided both assists but missed a sitter by shooting right at Frei’s head. On 52 total touches he was dispossessed three times and committed five turnovers – most in the game, although Chad Barrett had four TO’s on his 29 touches in just 66 minutes [“dispossessed” is defined as “being tackled by an opponent without attempting to dribble past them” and “turnover” is defined as “loss of possession due to mistake/poor control”]

Meanwhile over the last two matches Neagle has been dispossessed seven times in 74 total touches over 164 minutes played, and has passed for a rather paltry 20 of 34 (that’s half the number of successful passes that Pappa had on Saturday alone). Yet he has a goal, an assist, and a PK earned (which amounts to a de facto assist) in that time.

Season Awards. 
It’s time to check in on the Brad Evans and Leo Gonzalez awards. As a reminder to my readers these are completely arbitrary “awards” I will be handing out at the end of the season, each named for their inaugural winners. 

The leader for the Brad Evans award for Sounders Player of the Year who isn’t Osvaldo Alonso going into the World Cup break is Chad Marshall, who is now whoscored.com‘s highest-rated player in MLS, when weighted by appearances. Do you find it odd that a CB from a team with as leaky a defense as the Sounders could hold this position? Welcome to the analytical hell of determining the efficacy of the center back position.

The leader for the Leo Gonzalez Award for Player Who Isn’t Necessarily Player of the Year but Really Deserves Some Recognition is Gonzalo Pineda. There has been a lot of confusion over the last few years in Sounderland about what exactly it is that the “not Alonso” CM position is supposed to be, and no small amount of unjustified scorn placed on Brad Evans – who often manned the position – largely based on what he *wasn’t*. Pineda has come to basically define the position, such that I’m wondering how we managed this long without him… or maybe we didn’t, and are only now beginning to realize it.

Around the MLS:

I’ve written in some past articles about the “ringer” teams – those four MLS teams that employ high-priced DP’s: Seattle, Los Angeles, New York Red Bulls, and Toronto; plus the two other Canadian teams who are fifth and sixth in salary. Other than Seattle, it’s a bit of a mixed bag for these teams so far this season.

Starting at the bottom, Montreal were idle last weekend after their surprise win over the Revolution, who dumped their second straight to a NYRB team who are still trying to get their shit together. LA were looking feisty but probably should have done better than a draw against Chivas – who are really only nominally an MLS side. They do have games in hand but still seem to be underperforming. Aforementioned Toronto are suddenly showing life after a rather egregiously mediocre start to the season. The eminently lively Whitecaps are enjoying a 7-match unbeaten run, longest in MLS at the moment. Considering they terminated Kenny Miller – previously the 13-highest-paid player in MLS – Vancouver are winning the “bang for their buck” sweepstakes, getting great seasons so far out of their remaining DP’s Matias Laba and Pedro Morales. 

I have every expectation that L.A. will be a factor when push comes to shove, and Toronto seems suddenly poised to fulfill their alleged destiny as a “superclub” (which, honestly, is a laughable moniker for any MLS franchise) but as we pause for the World Cup, the efficacy of hiring “ringers” is still very much in doubt – at least outside of Seattle.

World Cup Preview:

There are four teams who have separated themselves as the consensus favorites this summer: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and Spain. Brazil and Germany are two of the three global soccer super-powers (Italy is the 3rd); Brazil as 5-time champions and hosts will be looked at as *the* team to beat in the tournament, while you would always do well to put Germany through to at least the semifinals of any Euro Cup or World Cup – although they haven’t won one since 1996. Argentina are former superpowers — they haven’t made the semifinals in a World Cup since 1990 – and bring a ridiculous amount of attacking talent to Brazil, looking likely to be the most entertaining team in making a push to regain their former status.

And then there is Spain, winners of the last two Euro Cups and defending World Champions, looking to continue a historic run of international success. It’s odd to think that before their 2008 Euro triumph they were perennial underachievers in major international competition. It’s tempting to wonder if the Spanish wave has crested, but the all-Madrid Champions League final and the still immensely talented team they will send to Brazil suggests otherwise.

You can’t talk about Spain without talking about tiki-taka, an approach to the game that has achieved astonishing success over the last eight years at the club level as well with Barcelona. The problem is, at this point it’s not really accurate to think of tiki-taka as a stand-alone concept, but rather an idea that has become incorporated into the global footballing consciousness. Although to understand this, it may help to understand what exactly tiki-taka means.

The most important consideration to make when regarding tiki-taka is its association with controlling possession. Possession is not a tactic in and of itself, but it is a result of tactics when properly executed. Tiki-taka is made of three prime elements: playing predominantly short, controlled passes; constant motion of players; and applying defensive pressure over the entire pitch to win the ball back as quickly as possible. That’s really it, and we see these elements all over the world across varying skill levels. It is a process evolved from total football – another example of what was once a stand-alone concept that became fully incorporated into global thinking.

This is a system that actually requires discipline and concentration; it is precise and controlled yet when fully deployed can appear amazingly fluid and almost effortless. It is, quite frankly, simply beyond what any international side is capable of besides Spain. In general, the tactical sophistication of international sides lags well behind club soccer – for reasons that are readily apparent given the relative paucity of competitive international matches versus club matches. Spain, however, not only have the audacity, they have the élan to pull it off.

I feel as though it is a huge mistake to dismiss tiki-taka as “boring,” when it is in fact the most highly evolved form of soccer-football we have *ever* seen at the international level. Spain’s run through the 2012 Euro’s was a phenomenal display of the beautiful game, a high achievement of the very style and teamwork that sets soccer apart from other sports.

There is a very good chance that Spain will fall at this World Cup, and a world full of soccer writers and bloggers will trot out their well-prepared clichés and platitudes to describe the end of the reign of “Spanish tiki-taka”. I’m afraid the great majority of them will have entirely missed the point.

Meanwhile at Camp Klinsmann:

They have pulled up the stakes and headed to Brazil, where we can now properly prepare for the reality of being the least-talented team in the group – yes, even behind Ghana. The Nigeria friendly provided a good glimpse of what to expect – although Klinsmann remains coy about his actual starting lineup – the formation barely matters. Instead, we can expect a “defend in numbers, attack with speed” approach. I’ll cut myself off before I start repeating what I wrote after the Mother’s Day massacre, so for more on this, go re-read that article.

Both Ghana and USA will be looking at the first group stage match as a must-win, while Germany and Portugal may very well engage in a somewhat desultory glorified kick-around. Both Germany and Portugal will certainly be confident of their ability to garner results against their other opponents in the group stage. If there is anything we have learned after the last few World Cups it is that the first games of the group stage are often dominating by cagey, cautious, and, well, boring affairs. Even though plenty of teams have recovered from losing their first match – one notable example being Spain in 2010 – no one wants to open with a loss. Fortunately, just as everyone starts fretting about all the boring soccer, things tend to really pick up for the second and third rounds of the group stage.

But getting back on track, as I write this – a mere 61 hours before the first match of World Cup 2014 Brazil is scheduled to kick off – I feel as though the USA is very clearly in its awkward, immature, adolescent stage. Three games every four years isn’t a fair assessment for this team and this program; but in that regard we share a bond with virtually every other team in the field. In our case, as a sporting nation, we have to remember that American exceptionalism simply does not translate onto the pitch. If we lose it won’t necessarily be because we’ve even done anything wrong; the entire world plays this game and there are a lot of people in a lot of places who are really fucking good at it. We’ll hear the same tropes and excuses, but I urge you to not get caught up in them. If we manage to navigate our way out of the group stages, it will be hailed as a marvelous triumph – but it could very well be that we simply got extraordinarily lucky. Whatever happens, I urge you to enjoy the World Cup for what it is, and not what it isn’t. We still have a lot of growing up to do and a lot we can learn.