Sounders are doomed! (probably not)

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

How will we look back on the Sounders’ scintillating run to a 10-point cushion at the top of the table come December? Is this rather sudden power outage an omen or merely dreaded course correction from the Soccer Gods – a “regression to the mean” if you will – in a League dominated by mediocrity?

For an 11-match stretch the Sounders put together a 9-1-1 record – the lone loss the Mothers Day massacre to New England. While the intensity of the hot streak was notable, the duration certainly was not unprecedented.

If you remember back to the 2010 season, the Sounders embarked on a remarkable 13-match stretch in the 2nd half of the season where they went 10-2-1 (the lone loss coming to the New England Revolution, oddly enough). This run also included five wins on the trot – just like this year’s hot streak, and was good for a 2.46 PPM, compared to the 2.54 of this year’s 11-game run. Of course, 2010 may not be the best example, as you may recall that season started with just 16 frustrating points through 16 mostly disappointing matches.

So what about this sudden cold snap? Three losses in four matches – all by way of shutout – is certainly a dismal way to end the hot streak, but as our memories may remind us this too is a familiar pattern for the Sounders. Remember 2012? that season started out with a 7-1-1 run (2.44 PPM) which also included five straight wins – then a rather confounding four losses in the next seven matches and a total winless streak of nine games. They followed that cold spell with a 6-2-1 stretch (2.22 PPM) before finishing out the season in somewhat mediocre style.

Last year, of course, the season started with the Sounders sucking and ended with them sucking even more. But in between? You’ve got to remember the 8-0-1 (2.67 PPM) stretch from late July through mid-September that rocketed them to the top of the Supporters Shield race, controlling their own destiny for their first piece of MLS Silverware.

The point of all this is that this Sounders season seems to be following a familiar pattern, and while the particulars may change from year to year, what we have seen is extended hot streaks punctuated by bitter cold snaps. For the most part, the hot streaks have been longer, and the team has kept its head above the icy waters of MLS brand mediocrity.

In every season since 2010 they have had a stretch of at least nine games with a PPM of 2.22 or greater – twice in 2012. Only in 2011 – to this point the high-water mark of the MLS Sounders – did they not also suffer a dismal stretch where they seemingly forgot how to play soccer; and if you’ll recall they started that season with two losses and two draws. Even 2009, the inaugural season, had its ups and downs; with three straight wins to start, three straight wins to finish, and somewhere in between that dismal stretch where they didn’t manage a single goal over four straight home games.

Simply put, this is a thing that happens with the Sounders, and I feel like this latest power outage was not only predictable, it was expected; particularly the Galaxy part.

What helps is that you can easily rationalize each of the three losses: both Vancouver and San Jose have proven to be bogey teams for Seattle – and that starting lineup against Vancouver was simply only rarely ever going to be able to win an MLS match. As for L.A., well, not to put to fine a point on it, but the Galaxy are simply a far more accomplished MLS franchise than the Sounders, and you’ve kind of got to expect that if anyone was going to teach us a lesson, it was them. Plus, we were missing the best Center Back in the League. [note: I was on vacation and ended up not watching the L.A. match…so deal with it]

While the margins are suddenly much more narrow, the Sounders are still first in PPM. We should never have expected to have it so easy; we were never going to be able to cruise to a Shield. We are not quite yet 2/3rd of the way through the season so there is plenty of time and room for a course correction from Sigi and/or Adrian. Will we see one? Will we even need one? These are things I do not know. I’m watching right along with the rest of you. I just hope the people who Sounderland has decided they trust to make those important decisions are actually capable of doing so.

So, about that game.

Occasionally, amidst the noise of numbers that help describe every match you find a statistic you grasp on to and use to help describe the game. You have to be careful with statistical analysis of soccer games. It was Portland coach Caleb Porter who warned us of “sticking our hand up the puppet of statistics” after his team won a playoff match despite being largely “out statistic-ed” by the Sounders. While it may not be what we wanted to hear at that time, it was something very important to consider.

In Saturday’s case my Telling Stat is Obafemi Martins 0 shots. That’s zero shots… total. I could carry on for some time breaking down the nature and efficacy of shot statistics and Sounders’ shot numbers from this season, but I’m not going to. I won’t do it because I think that Oba having no shots speaks for itself.

At some point, we must give credit to San Jose, who have only allowed 20 goals through 19 matches, giving them the league’s 4th-best GAA despite being 13th in PPM. They are the best team in MLS at winning aerial duels, with 23.3 per game – a number that leads by a significant margin. The Sounders were simply unable to exert their ability or play with any real quality or style. It was particularly disappointing so see the sheer number of “out of ideas” lofted crosses. To some extent, it was little more than soccer by rote: lacking any real creativity you may as well just keep banging the ball into the danger area and hope something good happens.

Other than that, I honestly don’t really have much else to say about it. The attack sucks right now, managing a meager three goals in our last five matches after scoring a blistering 2.13 a match. Hopefully this bullshit doesn’t continue much longer, but if it does expect a *lot* of snark, particularly about Sigi and Adrian. Let’s be real, we’re good but not *that* good, so maybe we were just flying a little too high and it was time to be brought back down to Earth just a bit, and LA and San Jose were just the teams to do it.

Bigger Picture.

The defining goal for the 2014 Sounders season still is, and needs to be, MLS Silverware. The team can still back-door their way into the secondary objective of the season – a CCL berth – with the best record in the West or a US Open Cup, but I just don’t think either of those can be considered primary objectives. It’s a Supporters Shield or MLS Cup or bust, or Sigi can pack his bags as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t really want to disparage the Open Cup. It has its place, and it’s great that the Sounders won three in a row; but it’s still clearly a second-rate competition. One in which the Sounders exploited their stature to buy home games to help them win, let’s not forget. I also think it’s important that the Open Cup winner earns the CCL berth, as it helps keep the competition credible. Frankly, those CCL berths were the best thing about winning the Open Cup, as CCL was a huge part of the growth of the team.

I’m fine with winning it this year, you just can’t expect me to place more importance into it than it deserves. This teams needs to win a gawdamm MLS trophy. I couldn’t care less about the astounding business success of the franchise launch any more, and it seems little more than a crutch – along with the three Open Cups – used by apologists for the fact that this team continues to demonstrate a remarkable ability to disappoint in big moments. Since 2011 the excuse of “expansion team” was invalidated. I think we need to be very clear about what the expectations for this season are.

Having said that, things still look excellent for Seattle. We are still in pole position for the Shield, and a #1 seed certainly can’t hurt our Cup shot. But are we really the *best* team in MLS at the moment? That may seem an odd thing to say, but one thing about soccer is that goals can be an incredibly crude judge of quality, and since goals decide who wins matches you can see some pretty confounding deltas between results and team ability. The extreme parity of MLS can make it all the more confusing, to the point where you can honestly just assume there us no real short-term order to the chaos.

What you can do is study trends, and – despite the prior warning about statistics – you can so often spot trends in some of the advanced metrics we see coming out of the soccer-football stats-geek world.

My recent new favorite soccer-football stats-geek website is American Soccer Analysis. A couple of numbers I have glommed on to are Shots on Goal Ratio, and attacking 3rd possession ratio. The first maybe isn’t all that “advanced”, and the second refers to the ratio of possession in the attacking 3rd.

It may not surprise you to learn that, as of August 4th, Sporting K.C. leads MLS in both those categories, tied with L.A. for a 1.55 SGRatio (meaning, of course, that they have taken 1.55 shots on goal for every one of their opponent). Tied for 3rd are Seattle and Vancouver, at 1.22. In the attacking 3rd possession ratio, SKC are at 1.36, followed by NER (1.33), Columbus (1.22), L.A. (1.16) then Seattle, RSL, and Houston all at 1.07. What does this mean? I’m not sure, but I have a hunch that it might mean something.

I think that the process-based approach to soccer – the type of thinking that gave rise to “total football” and “tiki-taka” – is essentially centered around the holistic nature of the game. Teams are holistic, games are holistic, seasons are holistic; and a good process can increase your chances of winning over the long run. The value of an idea isn’t necessarily in whether you were wrong or right, but rather in the process that you followed to arrive at it. Similarly, in soccer the value of a system isn’t necessarily in whether you won or lost, but in whether you played a style that maximized your chances of winning. This way of thinking is a bit of a departure from the strictly results-based philosophy of much of sports, but it is also pretty difficult to argue with the theory at work, and it has helped some teams be extremely successful over extended periods.

As I’ve said, goals allowed and conceded can be an extremely crude and often blindly arbitrary judge of a team’s ability and quality. Yes, there are inherent flaws to both the shots on goal and territorial possession metrics, and neither are – nor were they ever intended to be – any sort of statistical be-all-end-all. It just seems to me that in a process-based way of thinking, these are two pretty valuable -and actually relatively straightforward – metrics to analyze a team’s actual ability and quality to maximize their chances of winning.

Up Next.

The Houston Dynamo have really sucked this season, to the point where I was actually quite surprised with how much they sucked, especially considering that for whatever reason it seemed like they shouldn’t really suck this much. Then they went out and beat DC United last weekend – and in case you haven’t noticed D.C. United are sitting on 37 points – albeit it with one more matched played than Seattle. Stop to consider for a moment that if United had won that game on Sunday they would’ve moved to 40 points on 21 played and been a hairs-breadth ahead of the Sounders on PPM, 1.905 to 1.9. So who the hell knows what could happen, honestly?

What I do expect to see happen is the Sounders will run a lot and kick the ball and keep running and kicking until they [hopefully] kick the ball into the Houston net and score. Hopefully they run harder and kick better and put more balls into the Houston net than they put in our, and win. Either way, I’ll have something to say about it.