Thoughts from Sounderland — Nothing sweeter than winning in Portland

A virtuoso performance from Obafemi Martins guided the Sounders past the Timbers in convincing fashion.

The last time these two teams met back in mid-July, a frightfully fetid and stagnant match was turned around upon the early second-half introduction of Martins as a substitute.  The Sounder attack would suddenly seem to flip a switch and the Sounders would cruise to a relatively comfortable 2-0 win.

Since then, Oba has appeared to take a bit of a dip in form — these things happen — and the Sounders attack has been seemingly out of sorts in the meantime. The 6-0 thrashing of Chicago in the USOC semifinal stood out as a an inexplicable anomaly more than anything else.

So was Sunday’s match the result of Portland’s defensive ineptitude?  That certainly played a role, but it’s also pretty clear that the combination of Oba and Dempsey, when firing on all cylinders, is difficult for any MLS defense to contain.

A legitimate case could be made for Oba as MLS MVP at this point — although he lacks the gaudy metrics to garner legitimate consideration from the people who decide such things, just watching this team it is clear he is at least the Sounders MVP.  What does being a MVP striker of the best and one of the highest-scoring teams in the League mean?  It’s worth noting that Oba’s goal and assist total compares favorably to Thierry Henry, who is currently’s highest-rated player in MLS.

Lies and statistics

Considering the match was a completely one-sided affair on the scoreboard, with neither Timbers goal really threatening the Sounders domination, some key stylistic metrics tell another story.

A rather astonishing 39 percent of the trackable actions occurred in the Sounders defensive third.  That number may not mean much to you at first glance, but also consider that only 37 percent of the match took place in the middle third, meaning more of the action took place in the Sounders third than the middle — which is pretty rare for any soccer game.  On average this season 26 percent of the game action occurs in the Sounders third, 47 percent in the middle and 27 percent in the attacking third.  At any rate, I see a number that high and it certainly indicates an “unusual event” applies to this match.

The Sounders generally play a style with very proactive defending, and I think the easiest way to define that is keeping the ball out of your defensive third.  There are other elements at work, most notably the idea that possession itself — and a style of play built around possession, is also best thought of as proactive defending.  This has always been a part of Sigi’s system, and the Sounders have consistently been one of the better defensive teams in MLS because of this.

On the season the Sounders have completed 80.5 percent of their passes, sixth-best in MLS.  The relative importance of passing percentage can be difficult to gauge, but we know that stylistically the Sounders generally play to a higher passing percentage. On Sunday they only completed 69 percent of their passes, a number that I would regard as remarkably low.  When I see a lower passing percentage I am going to immediately think “more long balls”, and 18.9 percent of the Sounders total passes were long balls, up from the season average of 12 percent — one of the lowest in the League.  The Sounders are actually third in MLS in short passes per match — probably the ultimate register of a possession-based approach — and average 394 a game, a much higher total than the 282 from Sunday. On the other hand they only attempted 12 crosses, well below the season average of 22. I have complained in the past about the high numbers of crosses the Sounders tend to play, many of them low percentage “out of ideas” lobbed crosses to no target in particular.  But on Sunday it was the Timbers who resorted to playing too many crosses, with 35 attempted.

The corner kick totals also are telling.  The Timbers won 13 corners, and the Sounders just three. That is an objectively high number of corners to concede.  Corner kicks often tell the story of a team forced to defend deep and reactively — in other words a defense “back on its heals” so to speak and under considerable duress.  In a vacuum, a corner kick disparity like that might tell a story of one team hanging on for dear life against a more dominant opponent.

But what happened was by all accounts a rather thorough Seattle victory. We can thank the brilliance of Oba and Dempsey — with considerable help from Brad Evans — for rendering all of these otherwise telling metrics utterly moot.

In the early stages the Sounders appeared to be the team far more interested in stringing together passes and controlling the flow.  This culminated with the brilliant 14-pass sequence that lead to Oba’s simple tap-in off an Evans cross, and that was the high-water mark for the Sounders creativity — although Oba and Dempsey combined beautifully for the second goal on a counterattack.  With the game state changed, and Portland desperate to score, the Sounders became the reactive team.

I will be the first to tell you that style really has never mattered in Sounders vs. Timbers matches.  I am also pretty sure that this is something that most fans or supporters of either team simply couldn’t care less about, but for purposes of evolving the game in North America at some point the product on the pitch needs to live up to the atmosphere in the stands.  It didn’t take tremendous insight to be able to predict that in the first five minutes someone would be taken out by a thumping challenge that would go un-cautioned.  This isn’t to say that Sunday’s match was necessarily bad — a relatively easy 4-2 win will shine over that any day.

In the World Cup, the USA played an uber-reactive style in which their play was far too influenced by the game-state.  Although the results certainly worked towards rewarding the “belief” surrounding the team, the USMNT was notably lacking from a stylistic perspective.  It’s a legitimate criticism: great teams exert their style and play proactively, and don’t let the game state change their approach significantly — but for rare circumstances generally related to knock-out matches.

Nonetheless, it was a genuinely dominant win — neither Timbers goal brought them any closer than two back and the Sounders were in control most of the way.  This is what the best striker duo in MLS can do for you.

Winning in Portland is probably the best experience for a Sounders supporter. I reckon that winning a trophy would be better, but I can honestly say that Sunday’s win was more gratifying for me than our third Open Cup win — and the single most gratifying win in my experience as an MLS Sounders supporter was the 3-2 win in Portland in 2011.  So, no, I don’t really care about style in this one.

The part where I talk about Beavis and Butthead

During the 6-0 thumbing of Chicago in USOC, my friend Josh decided to nickname Chad Barrett and Kenny Cooper “Beavis and Butthead.”  Once again we were treated to Chad “I cost $185K less against the cap than Kenny Cooper and that’s plenty of money to sign another impact player” Barrett as a Wide Attacking Mid.

I can’t even begin to fully express my amusement at the mere idea of Barrett as  WAM — which just seems like an almost criminal misappropriation of skillset and style.  We all know that Sigi has long used one of the two WAM spots to wedge another striker into the XI — first with Steve Zakuani and most recently with Lamar Neagle — but Dempsey is far more qualified to slide into an attacking midfield role than Barrett.  Barrett’s effectiveness increases the closer he is to goal: that is who he is as a player, most of his touches should be inside the box.  Of course, more and more it seems obvious that the success of this team is built around a striker duo of Oba and Dempsey, so as odd as it seems it may actually make more sense to play Barrett out wide and Dempsey as a striker.

Barrett was the direct beneficiary of the Oba and Dempsey show to score the third goal.  Oba fed Dempsey right at the top of the six-yard box who quickly laid it off the Barrett, who was given so much time and space by a Portland defense seemingly purely focused on the other two that he seemed to have a near eternity to set up his shot.  Chad Barrett is now second in MLS, behind Bradley Wright-Phillips of New York Red Bulls — he of an MLS-leading 20 of his team’s 39 goals this season — in goals per 90 minutes, at 0.87.  Ninth is Dempsey, at 0.69.

Kenny Cooper — that’s USOC leading goal scorer Kenny Cooper — is the fourth choice striker and fifth choice WAM, clearly behind Barrett in both departments.  If Kenny Cooper starts a Sounders playoff game, something has gone terribly wrong.  I know he took a huge pay cut to be here, and $265K isn’t really a lot of money by North American big league sports standards, but that salary cap…

Speaking of Marco Pappa

Barrett subbed on for Pappa, who did not have a strong performance.  The Sounders left side had a poor day passing, but at least Leo Gonzalez has his vital defensive duties to fall back on. Pappa is allegedly our primary creative midfielder, but had precious little to offer on Sunday.

Contrast that to the right side and you’ll see that Brad Evans had another fine game. If Obafemi Martins is the bellwether for the Sounders, then Brad Evans is the ultimate weathervane player.  I normally don’t rate Evans that high was a WAM, but he played his part in a wonderful offensive performance for the team.  He also won five aerial duels — Chad Marshall only won three.  Brad Evans, everyone…

Trophy races

The Cascadia Cup may just be a vanity rivalry trophy, but it still would be awfully nice to win.  To do so we’ll obviously need to beat Vancouver when they visit on October 10, but will also need some help from Portland in their home-and-home matches left against the Whitecaps.  The Timbers have officially been eliminated from contention.

Hey, the Sounders are in another Open Cup final, this time at Philly in a couple weeks.  I’ve already said another Open Cup won’t define this season for me, but the ticket into CCL as “insurance” would be very nice.  It seems as though the USOC has become a real thing for the Sounders, and that’s great and all, but the impression is still left that a lot of MLS teams just don’t take it all that seriously.

In the MLS table, the LA Galaxy have won three-straight, after defeating DC United Wednesday night, putting LA just two points back of the Sounders League-leading 45 points on an equal 24 matches.  There is a bit of a cushion down to Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas on Points Per Match but they both look to linger in the Supporter Shield race.  Out east its just Sporting KC and DC United in the hunt, and with the loss tonight, DC is on 43 points through an equal 25 matches to SKC’s 42 points.

While DC United managed a 3-0 win at KC over the weekend, I’m still not sold on their longevity at the top of the table.  While SKC and LAG are two of the top three teams in ratio of offensive third possession, DCU are third worst.  I’ve mentioned in the past some of my favorite trend tracking metrics at, and I’ve come to see the ratio of a team’s attacking third possession for versus against as a key indicator of a holistic  trait that increases a team’s chances of winning.  For what it’s worth, a suddenly revived FC Dallas team is the absolute worst in MLS in this metric, and for that matter both DCU and FCD are below average in shots-on-goal ratio as well.  While the Sounders own final third ratio is a barely above average 1.04, they do boast the third best shots on goal ratio at 1.21, behind SKC and LAG.  The Sounders are also among the most accurate shooting teams in MLS and are second behind LA in both total shots and shots on target per game.

What this all means is that I expect Sporting KC and the Galaxy to be the Sounders main contenders for the Supporters Shield.  I probably covet the Shield more than MLS Cup — although that’s easy for me to say having won neither, and beyond that there is simply no point in discussing MLS Cup chances before the playoffs start.

The League’s most underperforming team is probably the New England Revolution, who have the second best final third ratio at 1.38 to SKC’s leading 1.39, and are above-average on shots on target ratio.  While their acquisition of Jermaine Jones was another embarrassing exposure of the seemingly ad-hoc nature of the quasi-socialist MLS “Central Planning Committee”, if he and the team can figure it out on the field — August DP additions don’t always pay dividends that same season — they may be a dark horse to keep track of come playoff time.

Sounder player awards

The current leader for the Brad Evans Award for Sounder Player of the Year who isn’t Osvaldo Alonso is most certainly Obafemi Martins.  The current leader for the Leo Gonzalez Award for Sounder Player Who Isn’t Necessarily Player of the Year but Deserves Our Recognition is Chad Marshall, and likely will be for the duration of the season.  Marshall is the best center back in MLS and I think we’re in a bad place if we lose him.

Up next

The Colorado Rapids come to town, fresh off their fifth straight loss last weekend, in which they contrived to give away a 3-1 halftime lead to the Galaxy and lose 4-3.  The Rapids were at one point sticking their nose into the top of the Western Conference table but have won just once since the beginning of July, and hove lost 6 of their last 7.  I’m sure they will be looking to come here and pull out a “gritty” result, but hopefully the class of the Sounders allows them to just put a rest to those lame narratives.