The Sounders are in the playoffs again this year, making it six for six in their MLS existence. That’s good. They have won the third most important trophy four times in those six years – including a fifth final which they only lost on PK’s. That’s good. They have consistently been near the top of the table. All of this is good, probably even very good.
It may be a lot to ask of a franchise in a league like MLS to be great, but that’s exactly the point. There are several MLS teams that are good, but only a very few get to be great. The long, grueling season has separated the wheat from the chaff, and the Supporters Shield — the ultimate test of a team’s greatness — is down to just two teams: the Sounders and the L.A. Galaxy. Greatness is knocking at the door for this franchise, but will they be able to answer?
It’s far too easy and tempting to be complacent about Saturday’s letdown, but don’t buy into the rationalizations. Sandwiched between a cup final and a Western Conference showdown with Dallas this game was still important. Every game matters if you want to be great. There are eight other MLS teams that are good enough to grind out results through the regular season, and then hope to get hot and make a run to the MLS Cup. But is just being “good” good enough for this franchise? New York Red Bulls may be a marquee MLS side that the Sounders had the misfortune to face during a particularly busy stretch, but greatness requires grinding out results in even the most difficult of circumstances.
The lineup didn’t include a single player who wasn’t expected to contribute to this team before the season started. Even after conceding an early goal, that collection of players wearing the Sounders crest was good enough to earn at least a draw out of that match. Kenny Cooper was signed to be a starting forward – and is being paid an MLS starting forward’s salary. Is it too much to expect him to bury one of those first-half chances to pull the Sounders back level? Absolutely not.
Dylan Remick was supposed to be a younger and more athletic alternative to Leo Gonzalez at left back, is it too much to expect him to not get beaten like a rented mule and concede a stupid penalty? Absolutely not.
Djimi Traore was a starting center back before a groin injury, and Jalil Anibaba was billed as a younger and more athletic alternative at center back – and even though he was at right back on Saturday it is a position that he was the regular starter with Chicago last season. Bradley Wright-Phillips had scored 21 of New York Red Bulls’ 44 goals on the season coming into that match, is it too much to expect our back line to recognize that and at least make someone else work to beat us? Absolutely not. Instead, we allowed him to pad his stats, which is inexcusable for a team that wants to be great.
Great teams have enough roster depth to survive injuries, suspensions, call-ups, and schedule congestion. We have every right to be disappointed with that feckless performance. We *should* expect more out of this team… if we want them to be great.
The epitome of “possession soccer” is short, controlled, high-percentage passing. According to whoscored.com, the Sounders are third in “short passes” per game, behind the Galaxy and Crew, and ahead of the Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake. Interestingly, the Sounders are fifth in overall passing success rate, behind all four of those aforementioned teams; and tied for seventh in overall possession percentage with the suddenly inept Rapids, behind those same four teams plus Sporting K.C. – who lead the league at 56.1 percent – and the Timbers in sixth with 52.1 percent. The Sounders overall possession number of 50.7 percent seems a tad low to me given their propensity for short passing. In terms of overall pass success, Columbus leads the league at 82.7 percent, with the Sounders at 80.9 percent, sandwiched between Real Salt Lake at 81.1, and the Whitecaps at 80.5 percent. To put those numbers into some kind of perspective, the 0.2 percent gap from Real Salt Lake represents about 25 of the 12578 pass attempts for the Sounders this season (all numbers from whoscored.com).
After a pretty dire first 15 minutes in which it seemed likely that New York Red Bulls would build on their extremely early lead, the Sounders actually responded pretty well and started to play some decent possession soccer, and effectively limited New York Red Bulls’s chances for a significant stretch of the game.
The idea of possession as a key metric is actually pretty controversial, but I’ve always felt like much of that is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what possession really represents. As I’ve written in the past, possession might be best understood as “proactive defending.” A traditional adage in sports is “the best defense is a good offense” but in the case of possession it’s about keeping the ball away from your opponent and keeping the game out of your defensive third. This is a very different concept than attacking, or “offense”. It should come as no surprise that the Sounders are among the better teams in MLS at keeping the action out of their back 3rd, and even did so on Saturday, where 29 percent of the trackable actions took place in New York Red Bulls’s 3rd and 24 percent in the Sounders’, despite the lopsided scoreline.
Yes, there are teams that excel at sitting back and playing a more reactive style, but by and large the best way to earn results over the long run is to follow a good process. Working to limit your opponent’s time on the ball and the amount of the touches that take place in your defensive end is a solid process to maximize your chances of winning. There is really no arguing that, and this is why I find the “possession is over-rated” narratives so insipid and tiresome.
The issue becomes in turning that possession into chances, and it seems as though the brilliance of Oba and Dempsey have masked some structural concerns with the Sounders’ style of play. While they were enjoying some solid possession play on Saturday, they also looked utterly clueless as to what to do with it once they get into the attacking 3rd. This is not a new problem for this team. Against both the Earthquakes and the Rapids in home games last month – both teams determined to bunker and play reactive styles in hopes of poaching a goal and nabbing a result – the Sounders played a patient, possession oriented approach and struggled to create opportunities. They managed to keep the Rapids off the scoresheet but dropped two points by conceding a goal to San Jose – who’s overall attack outside of Chris Wondolowski is awfully weak. In both matches the Sounders employed a solid process to maximize their chances of winning, but had difficulty creating chances to put those games away.
It’s important to remember that the Sounders were only down a goal on Saturday, and there was plenty of time to respond to draw level. It wasn’t necessarily the time to get impatient and go direct. They went impatiently direct against Real Salt Lake a week ago Friday after getting the man advantage and it very nearly cost them, but were fortunate to get a late winner off one of the many hopeful, unsuccessful crosses that were lofted into the box by out of ideas Sounder players (Yedlin’s assist on Rose’s stoppage time winner is extremely dubious, I don’t think he even got a touch to it).
But getting back to the central point. In order for the Sounders to create meaningful chances they often need to open the game up and play more direct and reactively, which can expose your defense to high-risk situations where an error is costly. It’s worth noting that on whoscored.com’s team characteristics, next to a veritable laundry list of strengths, there are three weaknesses: defending against through-ball attacks, defending against skillful players, and avoiding individual errors (at which they are listed as “very weak”). If you want to maximize your chances of winning you need to follow a good process and minimize your risk. An example of minimizing risk is to avoid situations where errors are costly. Leaving your back line exposed is high-risk behavior for a soccer team, regardless of how good Chad Marshall is.
The Sounders are actually quite good at winning the ball from their opponents. They lead the league in interceptions per game – Chad Marshall is among league leaders in this stat – and are 5th in tackles per game. In fact they lead the league in tackles + interceptions per game with 37.6, just ahead of the Montreal Impact at 37.1. Yes, that’s the league’s worst team, a side that attempts the 5th fewest short passes per game, has the third worst possession rate, and is among the league leaders in trackable actions taking place in their defensive third.
I’ve been seeing this all year bit have never quite been able to put my finger on it. There’s just something that doesn’t quite jive with this team. The carpet doesn’t match the drapes, if you will. Maybe burying myself under all these numbers isn’t the best way of telling the story, but I don’t know how else to say it. For as good as they are, for as many games as they’ve won, and goals that they’ve scored, there is something fundamentally “off” with this team. If nothing else, we can go as simple as goals allowed. Through last weekend’s games, the Sounders have conceded 1.46 goals per game, which is pretty much league average. Average. But no, I’m not going to allow us to simply point fingers at our defenders as we’ve so enjoyed doing in Sounderland in the past. Because soccer is a holistic game; where they way you attack has a very real, measurable effect on how well you defend.
And now it’s a massive midweek road game against a Dallas team needing three points to have a shot at catching Real Salt Lake and avoiding the dreaded play-in game. It’s worth pointing out that FCD is the most dribble-happy team in MLS, with 9.6 successful dribbles per game – a significant gap over Portland at 7.9 and Montreal at 7.6 (the Sounders, in keeping with their short-passing style, have the third fewest at 5.8, ahead of only San Jose and Real Salt Lake). They are lead by Fabian Castillo, who leads MLS with 4.2 successful dribbles per match, a huge margin over 2nd-place Darlington Nagbe at 2.7. FCD’s playmaker Mauro Diaz is fifth in the league at 1.8 per match, but is hasn’t played a full 90 since returning from injury in July. It’s important to remember that dribblers are looking to challenge defenders in one-on-ones and try to force mistakes. Playing a style to limit a dribbler’s opportunities is likely to be efficacious for the Sounders.
If they can manage a result we will then be home to Placeholder FC, aka Garber’s Folly. With all due respect to their players, who have been thrust into a hopeless situation, anything less than three points against that “team” would be a bitter disappointment. Meanwhile the Galaxy will get to host New York Red Bulls on Sunday, after which both teams will have played 30 matches, with only two left before the home-and-home series to finish out the season.
No one said this would be easy, but there’s nothing about being great that is.