The two-for one: Sounders Match 5 & 6, 2-2 @ Dallas and 2-0 @ Toronto
So, I decided after Thursday night to write up one report for the Sounders 72-hour whirlwind tour of the continent, with an eye towards finding a common theme to tie the road trip together and establish the fact that they were well on their way to the Supporters Shield. I had made the reasonable request that the boys pick up 4 points over the two matches, knowing that this would not only assuage much of the Supporters imminent fears of Sounders mediocrity, but also knowing that 4 points was indeed quite likely, given the less-than stellar nature of their two opponents' starts to the MLS season.
What we were left with is perhaps something far more disturbing than potential mediocrity: that at this point in the still admittedly young season, this team has a serious issue with grasping hold of what is theirs for the taking. It is one thing to be mediocre, which is to say you lack the ability as a team to rise to the occasion; it is quite another to have that ability, and simply fail to do so. The Sounders have certainly been guilty of the latter for too often so far this year.
But first, lets realize what role tremendous bad fortune plays in all this. Much has been made of the dubious penalty call in the 93rd against Dallas which gifted the home team the draw. Let me just say that 99 times out of 100 the call is not made. It is easy for the Supporters to make too much out of such horrendous luck -- as demonstrated by the internets being lit up with Sounder complaints of MLS officiating -- but the fact remains that outside of weeknight, co-rec soccer, Yeisely's desperate dive will rarely bring a whistle, and subsequent point to the spot, at any level of soccer. We all know that players are often instructed to seek contact from defenders and try to draw fouls, and it will remain a part of the game forever, as I see it, controversial and sometimes ugly, for sure, but a part of the game nonetheless. In fact, much of the controversy surrounding the alleged embellishment and whining of Fredy and Freddie stems from the fact that they are not only instructed to do so, it seems to naturally be a part of their games.
But to the match itself. It was the opinion of many that the Sounders didn't particularly play well enough to "deserve" the win in the immediate aftermath of the match, a sentiment that hardly eased the anger over the 2 points lost. It turns out that, upon further review, perceptions of quality of play for 94 minutes simply don't matter when it comes to results (as was ably demonstrated in Toronto). As we saw in SLC, even though the Sounders were certainly guilty of insipid play for much of the match, particularly the first half, they were still very much in a position to take 3 points on the road, and it can be argued in both cases it represents a disappointing failure that they didn't to do so.
Unlike SLC, in Dallas the home team rarely seemed to be able to rise above the insipidness themselves. Lost in all the controversy of the ending is the fact that a miscommunication between Hurtado and Keller gifted Dallas their first goal. While the penalty awarded after Keller headbutted Cunningham's knee was not without doubt, it can be fairly said the call was an order of magnitude more justified than the one in the 93rd minute.
It was Steve Davies who pointed out on his blog (dailysoccerfix .com) that the Sounders weren't getting the credit they deserved for taking the starch out of an opponent who's nature it is to recklessly attack. As dreary as the first half may very well have been, thanks to another moment of brilliance from Steve Zakuani to even things up, it was drawn 1-1 at half-time and the Sounders did enough to win in the second. Another moment of brilliance from Zakuani led to an excellent opportunity for Levesque who's failure to finish chances this season once again reared its ugly head. Montero had a brilliant opportunity one-on-one with the Dallas 'keeper but his attempted chip was pathetic, at best, and when he redeemed himself with his superb free kick to take the lead it could be said the Sounders should have had the match out of reach, leading at least 3-1 if not 4-1.
This lack of finishing and reliance on the individual to come through provides the segue into one of the more demoralizing matches in the still-short history of the MLS Sounders on Sunday against Toronto.
Contemporary football is a systematized game, and rather than go into length describing what this means I will simply refer you to the work of Jonathan Wilson and move on. Even so, one of the beautiful things about the game is that despite the increased systemization and often conservative tactics we see at the highest levels, in my opinion the soul of football is still alive in the fact that more often than not the result of a match is determined by certain individuals within that system rising up and providing their brilliance, creativity, and work-rate to decide the outcome. Sometimes, it is the obverse of this which decides the match: often a team will be undone by mistakes and lack of finishing, and it is this side of the coin which best explains the loss to Toronto.
Much has been made of the interesting lineup choices made by Sigi Schmid. I don't wish to get into it too much but from where I sit the formation was still the usual 4-2-3-1 we see the Sounders in, with Vagenas as a second holder alongside Alonso and Ljungberg in his usual role as the central playmaker (the middle of the band of three attacking mids/withdrawan forwards). What made it all so interestingwas the use Sturgis, normally seen as a holding midfielder, on the left and Evans, normally the "box-to-box" central midfielder, at the top forward position. Wahl and Ianni came in as rotational defenders, and while some have complained about their inclusion, I'll gently remind everyone that they both started the Open Cup final last year in D.C., and leave it at that.
Whatever you want to say about the tactics and the lineup Sigi adopted, I think that it actually worked, as the Sounders certainly played well enough to get the result. The Sounders controlled much of the match and threatened the Toronto goal far more than Toronto threatened ours. The simple truth is that Ianni, Sturgis, and Evans (twice) simply failed to rise up and take what was theirs. Of course, we have all grown accustomed to lack of Sounders finishing, so it was punch-the-wall frustrating to see the normally water-tight defense -- tied for best in MLS last season -- contribute to both of Toronto's goals with brutal mistakes which both essentially amounted to assists.
And so, the 4 points I quit reasonably asked for were there for the taking. We should have had three in Dallas and a draw in Toronto was very reasonable considering how much of that match unfolded. Those 4 points would have put us at 11 points after 6 matches, which despite L.A.'s blistering start keeps the Sounders right in the thick of things in the battle for top of the table. Instead, at 2-2-2 the Sounders' start is the very definition of mediocrity, the engineered destiny of all MLS clubs but a situation the club and its supporters ought to be very upset with.