Something the Sounders do best

USA TODAY Sports

One part of the Sounders is better than the rest.

It seems as though much of this season the population of Sounders Land has been scratching their heads trying to identify what it is this 2013 Sounders team does well. This past offseason was filled with seemingly coded language about "focusing on MLS Cup" and "a more direct style" that ought to have served as warning shot across our bow: a team that had established themselves as a generally creative and competitive across all competitions might have to take a step back to take that next big step forward: actually winning an MLS Cup.

The departure of perhaps the most creative player in MLS has had a noticeable knock-on effect. The once venerated Mauro Rosales has suddenly seemed to have aged 5 years in the offseason. Eddie Johnson has inherited the "lazy" canard from Montero. The arrival of Obafemi Martins - perhaps one of the biggest acquisitions in MLS history [1] has done little to assuage an absolutely anemic attack. Apart from the now-inexplicable 8 goals scored in back-to-back home matches in May, the Sounders have sputtered to a rather pathetic 14 goals in 16 matches. Aside from those two matches, they have scored more than one goal in a match 4 times, and 2 of those occasions came against League doormats D.C, United and Chivas USA (and they needed a laughable own-goal to nab 2 against the Goats). What more needs to be said than the fact that the loathed San Jose Earthquakes have pitched only 2 shutouts this season through 21 played: both against the Sounders.

Shots per game is hardly the be-all, tell-all stat for attacking efficacy, but the fact that the Sounders are tied for 15th in MLS in shots per game with New England at 10.8 is troubling enough, but then you realize the three teams below them are Chivas, Toronto, and DCU (10.3, 9.8, and 10.6 respectively); three teams so bad this season they are skewing the MLS table. [2]

But we are well aware of the attacking struggles of this team. In the search for what this team does well, and the foundation for building some sort of identity or style for this team to build on, we have been wasting our time looking towards the offensive side of things.

One of my personal fundamental beliefs is that to be a "good" soccer team you need to have something that you are "good" at. Let's think of this in terms of "outliers". In a league with as stringent a forced-parity system as MLS it is pretty difficult to find statistical outliers. One of the things I decided to do was head over to whoscored.com and peruse the numbers they were using to analyze teams. I decided to look for numbers that stood out, that helped identify teams as being particularly "good" or "bad" at something.

I'm not particularly eager to share with you the boring numerical analysis I performed, mainly because I spent more time on it than I care to admit, and did nothing more than any of us could do on an Excell spreadsheet with no formal training in statistics. So let me sum it up like this: I used medians (much more so than averages) and standard deviations. Then I looked for teams that had vital whosocred.com metrics outside of one standard deviation above or below the median. What I found were several teams with negative outlier numbers, scattered throughout the table (but concentrated in that bottom three, for sure). But a handful or positive outliers stood out:

  • First, Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy were the only 2 positive outliers in shots per game, with 15.4 and 14.9 respectively [3]; and they were also the only 2 teams with positive outliers in shots allowed (as in fewest shots allowed.
  • Second, the top three teams in the current PPM are also the three positive outliers in terms of average possession: RSL, SKC, and Portland, with 56.1, 56.3, and 56.0 respectively. In fact, the gap down to 4th - the Galaxy, is a statistically significant drop to 52.5%.
  • Third, there are two positive outliers in terms of overall defensive takeaways (tackles plus interceptions), and they are SKC and the... wait for it................Seattle Sounders.

But there's more to it than that. Breaking down the takeaways into the 2 component stats, SKC and SSFC are the only two positive outliers for either individual stat. Seattle is, in fact, number one in both. Beyond that, the Sounders per game total is 49.1, SKC are 45.9, 3rd is the Columbus Crew at 42.7, and the league median is 40.7 [4]. The Sounders aren't fouling as much, either, averaging a very average 12.7 per match, while SKC famously leads the league with 14.7.

At this point, we're all looking to rationalize that number. Stats don't tell the entire story. None of these numbers are particularly indicative (although they could be considered predictive). But its hard to ignore the fact that the Sounders are taking the ball away from their opponents at a ferocious rate, and doing this despite the fact that Osvaldo Alonso - the man who's very signature as a player is winning possession - has been unavailable for 7 of the team's 18 matches; and in 2 of those he was out by halftime.

If we want something to rally behind, this is it. We have what is probably, all things considered, the best back 4 in the League. Leo Gonzalez is 3rd in tackles per game and is whoscored.com's 2nd highest rated Left back (behind Colorado's Chris Klute) and D'Andre Yedlin is 2nd for Right Backs (behind NER's Andrew Farrell. All four of Gonzo, Yedlin, Djimi Traore, and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado are in the overall top 40. Traore is 1st in interceptions with 5.5 per match, Yedlin 4th (4.9) and Hurtado 9th (4.3). Gonzo is 3rd in tackles with 3.9 per match, ahead of even Alonso, who is 7th with 3.5. Even Zach Scott is in on the action, as the 6th-highest-rated player on the team (behind the starting back 4 and Alonso) and is winning a respectable 3.5 aerial duels per match, good for first on the team (just ahead of Eddie Johnson at 3.4 and JKH at 3.3) and good for 10th in the MLS.

What strikes me is how badly we, as fans and Supporters, have often gotten the narrative so wrong. In 2011 the Sounder lead the League in goals scored and featured a dynamic attack with wide attacking midfielders and a brilliant trequartista. Our top forward that year was probably the least important position on the team, yet the year-long narrative was the need for another striker.. Last season, we allowed the 2nd-fewest goals in the league, and gave up more than 2 goals exactly twice: a shit happens 4-1 drubbing at Montreal, and the 3-0 playoff loss to L.A. In fact, in his injury-limited appearances, Mike Gspurning had a .73 GAA, 3rd-best ever. Yet the season-long narrative was about our defensive liabilities. This has carried over into this year, with the palpable sense among the Land that our defense could use shoring up. This is evidenced by the rumors circulating about acquiring a center back, all the while our attack is almost unwatchably bad.

In 2013 we are looking for a hero. To borrow from tired old cliche, you don't always get the hero you want, but you usually get the hero you need. If its true that defense wins championships, we might not be as far off in the woods as we think.

Footnotes:

1. Let's think about this. Plenty of "free agent" aging Euro stars have come to MLS for one final deal, David Beckham and Thierry Henry to name 2 of the biggest. But the Sounders managed to pry a still-probably-in-his-prime (29 years old) striker from a top-flight Spanish club, playing in the Europa League, that wanted to keep him.

2. I'll try to explain what I mean: in the current points per match (PPM) standings, average PPM is 1.36, but the median is 1.48. The gap from leaders RSL (1.76) to the median (which happen to be the Philadelphia Union) is .28. The gap from 16th place San Jose to 17th place Chivas is .29 (1.14 to 0.85). But the gap down to 18th is .15 (Toronto at .7) and from there its .2 down to DCU - and these are both bigger gaps than between any 2 teams anywhere else on the table.

3. You've probably already guessed that the negative outliers for shots per game are the aforementioned SSFC, NER, CUSA, TFC, and DCU. Interestingly enough, only one of these teams, CUSA, is also a negative outlier is shots allowed. While we're at it SSFC are allowing a very average 13.2 shots allowed (against a 12.9 median) and the other negative outliers in that metric are Vancouver and Montreal.

4. the average, if you must know, is 40.6. The lowest total takeaway numbers are shared by FC Dallas at 36.7, and LAG at 37.4.

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