Sounders learning that winning ugly is still winning

Osvaldo Alonso battles against Real Salt Lake - Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn't always been pretty, but the Sounders are pulling out victories in places they haven't been based on a newfound ability to slug out gritty matches.

It is no secret where the Seattle Sounders now are. While Seattle currently trails the Red Bulls by a point, they have two games in hand and the highest overall PPM in the league. They have ridden a hot streak to catapult themselves to the top of the league and back into national consideration as one of -- if not the -- best teams in the league. But not so long ago, this scenario seemed improbable at best.

Despite containing multiple games in hand on almost every team, there was still little reason to presume the team would be able to fully right the ship and push toward the playoffs as a major contender. Seattle had lethal weapons -- Eddie Johnson, Obafemi Martins, and Lamar Neagle -- showing bursts of power and brilliance, but service proved to be inconsistent week in and week out. When it was coming in bursts, the inevitable card of unlucky finishing was often dealt the Sounders’ way.

Their noses were always above water, but even the most loyal of supporters admitted frustration with how the season was turning out. Playoffs were never in doubt. But chemistry, momentum, and the potential for a high seed certainly were.

As has been pointed out already, the hero in this remarkable turnaround didn’t turn out to be the best heading player in the league, a Nigerian pit bull featuring a dazzling back flip, or a local kid who has powered his way atop the team’s scoring chart despite being long presumed to primarily fill a backup role.

The true hero has been the collective unit of players otherwise known as the ‘defense’. They were what got Seattle through the tough stretches of summer and what’s currently forging the team ahead as it enters the last turn of the regular season and the sprint toward the finish line.

Through arguably the league’s most interchangeable stock of central defenders, one of the best defending left backs in the league, the USMNT’s most exciting upcoming defender, and the man most supporters refer to as the ‘Honey Badger’, the Sounders have put together a remarkable stretch of shutting opponents out and limiting chances to test Michael Gspurning. In the past ten matches the Sounders have gone 8-1-1 and have outscored their opposition 16-7. Notably, they have conceded a paltry 0.7 goals per game while racking up clean sheets in half of those ten.

Although their net shots advantage over that span is modest (129 to 123), they hold a 37 to 25 edge in shots on target, amounting to 1.2 more per game over those ten games. In a relatively low scoring game like soccer, that’s a significant difference. They are getting cleaner, more open looks and coming to dominate on set pieces. But we’d be fools if we thought that was the primary cause.

Seattle is learning how to play a new style of soccer. It’s not their preferred style, but it’s certainly working in the meantime.

Seattle is learning how to win ugly.

From almost the get go, creative, attractive soccer was supposed to be a given in Seattle. Fredy Montero was dazzling crowds, Freddie Ljundberg brought an impressive flair and recognition to the team and it evolved from there throughout the years. Statements from the coach and the front office seemed to back up assertions of a desire to play as an attractive, attack-minded team.

From almost the get go, creative, attractive soccer was supposed to be a given in Seattle.

And for the most part they did. In 2011, the Sounders led the league in goals and in most overall players scoring a goal. They did this while playing some of the most striking and crisp soccer you will see in Major League Soccer.

But it became apparent there was a slight weakness. When creativity waned and the run of play went against them, Seattle often had a hard time fighting off the waves of attack. Chances dried up and inevitable concessions were made. They were losing 50/50 balls in the wrong places at the wrong time, getting unfortunate bounces more often than not, and often just couldn’t seem to grab the steering wheel and turn the game back in their favor.

Impossible to pinpoint precisely, the term ‘grit’ began floating around this site as a symbolic way to describe what the Sounders lacked during a particular poor stretch of a previous regular season. There were many factors that went into the two heartbreaking 3-0 opening leg losses the Sounders endured in recent playoffs. But grit should certainly not be excluded from them.

This is the primary difference between those teams of yesteryear and today’s Sounders. They are outhustling and outsmarting opposing offenses even when conceding the majority of the ball. In the 4 most recent games they’ve conceded the possession battle, they’ve gone 3-0-1 and lead shots on target by 13-7 despite giving up more overall shots. Although they likely contain the most deadly list of finishers in the league and remain capable of putting together brilliant sequences of passing for shots on goal, the grind-it-out games are where the Sounders are finding their most recent success.

From set piece goals against the run of play to forcing deflections and own goals upon withdrawing defenses, the Sounders are finding ways to do just enough to win. They are calm and composed with their backs up against the wall and seem more than up to the challenge of fighting off multiple waves of attack. They are intercepting passes, pressuring the ball, and blocking shots in the crucial parts of the field and in the game.

The Sounders are finding ways to do just enough to win.

The scariest notion for opposing teams is that Seattle shows no signs of slowing down. The Sounders are two-deep at both fullback positions and have four interchangeable center backs who have proven the ability to gel on the fly. They have the best defending midfielder in the league and are showing tremendous organization and discipline in covering for traditionally withdrawn players advancing up the field.

The irony of Seattle’s current run of dominance is that the exact makeup of its attacking core still remains a relative mystery. Injuries and national team call-ups have prevented the opportunity of building rhythm among its primary attacking weapons, particularly since the arrival of its newest and glitziest prize in Clint Dempsey. Serious questions still remain about the Sounders’ ability to get its full suite of offensive players together and on the same page going into the playoffs. That the exact formation and ideal makeup of the starting XI is still in flux this late in the season can surely be an unsettling notion to some supporters.

But perhaps the larger irony is that at the end of the day, none of that may really matter. 1-0, 1-1 and 0-0 away games are generally what get teams through the playoffs, not blowing out opponents at home. While style, creativity, and individual brilliance remain critical to the Sounders’ aspirations of hoisting an MLS Cup—as one would expect from a team with as much attacking talent as it has—it is unlikely to be the foundation.

Good playoff teams are capable of playing on their back heels and winning ugly. Luckily for Seattle, they happen to be the best team at doing it right now. A more cohesive and dynamic offense going into the playoffs would surely boost their chances, but maintaining the ability to do what they’re already doing may end up being far more important.

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