There are 2 games from which to pick and choose the expectations that need to potentially be adjusted for the Sounders. The problem is both games comprised of the squads we knew we would be seeing during the World Cup, which is to say sans-Dempsey and Yedlin. With that knowledge in place, we knew that expectations should be lowered automatically.
Getting back on the horse across country facing one of the best teams in the East this season (points-wise, the best team, but I'm not sure you could definitively say that is the case based on quality in the squad), we knew there was to be an uphill battle. Add that to the fact that we would be down the other half of our dynamic strike force after Obafemi Martins got his marching orders early in Chicago and all of a sudden we were really going to test our bench depth.
Fortunately we didn't need our forwards to do a ton, and they did what could be expected with Chad Barrett flicking in Pineda's well placed cross. EJ may not have had a strong showing (which is just fine by me), but there are pieces of that team that showed grit and put themselves in dangerous positions to split the points or even steal the game after we took the lead. Fortunately things went our way in DC in the end as they couldn't finish the chances they created.
3 points on a tough road trip getting our sea legs back. Cool. Coolcoolcool.
The Vancouver away game is always a tricky one. It doesn't help that we have to do it twice this year. Our first outing wasn't our finest effort by a long shot, but pulling a point out of it was as much as you could ask for. Could lightning strike twice, or could we even pull off a victory?
Judging by the squad we had to field and the almost full starting 11 they had available, it didn't seem likely. Add to that the loss of Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda due to yellow card accumulation and we looked suspect in the midfield against the pacey attacking force Vancouver had at their disposal. The issues mounted when Oba was a late scratch to the roster due to an apparent hamstring injury that caught some (me anyways) by surprise when he didn't even make the bench.
So of our "ideal" starting 11 for the season, we had 4 (Gonzalez, Marshall, Neagle, Pappa).
Fears were justified early on when a fine Sebastian Fernandez strike from 30 yards out swerved past Frei in the 12th minute. The first half from the Sounders was weak on the attacking end with little to no possession held and aimless forays into the final third produced almost nothing to threaten the Vancouver goal.
The Second half showed promise, but it came in the form of a grey cloud with a silver lining. Neagle hit the turf and apparently hurt his shoulder prompting an early substitution for Tristen Bowen in the 55th minute. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, Bowen showed the promise he held when the team traded for him in the off season, displaying some true winger ability. Unfortunately it was short lived as he faded out of the game for the most part past the 70-75th minute or so. Chalk it up to not being game fit and missing the sharpness after being out so long. Things didn't get much better with the introduction of Cam Weaver doing his best to hold up play but just doesn't seem quite up to the level needed anymore. His inclusion means Kenny Cooper left the pitch. This only comes to mind since Aaron Kovar had some decent moves that Cooper might have been able to do something with, but it could be the case where Cooper isn't quite built for 90 minutes anymore.
Either way, it's all conjecture as our 7/11 sub squad couldn't find a way past David Ousted and the 12th minute strike was the deciding factor in the game.
The glass-half-full view is that we kept up and pressured with a team of subs, and while I'm not normally a strong optimist, I do think this is the proper way to view the outcome. Our road trip has resulted in 3 points from 6 against 2 of the stronger sides in the MLS, and we only get stronger from here. Yedlin and Dempsey are back from the valiant World Cup effort. Traore has begun training and playing with our second team. Obafemi has had a lot of rest and hopefully recovers quickly from his hamstring and complete our league best strike duo.
Moving the Posts In: Ummmm.........
I'm not really sure where to go with this one.
We split 2 games with two good teams with the loss coming on the shoulders of a 70% second squad. It's really hard to fault that, plus we kept them to a single, spectacular goal.
I don't have much here. Sorry guys. For now, I guess you're free to just feel pretty positive about the team overall, as I do (and have written about below "In Range").
Moving the Posts Out: Tristen Bowen
To my eye, he is the only true winger we've had since Zakuani on the squad. Pace and control on the ball were very good. Unfortunately it only lasted the first 10-15 minutes of his shift.
I think it's fair to attribute that to not being match fit. Add to that the rust he needs to shake off after being out since last November and you have all the built in excuses you need.
It's still early to really judge, but the fact that he's still only 23 leaves a high ceiling for him. His control of the ball and moves when taking a defender 1v1 were something we haven't seen done in that fashion in Rave Green this year. Here's to hoping he can make his way back on the roster and maybe Neagle can find himself in his preferred forward role again as the 3rd or 4th option.
In Range: The Bench
Our game against Vancouver wasn't pretty, but if you take a macro view of the MLS, that squad we put out there was 1 DP away from being a competitive squad in regular MLS play. It really speaks highly to the moves that AH has made in the offseason and gutting a good part of the squad to bring in players who would push for a starting spot or bring great experience when called upon due to absences or off the bench.
To be able to say Brad Evans, Jalil Anibaba, Chad Barrett, and Kenny Cooper can be called off the bench and aren't able to find starting roles consistently speaks to the quality of what we have and the danger we can pose when those players are called upon when the team is at full strength. I love Cooper and Barrett off the bench. I love Evans filling in a RB or CM when there is an absence. Jalil Anibaba has been instrumental filling in for Traore and at RB when Evans had to shift to CM (I just hope he can work on his passing and ball skills and he could really be something).
Even our younger players are budding stars instead of filler. Kovar is going to make his way somewhere, somehow. Azira seems to be a level headed midfield with some skill and good defensive capabilities. Bowen is still a bench player and should be pushing for a starting role in reality.
All of those names make a full 18, and there isn't one of them that I'd say is on the bench just to fill it out. Every one has a role and could be pushing for a starting spot here, or actually starting if they were on any other team.
**Reflecting on what I wrote above, it feels like it's almost moving the posts out, but to put it all into perspective we just need to look at the Vancouver game. We lost because that squad was really mostly bench players. They could be competitive in the MLS, but that's saying midpack +/-. I feel like as a group, they're meeting the expectation of helping the team and adding something when subbing/filling in, not just filling a role out of pure necessity as has been the case in previous years.
From the Half Way Line: USMNT
The dream is over. Is there anything to take away from it?
For the Sounders, it's twofold.
Dempsey is the player we thought he was. If it weren't for an unlucky injury in the first match, he would have had much more time and space to work with, but did admirably in the hold up role. Much better than I had anticipated really. He really shone once a second striker was introduced into the side, finding space and taking shots. If he had more time to do just that, we may still be in the thick of it all.
In Yedlin, we found that if he can pick and choose his times to go forward better and have a midfield that will play him into space as opposed to his feet, he just may be one of the most dangerous RBs..........in the world.
I'm almost not being sarcastic in that. One game doesn't define a player, but for 60 or so minutes, Eden Hazard had little joy playing wide. Yedlin also found himself in great positions and played in some good crosses that just couldn't find the head of a fellow teammate.
That Belgium game really showed how I think Yedlin is at his best. For me, he can't be a winger (right now) because he isn't strong on the ball and can't quite go 1v1 constantly or link up with short interchange play. The strength in him being a RB is that if he can pick the right times (which he did very well that day), he can explode into space and surprise the opposition and find himself at the endline for a cross provided he has a midfield that can read the run and weight the ball well. If he can add a few moves to get himself to cut in on a chasing fullback, he could have a few chances to play in the box or shoot. Imagine a faster Dani Alves with slightly less ball control. More crossing, less shooting, world class. That is my dream for him, and I hope he gets there. I will be sad when he goes, but this bodes really well for the national team.