Before we jump headlong into analysis and preview of this week's match with the Columbus Crew, I thought it would be useful to take a closer look at last week's pair of disappointing results.
Specifically, I'd like to take a look at the passing in the two games.
As was pointed out at several points during the initial post-mortum, of the two contests, Sunday's featured the much more fluid Sounders team. This came despite the decision to bench several key offensive players, including Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani, as well as defensive players Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Leo Gonzalez.
Many observers agreed on this issue, most notably Freddie Ljungberg.
"The Toronto game was a massive step forward for us playing-wise. I think we are much more confident as a team now. We played well and created more chances and kept the ball well..."
What surprised me, though, was the degree to which this was true.
Before looking at the tape, I was thinking that Ljungberg may be overstating the case of how well the Sounders actually played in that Toronto game (which was eventually lost 2-0 after a pair of sloppy mistakes in the defensive third).
The amazingly poor quality of video on the MLS website kept me from being able to watch the second half of the game against Toronto, but what I saw provided ample evidence.
During the first 45 minutes, the Sounders completed about 125 passes, about half of which I denoted as forward passes (meaning the player receiving the ball was allowed to carry forward momentum when receiving the pass). Even more surprising was the fact that I counted only about 30 passes that missed their marks (this did not include 50/50 balls from the goalkeeper or obvious clearing attempts). That equates to about an 80 percent completion rate.
In contrast, during the entire Dallas FC game (which as you surely remember netted the far more desirable result), the Sounders completed about 110 passes, roughly 60 of which were forward. Perhaps even more telling was the fact that 50 other passes missed their marks. That's a completion percentage of about 65 percent. In that game, the second half was particularly sloppy, with just about 30 passes being completed and only 18 of 34 finding their intended targets as the Sounders went into full-on bunker mode. Although the Sounders did score two goals in that game, one was off a quick counter strike and the other was off a free kick. Even among the other scoring chances, none were the result of long strings of connected passes.
In that Toronto game, the Sounders generated at least three quality scoring chances in the first half, all of which were the result of long strings of passes that resulted in shots from relatively close range.
Two of them, in particular, really caught my attention.
The first comes in the 29th minute and starts with right back Tyson Wahl taking a ball away at the back edge of the middle third of the field. He quickly taps the ball ahead to Osvoldo Alonso, who makes a nice spin move and gets the ball to Patrick Ianni with a little bit of space in the middle of the field. Ianni quickly sends the ball ahead to Brad Evans, who has come back from his striker position, and Evans quickly settles the ball with a pass to Peter Vagenas in the middle of the field.
Vagenas one-touches the ball back to Alonso, who quickly reverses the field to right wing Sanna Nyassi. At this point, the attack finally gets started as Nyassi is able to get the ball to right back James Riley who is hit in stride on his way up the sideline. Riley is able to carry the ball to the edge of the offensive third and then taps the ball back to the trailing Vagenas.
Finally, at the end of a nine-pass sequence, Vagenas spots Ljungberg streaking toward the goal. The pass is dropped in almost perfectly, Ljungberg collects it at the edge of the penalty area, takes a dribble or two and fires a clean shot that misses the mark just high.
As impressive as I found that sequence, the Sounders had an even better one about 10 minutes later.
This time, Alonso starts it off by collecting a missed clearance on the right side near the centerline. He immediately switches the field with a cross all the way to Nathan Sturgis on the left side. Sturgis immediately heads the ball to Evans, who passes it back Vagenas about 20 yards in front of the centerline.
Wahl, who has once again come up from his left back position, takes a pass from Vagenas and passes it ahead to Sturgis along the left sideline. A pair of defenders immediately converge on Sturgis, who then taps the ball back to Wahl. Another pass back to Vagenas, results in yet another backward pass to Tyrone Marshall on the defensive side of the centerline. Marshall immediately taps the ball forward to Alonso, who crosses it to the right to Riley just as he's being plowed over by a Toronto player
While those last few passes may have seemed defensive in nature, the reality was that it opened up the field and allowed for the attacking sequence that followed.
Riley now has the ball in space along the right side and passes it to Vagenas in the middle of the field. Vagenas quickly spots Ljungberg along the right wing. Two dribbles later and Ljungberg sends a nearly perfect looping pass to Evans, who has a couple steps on his defender. Although Evans is unable to get the header on goal, the 13-pass sequence highlights the kind of play Ljungberg is still raving about four days after the fact.
Both sequences are built on quick passes and only featured dribbling when it was to bring the ball up the field in space. No player has the ball at his feet for more than a few touches. Basically, it's the kind of soccer Sigi has been preaching since his arrival.
I haven't gone through all the games looking for sequences like these, but I'm sure I'd be hard-pressed to find anything that surpasses them in terms of skill and communication.
Rather than representing a gutty effort by a group of reserves, I'm now more convinced than ever that Sunday's performance was among the most cohesive by the Rave Green this year. If they can mangage to take what they did in that game and actually manage to finish some of their scoring opportunities, that could very well prove to be the game the Sounders finally began to figure out how to play the attractive soccer we've been waiting for.