Almost 12 hours removed from a game I called the most frustrating result of the season, and after watching the match's highlights, I think it's a little easier to feel OK about dominating the defending Supporter's Shield winners and having to settle for a tie. Not happy, not satisfied, but OK. (As a side note, I'd also like to say that I'm less incensed about the call at the end of the game. Although Sanna Nyassi didn't do much, the whistle was almost immediate and I can't blame the ref for calling it. To put a significant amount of the blame for Saturday's result on the refs is simply not fair, and probably wrong.)
The main reason for my optimism is the realization that almost everything I've read confirmed my belief that the first 45 minutes was easily the best the Sounders have played -- probably ever.
I know there is some strong urges to proclaim "But we still went into the half tied!" There's not much to say in response other than I firmly believe in the process ultimately leading to desirable results.
The process, especially in the first half, was almost perfect. That 4-3-3 that Sigi Schmid unveiled worked about as perfectly as could have been hoped.
Freddie Ljungberg being positioned as more of a central midfielder than as a withdrawn forward seemed to suit his skill-set perfectly. He was free to distribute to the wings and to Fredy Montero, and even was able to get behind the defense for a one-on-one with the keeper (that unfortunately missed the mark) and rung another shot off the near post.
For the first time this season, we also saw Freddyain display some actual chemistry. The two players set each other up on several occasions and generally seemed to be able to anticipate the other's movements.
This might be the most welcomed development, and have the most potential to portend a more satisfying future. While it is certainly great to see improved passing from the other midfielders and defenders -- Peter Vagenas, Osvaldo Alonso, Patrick Ianni and James Riley also had solid performances from that perspective -- the fact that the two most skilled offensive players worked together with such effectiveness suggests even more opportunities for players like Steve Zakuani and Brad Evans.
Zakuani, I think it can safely be said, also had what I thought was his best game. Unlike the Dallas and Real Salt Lake contests where his goal was really just one of only two or three inspired plays, he seemed to be all over the field on Saturday. He had a couple great crossing passes, repeatedly broke down the defense with speed on the left wing and was often seen tracking back and making himself available. I don't think it was a coincidence that he played his first full 90-minute game.
Many have long believed that Zakuani had the biggest upside of any Sounder, Saturday he made those people look very smart. It is now easier than ever seeing him become an elite offensive player -- at least by MLS standards.
The reviews of Evans, I realize, were much more mixed. Some people saw a player that was essentially an offensive blackhole. They saw some missed scoring chances, a couple missed passes and decided that Evans must have been pulled for ineffectual play, rather than the stated reason of being hurt.
I saw something else. Obviously, for Evans to ultimately justify his playing time, he will have to start converting some of the opportunities he repeatedly creates for himself. The thing is, as far as I can tell, no other player has put himself in those positions as regularly as Evans has done the past two games. Let's also keep in mind that Evans has not really been allowed to settle into a clear role. Most of his time has come in the central midfield, but he's also played on the wing and as a target forward. Dating back to his stint with the U.S. National Team, he has also played on the backline.
The only reason his inability to finish has become so frustrating is because he's put himself in good positions so many times. I guess the same argument could be made for Roger Levesque, although I'd say that Evans has been able to do so with far more frequency and without the tendency to completely disappear for long stretches of time.
I don't think Nyassi played poorly on Saturday, but I don't think it was a coincidence that the Sounders' dominance was less apparent after Evans went to the bench. (I definitely look forward to watching the tape of the game to see if my feelings are correct.)
More than anything, I'm feeling optimistic because other than the frustrating inability to put balls in the back of the net, I can't clearly point to anything that I disliked. The energy was high. The scoring opportunities ample and spread throughout the game. The passing was crisp. The defense was mostly sound -- Riley's back-pass that nearly resulted in a goal being the glaring exception.
I have no doubt that if this Sounders team shows up for the rest of the season, this spell of frustrating results will be a mere bump in the road. Figuring out how to insure this kind of play continues will definitely be the key.
The Sounders (2-2-3, 9 points) face their biggest test yet on Saturday when the first-place Galaxy (5-0-1, 16 points) visit Qwest Field. Turning their focus from Saturday's result to next Saturday's opponent should not be a problem.