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Dead balls have been debilitating

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Kasey Keller's takedown of Jeff Cunningham back in April was just one of several communication errors that have cost the Sounders points this season.
Kasey Keller's takedown of Jeff Cunningham back in April was just one of several communication errors that have cost the Sounders points this season.

The raw numbers don't look good: 13 goals against, nine for; 12 points in 10 games; ninth place in the standings.

After all the hand-wringing and qualifications, those are really the only statistics that matter, and right now they tell us the Sounders are scoring too few, allowing too many and not winning enough games to make the playoffs.

If there is a silver lining to be taken away from this stumbling out of the gate, though, it's that the team's problems are relatively obvious, if not easily fixed. While the struggle to find the back of the net is the thing that is most frustrating for both fans and players, it might also be the thing that shear effort is least likely to fix.

It's on defense, once and theoretically still the backbone of this team, that the Sounders can most easily start seeing improvement. Specifically, it's the defense on dead-ball plays where increased attention to detail promises to pay the most immediate dividends.

"Yeah, it's very fixable," Sounders assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson said of the set-play defense. "You usually have one of two problems, and you’d rather have that than where you have guys that are just dribbling through the defense. So this is something we can fix. If every week we were getting beat 3-0 because people are just running through the defense, then yeah we have a bigger problem. Guys just have to buy into being more alert, being more attentive on restarts and being closer to the guy they’re marking and just finishing plays."

Of the 13 goals the Sounders have surrendered, nine of them have come off what essentially amount to dead-ball plays. Three of them have come off corners, two of them have come on penalty kicks and one was off a free kick, while three more came almost directly off throw-ins (including Saturday's goal).

If the Sounders had managed to prevent five of them, they would have anywhere from one to six more points in the standings. Give the Sounders two more wins and two more ties, and all of a sudden we're talking about a team that's sitting at 19 points and still very much in the hunt for the Supporter's Shield.

Now, no one's suggesting that we should just remove those goals from the Sounders' ledger. Whether it was defensive breakdowns or offenses asserting their will, all those goals counted just the same and the boys in Rave Green must own their results.

Still, when it comes to learning from past mistakes, all goals are not created equal. Of those nine goals, only two -- the corner-kick goals from Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles -- were cases of offensive players clearly beating their marks. The other seven had elements of physical or mental errors, or were the product of a bad call by the referee (guess which one that was...).

"Well, I think the problem is that we’re not setting up," Hendrickson said, specifically referencing the struggles on throw-ins. "It’s a problem we’ve had throughout the year and we’re going to continue to discuss it until players get it in their head that when there’s a throw-in -- whether offensively of defensively -- it’s not time to take a break. It’s time to be even more alert, especially when it’s against.

"It’s something that we’re working on, but it’s not something you can really teach. You gotta be alert."

The Sounders' struggles on set plays first appeared in the second game of the season against the Red Bulls. Not only did the Sounders fail to score on any of their 12 corner kicks, but they gave up the only goal of the game on one of New York's three.

In this case, the mistake was more of the physical variety. Joel Lindpere's service goes into the far side of the six-yard box. Sounders defender Leo Gonzalez is able to get to the ball first, but is unable to control it. Despite the Sounders having nine men in the box, as compared to the Red Bulls' six, Mac Kandji is the one who gets to the ball next. Although Brad Evans actually has a decent mark, and even deflects the ball, Kandji scores the game's only goal.

The big mistake here seems to be that three Sounders were marking Juan Pablo Angel on the near post, leaving five other defenders, plus Kasey Keller, to account for the other five Red Bulls.

One game later, the problems on throw-ins first shows itself. This one falls clearly into the mental-lapse category.

Standing about 35 yards up from the byline, Robbie Russell throws the ball in to Robbie Findley along the sideline. Findley quickly touches it back to Russell, who no one immediately marks after he steps onto the field of play, and he is able to send a relatively unhindered pass to the far post where Will Johnson has gotten free of his mark. Johnson scores the equalizing goal on a diving header.

"When a team is taking a throw-in you’ve got one extra man on the field," Hendrickson said. "It should be easy to mark up and still have someone free, and be in a position where the closest guy wants to step up to the guy who’s throwing it in. There’s no excuse for it."

A similar situation is what led to San Jose's goal on Saturday.

Joey Gjersten is allowed to receive the throw-in from just above the top corner of the penalty area without a defender within 10 yards. His pass into the box deflects off the head of Brandon McDonald, then off Bobby Burling's upper body and falls almost right at the feet of Chris Wondolowski, who is essentially unmarked on the far post. The on-form forward easily deposits the ball in the back of the net for the game's only goal.

Again, the Sounders have the decided numbers advantage -- seven defenders including the keeper inside the penalty area against five offensive players. Yet the Quakes' leading scorer is all alone just feet from goal.

"For me, that’s communication," Hendrickson said specifically about the San Jose goal. "Someone, usually in the back, has to take the leadership role and be saying ‘hey, you got him, you got him, you got him.’ And you’re constantly talking. You can be doing your job and still directing people.

"Sometimes we’re not marked up quickly enough. Sometimes we’re late marking up or we’re not marking guys up close enough. If you can’t touch the guy, you’re not marked up. If you’re a yard or more off the guy, it’s no good. Some forwards, you can’t give them six inches. It’s just a matter of marking up, getting organized, on the corners and throw-ins."

As for the four other preventable set-piece goals I alluded to, here's a brief synopsis of what went wrong on those:

  • The first penalty kick in the Dallas game was clearly a result of miscommunication between Keller and Hurtado; the second penalty kick was just a bad call.
  • The first goal in the Galaxy game was a throw-in on which Landon Donovan received the pass without being closely marked. Jovan Kirovski, who scores the goal, ultimately ends up with the ball after his mark is late picking him up.
  • The third Galaxy goal appeared to be a miscommunication between center backs Hurtado and Marshall, as well as a product of a missed clearing attempt by Peter Vagenas.

The point here is that much of the Sounders' struggles are correctable. Scoring some goals would certainly go a long way toward mitigating those mistakes, but in the meantime the players and coaches seem to recognize that addressing the problems on dead-ball plays is a top priority.

"It all comes down to concentration," said Patrick Ianni, who has spent time as a center back as well as a defensive midfielder this year. "We all have to be ready in the box. It's something I think we’re going to start doing more at practice. Just working on the 18s."

The next big test comes Saturday when the Sounders visit the Colorado Rapids.