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Pace and Possession favor Seattle, but match goes Portland's way

This may seem like sticking the hand up the puppet of statistics -- and maybe it is -- but when a possession-based team has their worst outing of the year by that measure just maybe Seattle Sounders FC did something right last night.

Jane G Photography

The result was poor. It was not the beatdowns of years' past, but it puts the club behind at the end of the first half. Seattle Sounders FC again failed to win a 1st leg of an MLS knockout round They are 0-4-2 in MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout 1st Legs, but are a slightly better 2-3-0 in CONCACAF Champions League Knockouts.

Saturday's path to that result continued the transition to the new Diamond while continuing some strategic choices that Sigi Schmid has employed from Day 1. Sigi believes in a high pace of play and that the ability to capture space immediately after turnovers is a key to winning soccer. There are three paths to this tactic - bunker & counter, high pressure from forwards and midfield transitions.

Sounders FC use the last, most likely because of the talent level of their defensive midfielder. He is both a ball winner and a rapid distributor. He completed 92% of his passes last night and was 8-for-10 on long passes.

The tactic has been generally sound. In most years the rapid pace has lead to Seattle getting more chances and more goals than other teams in the league. This year that was not true. Seattle did not generate the offense out of this technique, but still maintained a good defense.

Last night Seattle played that high pace again. National commentary on Twitter doubted that Seattle could hold up that pace. They noted that the Portland Timbers also play regularly at a high pace and that their possession style should be able to absorb that over the course of 90 minutes.

This national commentary ignores that Seattle's pace of play was higher than Portland's on the year and that Seattle has played more matches than any other over any period of time longer than this season. The club knows fitness and pace better than any other.

According to aolsh over at TempoFreeSoccer last night's match had "142 possessions. Near season average for both teams. 3.08 passes per possession, 2.13 allowed, which was Portland's lowest on the season." That total possession number is actually higher than typical for both sides, Seattle had more passes per possession than typical and was better at limiting defensive passes than typical. They forced their game on Portland.

You can put your hand up the puppet of stats and make them say whatever you want to say, so at the end of the day, we got the win, deserved the win, took our chances well, thought we defended well. They had a little bit more of the ball, but that was a little bit of the game plan we had. We wanted them to have a bit of the ball so we could roast them on counter-attacks ... -Porter Postgame

In the first 45 minutes Sounders FC had a fast pace. With 9 attempts on goal and 236 passes it surpassed the more timid and intentionally bunkery Caleb Porter team. Those Timbers did get 8 attempts, but only 185 passes out of the possession defined team. They got the goal. It was another failure of counter defense.

At half Seattle could have gone a lot of different ways. They could have become a more patient side. They did not. They went with what defined their success over the past five seasons and continued to push the pace of play.

It worked on some fundamental levels. The second half put Sounders FC with even more passes (265) and even more attempts (11) and they got their goal. Portland continued to not match their season performance. They lost the ball often and gave away too many free kicks.

So what were the failures then? Seattle played the style of game that they do well in, in a shape that fits their personnel.

Those failures were three fold

  1. Failure to finish (with 65% of their shots in the 18 the expected goals would be nearly 3)
  2. Lack of danger from set-plays (corners often aimed low at the near post, free kicks that were close, but not in the net)
  3. Counter Defense (a two-month long trend at that, and just maybe what Porter wanted to exploit)
There were no issues with pace. Seattle dominated in ways that they want to and haven't for some time. They generated threats. The questions for Thursday are simple - can they fix two of those three issues? If they do they win leg two and maybe by enough to move on to the Western Conference Finals.

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