Brad Evans is not yet a center back. Well, he is technically, but there are still moments when he looks like a player learning a new position. Of course, he very much is. Seven games into his transition from midfielder/full back to center back, Evans is still prone to going to ground a bit too quickly and still struggles with determining the right time to start the transition and when it's better to simply boot the ball out of play.
Rough edges aside, Evans looks increasingly comfortable with each appearance. The mistakes are fewer and further between, while the effectiveness is more obvious. When Evans properly tracks a runner, clears an entry pass or wins a defensive header, it seems natural enough. It is worth noting that Evans’ seven straight games at center back is the most consecutive games he’s played at one position since the start of 2012.
More than Evans' individual play, the Sounders defense looks significantly improved over last year's when they gave up a franchise-worst 50 goals.
"I think the numbers have been good," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told the media on Wednesday, noting the four shutouts in seven games and league-best .71 goals against average. "So from that standpoint it's been OK. I think he's still learning, he's still improving."
"I asked him today how he felt: He feels a lot more comfortable at the position. So I'm happy with it. There are still more tests to come, and there will probably still be a mistake or two to come as well. Right now I think he's doing more things right than wrong, and I think his anticipation, his reading a play, has also improved from the back."
If there was one play from Sunday that highlighted Evans' improvement, it came in the 36th minute when he follows his runner perfectly, anticipates the pass and then makes a back-heeled tackle right to Dylan Remick, who is able to clear the danger:
But there continues to be a flip-side to plays like that one, where Evans' willingness to take a risk doesn't go as well. Here's the most glaring example from the 51st minute that led to an open look from Maximiliano Urruti. A more experienced center back might simply try to step in front of Urruti, committing a foul if that's what is necessary. Instead, Evans tries to win the ball:
The good news is that Evans is quite aware that he's got improving to do and promises to learn from mistakes like that one, as well as the ones he made against the San Jose Earthquakes (which he admitted is a game he continues to think about).
"There are still things I need to do better - some glaring points on film - so it's good to recognize when you need to do better," Evans said. "Obviously I'm willing to put in the work and do what I can do to continue to get more shutouts."
Evans also seems to recognize that while the shutouts are nice, that there's been a bit of good fortune as well. Each game has seen the Sounders make mistakes that went unpunished and there's a good chance they won't be able to maintain their goals-against record even with improved play.
"I think we're still a ways off," Evans admitted. "I don't think we're quite where we want to be yet, but to be able to grind out results and get a few shutouts along the way is a good sign early in the season. In practice there's still things we need to work on. The good part about the group is they are all willing to put in the work to get better. Guys are noticing their errors and trying to fix them. It says a lot about guys that we are winning games in shutouts and we aren't getting complacent. We know we're not where we want to be."
Narratives being what they are, Evans will continue to be the guy who "single-handedly lost the Earthquakes match" and the Sounders' defense will be seen as the team's glaring weakness -- partly because of his presence -- in the eyes of many observers for at least a few more months. But maybe we should let people have their narratives. Meanwhile, the Sounders can keep stacking results.