There's something about playing the Vancouver Whitecaps that seems to bring out the worst in the Seattle Sounders. In each of the past two years, the Sounders only needed to get a home result against the Whitecaps to effectively clinch the Cascadia Cup. Both times they failed miserably, getting pummeled 4-1 in 2013 and looking horribly flat in a 1-0 loss last year.
The Sounders were on a five-game winless run against the Whitecaps and they had been outscored 10-3 during that time. It was way back in 2011 that the Sounders had last beaten the Whitecaps in Vancouver and they had never won at BC Place.
Over the first 20 minutes of Saturday's meeting, little seemed to have changed. Yes, the Sounders had grabbed an early 1-0 lead courtesy of a spectacular Clint Dempsey pass and an even better Chad Barrett finish. But the Sounders had grabbed an early 1-0 lead in Vancouver early last year, too, only to escape with a 2-2 tie courtesy of a somewhat controversial late-game penalty.
Despite the lead, the Sounders were very much on the back foot, absorbing body blows and mostly looking content to look for the counter. The Sounders were completing just 62 percent of their passes, often just booting the ball to safety rather than trying to string passes together and had ceded about 70 percent of the possession to the Whitecaps. Here's what it looked like graphically (notice all those aimless long balls?):
Almost out of nowhere, though, something clicked. Around 21:30, the Sounders suddenly started connecting passes. A lot of passes.
It started with a simple pass from Stefan Frei to Chad Marshall and quickly worked its way up the field. And then back. And then forward. And then back. By the time Chad Barrett tried to find Lamar Neagle in the penalty area with a pass that was eventually intercepted, the Sounders had connected 29 consecutive passes and taken about 1:15 off the clock.
The sequence may not have led to a goal or even a clear scoring chance, but it did seem to serve the purpose of helping the Sounders find their rhythm while also forcing Vancouver to chase a bit.
Another long passing sequence -- 25 passes -- about 10 minutes later did bear more material fruit. This time, with the Sounders mostly passing it around in their defensive end, Marco Pappa spotted Barrett making a run and lofted a ball over the top. Barrett hit it first time and beat Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted to the far post.
Now sitting on a 2-0 lead, the Sounders were committed to holding the ball, while not allowing the Whitecaps to get on the break.
It worked wonderfully.
The Sounders had about 70 percent of the possession during the second half, completed 89 percent of their passes and limited the Whitecaps ability to attack in numbers. As the game wore on, the Sounders' strangulation techniques only grew stronger.
Three times in the final 10 minutes, in fact, the Sounders were able to string together at least 22 consecutive completed passes. One of those sequences was about 32 passes long and another featured 24 passes with all 10 outfield players getting at least one touch. That one culminated with Osvaldo Alonso putting Darwin Jones in on goal for quite possibly the best chance of the game.
None of these were examples of the Sounders merely holding possession for the sake of possession. Every one of these long spells were designed to force the Whitecaps to react, to chase the ball and to make sure the Sounders had players in position to defend the counter if that's what was needed.
It's probably a stretch to say that the once attack-happy Sounders have suddenly morphed into a possession team. As they've shown on plenty of occasions, they are still more than happy to send a ball over the top or wait for the opportunity to counter. What they are showing is that they are adaptable and perfectly happy to play whatever kind of game suits the situation.
In the meantime, why not give the Sounders' possession game a nickname. How about "tiki-totem"?