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It's Supposed to be Hard

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The Seattle Sounders have dealt poorly with adversity in 2015.

"The hard is what makes it great."
"The hard is what makes it great."
Mike Russell

The element of Seattle's play on Saturday I found most difficult to watch as a fan was a small aspect of the game: long, lofted free kicks that bounced lazily across the end line or gently into the waiting arms of Nick Rimando. The Sounders attempted long service from set pieces 5 times in the first half (out of 8 such chances in the half, and 13 overall). Once, in the 5th minute, Oniel Fisher's long chipped pass met a successful header from Andy Rose, who nodded the ball back to Nelson Haedo Valdez, who launched his shot harmlessly over the net. 3 other long, lofted passes sailed too far to create any danger. Erik Friberg's medium-length free kick along the ground in the 40th minute bounced awkwardly for Obafemi Martins, leading to an immediate loss of possession.

The thin air in Salt Lake shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It simply demands an adjustment, from both the coach and the players... and to the Sounders' credit, they did adjust - they simply stopped lofting free kicks. 8 short passes came off set pieces, often aimed backwards or laterally- including all 5 in the second half... and from the full measure of 13 on the night, Seattle garnered a single half chance.

The adjustment was not reflected in the run of play.

HardLongPasses

Seattle's recent struggles coincide with a increase in attempted "Long Balls" in the run of play (25-yard passes or longer). Many commenters have pointed out such behavior often reflects game state - direct play being the shortest path towards chasing a result, when behind. Seattle's lack of success, under the circumstances (losses are marked in red boxes, wins in green triangles) should probably discourage the strategy, particularly when recognizing the difficult environment for long service.

Even when the service was the correct length, it wasn't necessarily the right type - there were a few instances where Obafemi Martins got on the end of an Aaron Kovar pass but expressed visible frustration: passes away from goal instead of towards; chipped balls instead of playing to feet. Players who rarely get the chance to practice or play together are not often on the same page - a problem likely to persist throughout the remainder of this season.

High altitude and fixture congestion is a similarly predictable challenge for any athlete.

HardDuels

Real Salt Lake won 13 more duels than Seattle on the night, the Sounders' second worst mark on the season, and another metric fairly well-correlated with success.

The altitude, the injuries, and the unfamiliarity are all reasonable explanations for poor play. Bad officiating doesn't help, nor does a loosely-called, physical game under the circumstances... but it's well past time to stop turning valid explanations into excuses.

Seattle has been behind in 541 minutes of MLS play in 2015. In that time, the team has scored 5 times, and drawn level with its opponent 3 times. The Sounders have also conceded 9 times while playing from behind, and went on to lose two of the 3 games in which they had leveled the score (May 31st against New York is the only come from behind victory).

There isn't any particular statistical basis to invoke "guts" in a competition... but as the road to the playoffs becomes still more challenging, Seattle needs to prove it can win under less-than-ideal circumstances. A perfect game will not happen in 2015.

Raw data for this work was collected from OPTA via whoscored.com and mlssoccer.com.