Depth is a funny thing. Back in the "dire days", it appeared as though we had vastly overestimated how much the Seattle Sounders had. Missing sometimes more than half of their regular starters, the Sounders had fallen from the top of the Supporters' Shield race to briefly out of playoff position.
But Wednesday's decimation of the currently Supporters' Shield-contending Vancouver Whitecaps showed a different side. With a starting lineup featuring just four holdovers from Saturday's similarly dominating victory over the same club, the Sounders backups clearly matched up well with their counterparts.
If that's not reflective of quality depth, I'm not sure what is. So what was the difference?
"It’s nice to have a lot more players healthy, so then options and choices were a lot better," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said in his postgame remarks. "Obviously we played seven fresh guys tonight of the 11. It’s always easier when it’s a young player like (Cristian) Roldan plays next to an experienced player rather than having two young players next to each other. It makes the game a little bit easier."
Some of the standout players from Wednesday's game were Lamar Neagle, Chad Barrett and Marco Pappa. Those were the same players who proved incapable of shouldering the offensive burden during those "dire days." But there were a few key differences:
1. As Schmid pointed out, the Sounders are generally more healthy. That meant that players like Neagle, Barrett and Pappa have been pushed down the depth chart, to the point that none of them were called into action over the weekend. All three were perfectly fresh for the CCL game and very much looked the part.
2. Let's not underestimate how much it helped having someone like Nelson Haedo Valdez on the pitch. Yes, he's just one player, but he's got a ton of experience and it showed just about every time he touched the ball. Putting him up top also relieved some of the pressure on Barrett and Neagle, giving them just a little bit more space and putting one more dangerous target on the field.
3. As Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson mentioned, his team's health was not in quite as good of shape. Players like Pedro Morales weren't available and Robinson elected to only start two players who could feasibly be considered to be among his ideal XI.
Add it up and you had a Whitecaps team that was totally overmatched. There was no one in their defense truly capable of matching up with a player of Valdez's pedigree and the Sounders were able to absolutely dominate the midfield with seasoned veterans like Pappa, Neagle and Erik Friberg. Meanwhile, a rookie like Cristian Roldan was allowed to simply settle in, as opposed to being tasked with being any kind of fulcrum.
In other words, the Sounders looked like the team the front office had probably envisioned in this exact type of scenario when they put the squad together in the offseason and then reimagined it during the transfer window.
Should this week's performances overshadow the Sounders' earlier struggles on the questions of depth? Not completely, but it does give much needed context for the conversation. When reasonably close to full health, the Sounders' top-line and depth players are as good as anyone in MLS. Take out a few key elements, though, and they'll struggle, just as virtually any other team would.
MLS is not yet a league where multiple key players can go down at the same time and a team can move along without skipping a beat. But given the constraints, the Sounders have clearly done as good of a job building depth as anyone in the league. That hardly guarantees them anything, but as long as the Sounders can remain reasonably healthy, there's plenty of reason to like their chances.