Through the first five games of the 2016 Seattle Sounders season, even the most generally optimistic fans would be hard pressed to argue that the performances were anything better than lackluster. Despite three home games during that stretch, the Sounders found themselves in the Western Conference cellar with a woeful 4 points - or 0.8 points-per-game, on pace for 27 over the course of a full season. To put it bluntly, the Sounders were bad. But they were also something much worse - they were boring.
Like most things in soccer (and sports in general) "boring" is context-dependent. To a neutral observer, the 2012 edition of Sporting Kansas City would likely be labeled as such, given that grinding out low-scoring victories using tactics that could charitably be described as cynical was their entire identity, but their fans were almost certainly unbothered as the team finished with 63 points and 18 wins, both numbers that were second only to a San Jose Earthquakes team that was arguably the flukiest success in league history. Winning is never boring, no matter how you get there. At the same time, goals are fun! The Houston Dynamo are currently dead last in the West, but they've gotten there by managing to be the second-highest scoring team in the league. It's ridiculous and it's certainly not ideal, but it's better than objectively bad and dull, which is just about the worst thing a soccer team can be.
Before Saturday's win over the Philadelphia Union, both adjectives applied to the Sounders. There was little flow to the attack and the play in midfield was disruptive and workmanlike rather than creative. The defense was largely tremendous, but when those efforts are going unrewarded due to failures at the opposite end of the pitch it's not much consolation; similarly, long periods of possession dominance that haven't produced chances or been employed to close out victories have done little to help in an aesthetic sense. This is very clearly a talented collection of players, which arguably made the sense of impotence even more frustrating - when players that are demonstrably capable of creating beauty and excitement fail to deliver, it's disheartening in a way that watching objectively lesser players scrap and struggle isn't.
While one game certainly doesn't wash the taste of the first five out of anyone's mouth, Saturday's win over the Union provided some evidence that things are beginning to turn around. It was far from a complete performance by the Sounders, with the Union making things far more interesting than they should have while facing a two-goal deficit and a man disadvantage. The Sounders defense looked shakier than they have at any other point this season, and there was a frantic and somewhat sloppy character to the game that saw the Sounders complete a season-low 79% of their passes. Despite the imperfections, it was a quality home win against a quality opponent that wasn't really as close as the final score line indicated. It was also a lot of fun, in a way that no other game this season has been.
The Sounders attack had a sense of purpose that it hasn't displayed so far this year, generating a number of excellent chances that were thwarted by a tremendous goalkeeping display from Andre Blake. While there were still sloppy and mis-timed passes in the final third, the Sounders seemed to be clicking going forward in a way that can't really be quantified. The hesitance to poke and prod and take risks from attacking positions that were so present in the first five games weren't there this time around - there were few speculative efforts from distance caroming harmlessly off of defenders or looping crosses into a crowded penalty area being nodded away with ease. There was a very clear sense of urgency in the way the team went forward, and it was something that's been sorely missing so far this season.
It's not all the way there yet, but it's definitely a start. Soccer isn't entertainment in the same way that watching a movie or going to a concert are, but ultimately entertainment is what the Sounders are selling to their fans. And for the vast majority of their existence at the MLS level, they've delivered winning teams that featured exciting talent playing objectively entertaining, attack-minded soccer. That hadn't been the case so far in 2016, but given their track record it was reasonable to expect that it would come with time. Last weekend, we got our first tangible evidence that it will. Whether or not it can continue is anyone's guess, and a trip to face a stunningly competent Colorado Rapids team this weekend means that a repeat performance isn't the likeliest of outcomes and no team is going to provide a rollercoaster thrill-ride every time they step on the pitch. But if the Sounders we saw last weekend can show up on a regular basis, the first five games of the season are going to be a whole lot easier to forget.