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Backup defenders earn Sounders first clean sheet of 2017

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They might not top the depth chart, but quartet repelled one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

Things might not have gone the Seattle Sounders’ way offensively in their 0-0 draw with Atlanta United on Friday, but a clean sheet against the most potent attack in the league is nothing to complain about. Sure, Atlanta started without their two best attackers (one did play for a chunk of the second half), but it was the first time this season the expansion side had been kept scoreless.

That might not even be the most important part of Friday’s clean sheet, though. Consider that not only was it the Sounders’ first clean sheet of the season, but it was done with about as makeshift of a back four as the Sounders could have. Joevin Jones was probably the only defender considered first choice at his position. Jordy Delem is probably the Sounders’ fourth-choice right back; Schmetzer even admitted that it’s not the player’s best position.

It’s also notable that Tony Alfaro wasn’t even set to start until mere minutes before kickoff after Chad Marshall had to drop out due to illness. Gustav Svensson considers himself more of a defensive midfielder, but his performances on Friday and against New York Red Bulls might be sliding him up the center back depth chart.

We even saw Cristian Roldan play emergency right back for the second match in a row, when Schmetzer took Delem off for Henry Wingo late in the second half. To nobody’s surprise, Roldan played just as well there as he did in the numerous other positions he played throughout the match. He may have even made the most important defensive move of the second half when he blocked a late shot by Atlanta substitute Kenwyne Jones.

Either way, the defense that the Sounders trotted out against Atlanta didn’t exactly inspire confidence when it was announced. But even with Delem making his first ever MLS start, the group defended well. This perhaps points to the importance of the friendly with Necaxa, because all of the “backups” in that defensive unit played together in last weekend’s match. Schmetzer made note of this in his post-match press conference: “we played three out of that back four that played against Necaxa, so I had no issues and no drama. You just put the next guy in and he steps up and does his job.”

Svensson, as the elder statesmen of that defensive unit, stressed that communication—both verbal and nonverbal—was important for the group. “Communication is key, especially when you play against fast players, technical players, you need communication, because when it’s difficult, you need to make sure you have cover and give cover when needed.” He said verbal communication with the Sounders was much easier than with the teams he played with in China, Turkey, and Ukraine, even though some players aren’t fluent in English yet. But he pointed out a much more important kind of communication that he and his teammates have. “Soccer is the universal language, you just have to know how to play soccer and then you...know.” Svensson marshaled the Sounders’ backline well against Atlanta by helping his less experienced teammates with their positioning and leading by example with a huge run and last-ditch tackle against a fast Atlanta counterattack.

So even if players like Alfaro and Delem didn’t exactly climb up the depth chart with their performance against Atlanta, they showed that the Sounders have more than adequate cover on defense when the starters are out. Schmetzer described their performance well, saying “they all played hard, with the right amount of aggression without getting themselves in trouble. I think positionally they were very sound. As individuals, they defended well, and also as a group they defended well.”

Now that they’ve showed that they can defend against some of the best the league has to offer, the Sounders just need to figure out how to finish their own chances at the other end.