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No reason to panic yet, but the Sounders have much to improve on

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Stefan Frei said that even though they’re low in the standings, this team is much better than they were this time last year

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the marks of a great goalkeeper is the ability to read and interpret the game in front of him from the same vantage point for 90+ minutes, every game. The Seattle Sounders are lucky enough to have a goalkeeper like that in Stefan Frei, who sees and is able to articulate soccer on a deeper level than most. He enjoys talking about individual matches, as well as the team’s situation as a whole, and breaking them down for analysis. Coming off a hard loss to Vancouver last weekend, Frei identified on Tuesday that even though things aren’t ideal, “it’s always important to not give into panic.”

Comparisons to the 2016 campaign seem like low-hanging fruit right now, especially considering how poorly the start to the season looks on paper. But Frei said the standings don’t really tell the whole story right now. “We’ve had a tough stretch of games against some really tough opponents, but we’ve actually played quite well.” As opposed to early in the Sounders’ 2016 season, the Sounders are doing nearly everything right in many of their games—except putting the ball in the back of the net. “We’re doing all the hard work really well, now it’s more just time to reward ourselves and make that possession count, make that dominance count, get a couple of goals, and get a result because that’s all that really matters.”

Frei is confident that there’s plenty of time to bounce back and get a run of good results, especially once they get into the groove of having regular games at home. Five of seven away games to start the season isn’t ideal for anyone, even the reigning MLS Cup champs. But he stressed that the positives outweigh the negatives, and even in their toughest losses and draws away from home, they’ve played well. One takeaway from last season that applies to the team now, he said, is that things can always turn around by the end of a long MLS season. “I think all these experiences and hardships you go through, like last year, those become vital throughout the rest of the season.”

In terms of individual things the team needs to work on, Frei identified a couple of key areas that would help the Sounders keep the ball out of their net—and in the opponents’. First, Frei said, defending and stopping crosses into the Sounders’ box, which “maybe falls on the shoulders of whoever’s out there, whether it’s the outside backs or guys having to chase back out of midfield and help cover.” By this, he means that the Sounders’ fullbacks and midfielders need to identify and shut down wide threats and limit their opponents from pumping crosses into the box. “It eliminates that threat before it comes in.”

Another area that needs work according to Frei is man marking, especially on set pieces. Both of Fredy Montero’s goals on Friday saw him lose his marker to varying degrees, though the second goal was pretty obviously due to a blown marking assignment. The Sounders also dropped points in San Jose when Chris Wondolowski lost his marker when he equalized for the home side in the dying minutes of the match. Frei said that with guys like Wondolowski and Montero, they absolutely can’t lose them. Even if a player goes most of the match unnoticed, like Wondolowski did, you can’t lose him for even a split second. “When you have a player with that striker’s instinct, you have to know at all times where they are.”

On the other side of the ball, Frei thinks that maybe the Sounders’ obsession with possession needs a little tweaking. “As much as we’re able to get a lot of possession up top, it’s not really resulting in anything right now.” He doesn’t discount the need for keeping possession and controlling the game, but simply that the team needs to change their mindset in the final third and be willing to take risks and go for goal, rather than pass backwards or move away from goal just to maintain that possession. Frei thinks of it as an adjustment in attitude, using Dom Dwyer’s goal against the Portland Timbers last weekend as an example of a ‘goal-first’ attitude: “it’s about doing everything you can to get there and score a goal.” He also noted Clint Dempsey as a player who often has that attitude, especially when he took his big chance against Vancouver from distance that clanged off the crossbar. “We need more of that, we need to mount pressure, not just with possession, but with actual threats on goal.”

It’s not like the team doesn’t know most of this—the Sounders have lots of people going over film and analyzing data to help them improve on the pitch. Brian Schmetzer knows how to train and prepare his players, and they’ll surely get better as the season goes on. Frei said multiple times how much faith he has in his team, that if the 2016 version of this team could make that epic comeback, think of what this much-improved 2017 team can do? “Hard time to climb out of that hole, but we didn’t give up, but it showed that you can climb out.” Frei knows this team well enough to know that they won’t quit on the team, on each other, or on themselves. “You can never give up, this is our livelihood, this is our passion, this is what we want to do so we can’t give up.”