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Epic comebacks are cool, but not needing them is cooler

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Sounders are digging themselves too many holes.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Even in the context of what has already been a pretty wild season, the Seattle Sounders’ literally historic come-from-behind win over D.C. United on Wednesday was off the charts. Through roughly 50 minutes, the Sounders played about as badly as they ever had before.

Yes, I’ll put this one up against the second half of the game at Sporting Kansas City last year that effectively got Sigi Schmid fired. Yes, I’ll put this up against the second half of the LA Galaxy game in 2010 that resulted in a refund. Those games were at least against decent-to-very good opponents and had various other extenuating circumstances. Wednesday, however, was a home game against the worst team in the league, which had just traveled across the country. The Sounders didn’t have a first-choice squad, but they had plenty of firepower and basically their top defense.

In the first half especially, the Sounders looked slow and uninspired. Despite a massive possession advantage, they only had a couple shots and never looked remotely dangerous.

They came out better to start the second half, but still surrendered a goal to Lloyd Sam after some very questionable transition defense.

That seemed to wake them up, though, and the rest is sort of history. What was remarkable about the four unanswered goals, though, was how easy the Sounders made that comeback look. Once Brad Evans scored the header that brought the Sounders within 3-2, a point almost seemed inevitable and a win felt entirely plausible. With some better finishing, the Sounders could have won this game comfortably.

Mainly, I felt it served as a reminder of what this team has been this year. At their worst, they’ve looked as bad as anyone in the league. They make dumb mistakes, look clueless on offense and seem to simply go through the motions. At their best, they look like title contenders. Sure, you can write off the four goals as coming against the league’s worst team, but like the win on the road against the Colorado Rapids it doesn’t make this kind of result remotely preordained. This was not the first time a bad MLS team had taken a three-goal lead on a “good” team, but it was the first time the “good” team still managed to get three points.

The Sounders are now 5-2-2 in their last nine, riding a four-match unbeaten run, are above the red-line and fifth in points per game.

But those early deficits...

This was the ninth time the Sounders have given up the first goal over their 20 games this year. It was the sixth time they’ve given up the first two. It was the fourth time they’ve given up the first three. Remarkably, the Sounders have a better record in games they give up the first three goals (1-2-1) than in games they give up “just” the first two (0-2-1) and that’s better than their record when they only give up the first one (0-2-0). Either way, though, this is not a recipe for long-term success.

In most of these games, the Sounders simply came out flat and seemingly needed the goals to spur them into action. Against D.C., the difference in speed of play before the third goal and after was particularly remarkable. What was a completely flat performance offensively was suddenly dynamic. What was once a slow-to-react defense suddenly didn’t give United room to breathe.

The trick, of course, is figuring out how to stop these slow starts. Even when they are missing key pieces, this is a team that’s far too talented to ever be trailing a team like United 3-0.

Maybe it’s the players...

No change seemed to do more to spur the turnaround than when Nouhou and Kelvin Leerdam entered for Aaron Kovar and Harry Shipp just a few minutes after the Sounders scored their first goal. It wasn’t that Kovar or Shipp were bad — Kovar was arguably their only useful offensive player in the first half and Shipp’s play helped set up the goal — but the double switch added some much-needed pace to the pitch.

Nouhou, once again, showed that he just might be the most exciting player on the Sounders roster. Not only did he get credited with his first assist — his pass preceded Joevin Jones’ remarkable outside-of-the-boot ball to Brad Evans — but he was all over the pitch just trying stuff.

No play better encapsulated why fans have fallen in love with him more than this one late in the game:

Nouhou mishits his first clearance, then uses some weird stepping move to win the ball before it goes out, turns it up field, uses a feint to create some space and then clears the danger. There simply aren’t many other players who will try many of those moves and here he is doing it late in a game where his team is protecting a one-goal lead while down a man. He’s far from perfect but it’s impossible not to smile when watching him.

Leerdam didn’t do anything quite so audacious but it was still easy to see why the Sounders wanted him. He gets up and down the line well, looks composed on both ends of the field and was far more impressive in the air than I think any of us expected him to be.

There was a tertiary benefit too...

Nouhou’s insertion wasn’t just about getting a dynamic force onto the field, it was also about moving Jones further up the pitch. I’ll just come right out and say that I don’t think Jones is best longterm option at left mid. He’s an elite left back and putting him in the midfield will eventually mean taking either Jordan Morris or Will Bruin off. That’s just not a great trade in my opinion. Six of Jones’ eight assists and his goal have come as a left back, by the way, so it’s also not like he can’t be an effective attacking piece regardless.

With Morris unavailable, though, I’m becoming convinced he might be the best short-term solution.

With Jones and Nouhou on the left side, the Sounders have a speed element they simply lack otherwise. Jones’ defensive effort when moved up the pitch is also questionable at times, but that’s something that can be addressed. Nothing against Shipp, who I’m starting to like as a defensive mid, but he can’t do stuff like this:

Quote of the night

“This could be a defining moment for this club. The heart, determination, and drive this club showed in the second half is what we are about.” - Brian Schmetzer

Stat of the night

27 — That’s how many minutes it took the Sounders to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead.