Although we’re two games beyond the actual halfway point in the season, the Gold Cup break represents a sort of mental break. Now seems like a very appropriate time to assess where the Seattle Sounders are in their quest to defend the MLS Cup.
For all the frustrations, things aren’t looking half bad. Depending on how results go in the next couple days, the Sounders will be no worse than tied on points for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and no worse than seventh in points per game. They’ll also be no worse than five points out of third.
Most of this is due to what is shaping up as a down year in the West, but either the way the Sounders are very much in the thick of things after going 4-2-2 in their past eight.
Given the various issues they had with injuries and call-ups at inopportune times, this isn’t a bad spot to be in.
Clint Dempsey turns in a vintage performance
Make what you will of the state of the Colorado Rapids’ backline. Point out, if you must, that they were playing on short rest. Note that Clint Dempsey hadn’t played a full 90 in almost two weeks.
At the end of the day, though, acknowledge that Dempsey looked very much like his old self while scoring a brace, adding an assist and generally giving the Rapids absolute fits in the Sounders’ 3-1 win.
Dempsey was only credited with about 30 touches, but playing as more of a withdrawn forward than as a No. 10, he was very efficient. He was 17 of 19 passing, took four shots, registered two key passes and even had a couple defensive actions late in the game.
Combined with the goal he scored against the Timbers, Dempsey’s season stats aren’t looking too bad. He’s now on seven goals through 16 appearances (.48 goals per 90) which isn’t that far off from what he was producing in 2014-15 (.58 goals per 90). More encouragingly, he’s now got 12 goals in 20 career appearances with Nicolas Lodeiro. Sure, five of those goals have come in just two games, but the seven goals he has in the other 18 are still pretty much on pace with his MLS career norm.
Similar to his performance against the Timbers, the best part about Dempsey’s game was the confidence. His first goal was admittedly a wide open look, but plenty of players aren’t able to hook in an left-footed effort from that kind of angle. The defense on the second wasn’t great either, but Dempsey still took a bouncing ball off a volley and beat arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS from about 20 yards out.
Dempsey was constantly getting himself into dangerous areas and he worked almost perfectly off Will Bruin’s hold-up play. It was glorious to watch and a good reminder that Dempsey is far from finished.
Building on a lead
Perhaps the most frustrating element of the Sounders’ season has been their inability to extend leads. Six times since beating the LA Galaxy on April 23, the Sounders had scored first and failed to add to their lead. They’ve gone 3-1-2 in that time - not awful, but those seven dropped points are also the difference between sixth and being tied for the Western Conference lead.
Thankfully, that streak ended on Tuesday, and not only did the Sounders push their 1-0 lead to 2-0 on Will Bruin’s sixth of the season, they also reestablished their two-goal advantage just as the Rapids were threatening to tie it.
It should probably be noted that the Rapids’ defense is nothing like the near record-setting one that ground opponents into dust last season, having already allowed just five fewer goals than they did all of last season. In this one, they were starting one player with very limited center back experience (Eric Miller) and another with very limited MLS experience (Mike da Fonte), and both were clearly struggling. But this was also the same group that looked just fine against the Houston Dynamo a few days earlier.
Like that 3-0 win over the Galaxy earlier this year, it’s probably best not to read too much into this singular performance. But, for an offense that needed a boost, these last couple games were encouraging.
While we’re busy concerning ourselves with the challenges the Rapids were facing on their backline, let’s remember the Sounders weren’t exactly using their A-lineup either. By the time the 23rd minute rolled around, Gustav Svensson’s only cover in the defensive midfield was Lodeiro and the backline included Jordy Delem (seven career starts), Tony Alfaro (seven career starts) and Nouhou (two career starts). Mind you, this was in a game where they started with just four available outfield players on the bench, one of whom was wearing a Hell Boy-sized cast.
The most predictable thing ever would have been for the Sounders to simply fold, something we’ve seen repeatedly on the road this year.
Instead, they didn’t really miss a beat. Aside from a roughly 15-minute patch from about the 65th minute through the 80th, the defense had the match very much under control. Delem was guilty of poor positioning on a couple chances and was saved by some shoddy finishing, but was mostly competent in a role where that seemed far too high a bar to expect based on previous appearances. Nouhou was borderline revelatory, bombing forward and flying into tackles all over the left side (his 20 positive defensive actions were four more than the Rapids’ two starting fullbacks had combined). His only notable mistake came on the Rapids’ goal, when he inexplicably failed to track back after an overlapping run despite having plenty of time. Alfaro didn’t do anything that stood out as particularly positive, but - after some near disastrous performances - he too showed he’s maybe not quite as much of a lost cause as he was starting to look.
Although he didn’t play on defense, it should also be said that Aaron Kovar had another strong performance off the bench. The Homegrown Player’s career has been marked by roadblock after roadblock it seems, but he’s showing that he deserves to be in the rotation even when the Sounders are at full strength.
Quote of the day
“I can’t complain when a ref misses an offside or the ball goes out, that’s just part of the game, they make mistakes. The thing that gets me fired up though is the safety of my players. We need to make sure that the players’ safety is always a priority. I felt like there were some challenges that weren’t dealt with.” - Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer after his team suffered 19 fouls, five of which were deemed yellow-card worthy but somehow never got much of an advantage
Stat of the day
63 — That’s the percentage of duels the Sounders won, many of which came on aerial midfield battles