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Tactics and Trends: Greater than the sum of their chances

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The Sounders’ efficiency has defined their surge up the standings.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Sounders have done it again. Incredibly, the team has turned another poor first half of the season into a playoff appearance. While starting low and finishing high is nothing new for the rave green, this year takes the cake for extreme table climbing (a new sport at which the Seattle Sounders, despite a strong challenge from D.C. United, remain the undisputed champions.)

After posting the worst first half of a season in club history, the team went on to put up the best second half of a season in MLS history. For perspective, based on the 43 points they gathered from the 2nd half of the season, the Sounders could have sat out the first half entirely and still been only six points shy of the final playoff spot in the west.

What’s more remarkable than the team taking 43 of the 51 possible points over the last 17 matches is that they’ve dominated the standings without necessarily dominating the advanced metrics. As Ian Lamberson of American Soccer Analysis pointed out, in the 22 matches that preceded Sounders final regular season match — a stretch that saw the team take an impressive 2.18 ppg — the Sounders averaged a decidedly unimpressive expected goal differential of -.30. While that stat is likely shaded a bit by the 3.38 to 0.81 expected goals beat down that the Red Bulls put on Seattle in June, the fact remains that the Sounders have only won the expected goals battle in seven of their last 15 wins.

The metrics wizards at 538 are also relatively down on the team, listing Sporting KC’s chances of winning MLS Cup as nearly twice as high as the Sounders’ chances despite SKC finishing only three points ahead of Seattle at the end of the year and amassing 13 fewer points than Seattle over the second half of the season.

All the stats and odds beg the question, are the Sounders really as good as their 2nd half of the season implies? This Tactics and Trends will break that question down by going through the team position by position in search of the formula for how they’ve beaten the odds in more ways than one over the 2nd half of the year.

Goalkeeper

This article could begin and end with the goalkeeper position and still come pretty close to giving a holistic view of the Sounders success — particularly when it comes to outperforming expected goals against. Stefan Frei’s goals against minus expected goals against is a ridiculously low -12.96.

Essentially, given the volume of shots and type of shots Frei has faced over the course of the year, he should’ve given up about 13 more goals than he actually did. Had Frei given up those goals, the Sounders would be tied for ninth in the league in goals allowed instead of 2nd , and the team’s overall goal differential would drop from 15 to 2, placing them in the on-the-border-to-make-the-playoffs tier of the Western Conference with the likes of LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and Houston Dynamo. Even in replacing Frei’s GA-xGA with the Evan Bush’s -6.82 GA-xGA (good enough for 2nd in the league and still only about half as good as Frei’s numbers), there’s almost no chance the team earns a knockout round bye.

Center backs

Starting with the basics, the duo of Kim Kee-Hee and Chad Marshall rarely get dribbled past. According to WhoScored, Marshall ranks in the top five of all center backs with more than 1500 minutes for fewest times dribbled past with an average of 0.2 times dribbled past per 90. Kim is also in the upper echelon of defenders at 0.4 times dribbled past per 90. While Kim does give up more on the dribble than Marshall, he makes up for it by registering twice as many tackles per 90 as Marshall.

Those stats explain the complimentary styles of Kim and Marshall well as the former uses great quickness to challenge successfully for the ball while the latter uses a masterful understanding of angles to cover for his partner in behind.

When the ball isn’t on the ground, Marshall and Kim patrol the air well, with Marshall once again ranking in the top five of regularly playing center backs for headers won. Though Kim’s aerial numbers aren’t as impressive as Marshall’s, his long 6’ 2” frame makes him tough to beat on headers as well. The duo’s quality in the air is vital for a team that protects the center of the park at all costs.

Positionally, the Sounders don’t play a particularly high line in the back, which means opponents may get their fair share of shots and crosses in a match. However, with Marshall and Kim’s sound defending, complimentary styles, and aerial prowess, the team gives up very few clean looks in front of net.

Outside backs

Not counting the usual debate over “pacey wingers”, the outside back positions have likely caused the most consistent hand wringing for fans throughout the season. Heading into the playoffs, the left back position remains the only spot in the 11 with true question marks about who the starter is given a fully healthy team.

In the early years of the Sounders, when their outside backs were more stationary and defensively oriented, there’d be no question about putting a 21-year-old defender who already has lock down 1 v 1 defending skills in the starting 11. Now, with Seattle featuring outside mids who all have the ability to tuck in and create central overloads, the demand for outside backs to be excellent two way players is much higher, leaving Nouhou’s starting spot still somewhat in question. Nouhou’s main competition for that spot comes from Brad Smith, who has registered an assist and drawn a penalty in only 446 minutes at outside back. Nouhou has yet to get on the score sheet with a goal or primary assist 2036 minutes.

On the other side of the field, Leerdam has chipped in on offense admirably, ranking 4th on the team in assists with four primaries to his name. Cristian Roldan has gotten into the act from right back as well, notching assists from that position against D.C. United, and more recently, San Jose.

Whether or not the Sounders choose to go with the defensive-oriented Nouhou or the attack-minded Smith, the ability for the outside backs to get into the attack will be crucial to the team’s playoff success. The more their outside backs get into the mix, the more the team can create offensive overloads in wide channels which in turn helps the team get into primary assist zones. Getting the ball into the wide primary assists zones is another way the Sounders can beat the expected goals odds as their backwards angled box crosses force defenders into own goals and committing penalties nearly as often as they create high percentage shots.

Holding mids

Without Cristian Roldan in the band of two, the Sounders rarely play with a true box-to-box midfielder anymore. While both Gustav Svensson and Ozzie Alonso pick good moments to get into attack — Svensson with a vicious long-range shot and Alonso with good linking play to the attacking mids — both players are content to hold and protect the back line when necessary.

The unselfish positioning of Svensson and Alonso has proved vital when the Sounders send their fullbacks into the attack. What makes the duo even more efficient is that both can play the role of destroyer while neither is a liability in possession, a rare combination in MLS.

Even the duo’s possession styles are complementary as Svensson tends to spray looping aerial balls throughout the pitch while Alonso excels dribbling and passing short out of tight spaces. The two styles sync perfectly as Svensson helps spread-opposing defenses while Alonso breaks opposing high presses with strong play in tight quarters.

Overall, the duo’s ability to transition the team efficiently from back to front has been a major turning point for the season. While the Sounders’ commitment to playing out of the back means they still get pinned in from time to time, the threat of Alonso or Svensson breaking through opposing pressure and catching a team exposed in transition has forced defenses to think twice before selling out on the press against Seattle. Whether protecting the back line or finding the right pass in build out play, Alonso and Svensson consistently limit the quality of their opponent’s chances while bettering the quality of the Sounders’ chances going forward.

Attacking mids

It may be a little misleading to imply the roles of the attacking center mid and the outside mids can all be lumped into the same category, but the Sounders’ band of three interchange as well as anybody. In fact, the ability of nearly every player on the attacking mid depth chart to play in tight spaces centrally or pop up out wide is the defining characteristic of the position group.

Unquestionably, Lodeiro leads the charge going forward, more or less roaming to wherever is necessary in order to get the ball on the half turn and make incisive forward passes. At times the outside mids tuck inside and create quick combination plays with the Uruguayan maestro, and at other times they’ll make unselfish runs in behind the defense to open up more space for the No. 10. Should Lodeiro pop out wide, the likes of Cristian Roldan, Victor Rodriguez, Harry Shipp, and even Handwalla Bwana to an extent, are all happy to slide to the middle the field and act as a temporary No. 10.

The unselfish running, ability to interchange, and technical quality of the Sounders’ attacking mids allows the team to be patient in the attacking half, often pulling the defense apart and creating time and space for the outside backs to get into the attack and create overloads. Though they move the ball quickly, the group is usually deliberate and measured in waiting for the best opportunity to play the final ball (moments of the recent San Jose match not withstanding). While that patience can mean fewer chances overall, it also means the chances the team does create have a high rate of success.

Striker

As with the goalkeeper position, sometimes it pays to have a player who is simply better than the odds. In the attack, Raul Ruidiaz is that player. Ruidiaz’s .22 goals minus expected goals per 96 minutes is fourth best of any player in the league with at least 1,000 minutes. In other words, Ruidiaz scores one goal every four games that the metrics say he shouldn’t be able to score. That’s nearly as good as Ibrahimovic’s 0.27 G-xG/96 and far better than Josef Martinez’s 0.06 G-xG/96.

What makes Ruidiaz even more efficient is that he consistently bangs in goals without needing to get on the ball very often. Ruidiaz’s 18.3 passes per match is roughly half Ibrahimovic’s 33.2 passes per match and Rooney’s 40.6 passes per match. Ruidiaz’s ability to stay active even when he’s not getting touches is a great fit for the Sounders as it gives Lodeiro and the rest of the attacking midfielders more opportunities to create. When Ruidiaz does get on the ball, he boasts the second highest passing success rate on the team at 87.9%. None of the other elite strikers in the league have a passing rate that’s nearly as good.

Given another striker with a less prolific scoring record, Ruidiaz’s remarkable G-xG/96 could be cause for concern as a sign that he will inevitably regress toward the mean. Luckily for the Sounders, Ruidiaz is not the mean. He’s a player who’s scored 20+ goals in multiple Liga MX years. He’s a player who can score with one less yard of space than most of his contemporaries. And, most importantly, he’s a player who perfectly compliments the Sounders’ desire to cross the ball from primary assist zones into elusive strikers who force defenders to make choices with only bad options.

Trends:

  • Over a difficult season, Brian Schmetzer has never waivered in asserting his confidence that his players could do the job. As the Sounders have strung more and more wins together, he’s also coyly challenged a sometimes-skeptical media to figure out why the team is so good. Here’s my best guess: The Sounders are extremely efficient. They doggedly work the ball into areas of the field where advance metrics show they’re most likely to score while working tirelessly as a unit to prevent their opponents from reaching the same spots. In addition to protecting valuable real estate in their own half and exploiting the same areas in their opponent’s half, the Sounders have game-breaking players such as Ruidiaz and Frei who out perform their positional counterparts from around the league while still working within the framework of a team-oriented system.
  • Harry Shipp and Brad Smith’s injuries have made their places on the depth chart somewhat unclear. Shipp’s bowing out of the 11 seemed largely inevitable with Rodriguez’s return to health and form, but now the bigger question is who will get more minutes off the bench between Shipp and Handwalla Bwana. At left back, Nouhou’s strong form as of late may keep Smith from regaining his starting spot. The good news is that Shipp and Bwana offer different skill sets as do Smith and Nouhou. The differences between those competing players could be a major boon when a tactical change is required in a close match come playoff time.