The mood in the Seattle Sounders locker room has rarely been as somber as it was on June 23. The Sounders had just tied the Chicago Fire 1-1, and were frankly lucky to have gotten even a point. All week, this had been billed as a virtual must-win game, especially considering that their opponent was coming off a midweek U.S. Open Cup match in which their starters were heavily used.
The Sounders, for their part, had already dropped a bunch of points at home and knew they couldn’t afford to drop many more if they were to salvage what was already the worst start in franchise history.
Despite being about as healthy as they had been all year, the Sounders were outplayed.
“We are looking at every game as a final at this point,” Cristian Roldan said in a hushed tone during a postgame interview. “Every game is a final. You can’t lose these games. Mathematically, if we lose a couple more, we are done. It’s already been a failure to the season, but at this point, we have to turn that around. If we lose those couple of games, it’s a complete failure. We have a little bit left to save ourselves from this. It’s a matter of not saying it and actually doing it.”
As it turned out, the Sounders actually lost their next game, 3-2 to the Portland Timbers. That left them 3-8-3 for the season and 11 points off the playoffs. But hidden in that loss were glimmers of hope. The offense actually appeared to show some life, scoring multiple goals for just the fifth time, and they were actually able to string some passes together.
On July 4, the Sounders won just their second road game of the season, 2-1 over the Colorado Rapids. Two ties followed and then the dam broke with a nine-game winning streak that set up a history-making second half in which the Sounders set an MLS record by going 14-2-1 to streak to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference
Heading into the first leg of the conference semifinals against the Portland Timbers on Sunday, it seems fair to ask: How did the Sounders do it?
Given the way the last few years have gone, it probably should not have come as a huge surprise that the Sounders managed to make the playoffs despite their point total being stuck in single digits three full months into the season.
What came as more of a surprise is just how thoroughly the Sounders turned around their season. What started as the worst half in franchise history morphed into their third-highest point total. This was a team that was 11 points out of the playoffs as recently as July 4 and finished No. 2 in the Western Conference, fully 10 points ahead of the No. 6 team.
More broadly, the Sounders went from a team that many outside observers — and even quite a few fans — thought needed to be stripped down and started over from scratch to one that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.
Add it all together and it has to be considered the most dramatic turnaround in league history.
The Sounders got here through a collection of changes that can be broadly summed up like this:
- Getting healthy: Any discussion about this team before and after July needs to acknowledge that this team battled a lot of injuries early on.
- Settling on a starting group: This is somewhat related to health, but there were other decisions like sidelining Clint Dempsey and Magnus Wolff Eikrem, giving Kim Kee-hee the nod over Román Torres and inserting Osvaldo Alonso that were more about coaches making a call.
- Turning the team over to Lodeiro: With Dempsey out of the picture, Lodeiro was allowed to be more of a focal point than ever before.
- Signing Raúl Ruidiaz: There’s no question that having an elite No. 9 has taken the Sounders to a new level.
- Luck: Let’s not pretend as if this isn’t part of it. Whether it was the own-goals, some referee decisions or taking advantage of a soft schedule, there were some uncontrollable factors that helped the Sounders.
Let’s dig into each of those a bit more...
Let’s go back to first game of the regular season. Jordan Morris had already been ruled out for the year; Kelvin Leerdam, Kim Kee-hee, Osvaldo Alonso and Victor Rodriguez were all out with various injuries; and Clint Dempsey and Chad Marshall were being rested.
Neither Kim nor Dempsey were fit enough to play 90 minutes until the sixth game of the season; Leerdam battled various injuries well into the summer; Rodriguez didn’t even make his debut until June 2; and Alonso only started six of the team’s first 19 matches.
Starting with the match at LAFC on April 29, Torres ended up missing 14 straight games. The first four or so were due to injury; then he missed a handful due to World Cup duties where he suffered another injury. At that point, he’d basically lost his starting job.
Virtually every outfield player on the Sounders’ first team missed at least a few games with injuries or national team duties with the notable exception of Cristian Roldan, who set a club record with more than 3,000 minutes played this year.
The first time the Sounders fielded something like a first-choice lineup was on June 9, the 12th match of the season. They weren’t able to repeat that lineup until six games later on July 21, a 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. As it turned out, that was the first game of what would become a nine-game winning streak.
No player’s improved health has proven more important to the Sounders’ changing fortunes than Osvaldo Alonso. The 32-year-old started the season hurt, and then suffered two more injuries that cost him multiple games. It wasn’t until August that he was able to play 90 minutes in consecutive appearances, which was also about the time he started to look like his old self. From that game forward, he has averaged 3.2 tackles per game (basically on par with 2013-16). He’s still not intercepting passes at near his optimum rate (a bit more than 1.0 per game) but he is completing a league best 92.1 percent of his passes while making .6 key passes per 90 (similar to his career best numbers).
Solidifying the starters
During the first half of the season, the Sounders averaged 3.25 changes to the starting lineup per game. That almost underplays the lack of continuity. In those first 17 matches, not only did they never repeat a lineup in consecutive games, they never repeated a lineup, period. Just once did they have only one change from the previous game, while they had at least three changes in 10 of them. By the second game, 17 different players had already started for the Sounders. By the end of the first half, that number was 24.
In the second half, it was a completely different story. In those 17 games, the Sounders averaged 1.41 changes per game, had one or fewer in 10 of them and they only once had as many as four changes from one game to the next.
The stability showed in all three “lines.” There was never more than one player changed from game-to-game on the defense; Gustav Svensson and Osvaldo Alonso were the starting defensive mids in 13 games; and three of Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan, Victor Rodriguez and Ruidíaz started in the attacking band in 14 of them.
Essentially, the Sounders settled on a group of 14 players who regularly started and then filled in around them as necessary. They only needed 17 players to start once and no one was ever asked to play extended minutes out of position. The vision Garth Lagerwey had of creating a roster that allows the coach to effectively plug and play when a player went down was about as close to a reality as a team gets in MLS.
To create that stability, Schmetzer made a few key decisions. The biggest and potentially hardest was effectively making Kim the automatic starter alongside Chad Marshall. This was at least partially forced due to Torres’ injury and then his World Cup duty, but keeping Kim in the lineup even after Torres was healthy could not have been an easy choice.
The other big decision was bringing in Shipp from the cold. I am still unclear what led to Shipp’s eight-match absence, but his return to the starting lineup on June 9 also coincides with the Sounders’ turnaround. Including that game, the Sounders went 11-0-2 in his starts. Shipp didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but he did lots of little things that consistently led to positive results. In Shipp’s absence, Rodriguez has effectively done a lot of the same things with the added bonus of directly producing a bunch of goals.
Turning the team over to Nico
To some degree, simply getting healthy played a role in both settling the roster and rolling out something like a consistent starting group. But it was a bit more complicated than that.
The season opened with the assumption that Dempsey was going to be one of the offensive leaders. By the time the season was a third of the way through, it was becoming obvious that simply wasn’t going to happen. Dempsey’s first goal didn’t come until the season’s 13th game, that same one they tied against the Chicago Fire.
The Sounders had tried playing Dempsey in the No. 10 spot he ostensibly played last year, but also tried him as a lone No. 9. They’d tried him as a starter and as more of a super sub. There were games where he seemed willing to put in the work, but too many others where he just didn’t look capable of carrying the load.
If there’s one major decision Schmetzer deserves credit for, it’s recognizing this before it was too late. Dempsey hadn’t played in any of the Sounders’ five games before he retired and hadn’t started in nearly two months.
I strongly suspect Lodeiro was already seen as the clubhouse leader at that point, but this made it even easier to make him the focal point on the field as well. With Dempsey gone, Lodeiro was allowed to move to the center of the park where his free-roaming style was even more effective.
It also allowed the Sounders to employ a bit more of a press, as Lodeiro would often challenge opposing center backs with help from his forwards or outside mids as needed. It wasn’t anything like the full-court press teams like the New York Red Bulls employed, but it was effective enough to create some turnovers and even some easy scoring chances.
I’m reasonably confident that given everything else, there’s a decent chance the Sounders would have found a way into the playoffs without signing Ruidíaz. They did, after all, end up having 10 points’ worth of wiggle room.
What the signing of Ruidíaz did was turn this team into a bonafide MLS Cup contender. From his first game, Ruidíaz provided the kind of field-stretching they simply hadn’t had since Morris’ injury.
By his second game, Ruidíaz showed off his elite finishing ability. It wasn’t until the road win over the Whitecaps that Ruidíaz really started to produce, though. Ruidíaz scored the first of three braces in that game, poking home a Kelvin Leerdam cross and picking off an errant back pass to score an easy goal that proved to be the winner.
Ruidíaz finished off the regular season with eight goals in his last seven games, a 1.35 goals per 90 average. In doing so, he scored his 10th goal faster than any other player in the club’s MLS history (14 games).
Ruidíaz’s arrival also has had a knock-on effect of improving the play of those around him. As center backs have been forced to pay more attention to the Peru international, Lodeiro has had more room to operate and the wingers have found themselves in more one-on-one battles.
It obviously isn’t due entirely to Ruidiaz, but the Sounders ended up outscoring opponents 2.21 to .90 goals per 90 when he was on the field. That’s nearly double the Sounders’ scoring rate when he doesn’t play (1.15) and nearly a third of a goal better on defense (1.19).
As unsatisfying as it is to admit, the Sounders’ luck also took a turn for the better. The team’s first penalty came on July 15 and they finished the season tied for the sixth-most (5). They also tied for the most own-goals for with three. Only Atlanta United (15) had more combined goals through penalties and own-goals. I think there’s a compelling argument to be made that the Sounders’ made their own luck to get those eight goals, but there’s an element of good fortune nonetheless.
The same can be said about what turned out to be a pretty soft second-half schedule. Even before they closed out the season with six games against teams who didn’t make the playoffs, only six of their previous 11 were against playoff teams. Of those playoff teams, only Atlanta United and Sporting KC were at or near the top of their game when the Sounders faced them.
I don’t think the schedule should diminish what the Sounders accomplished on aggregate — 59 points is a good total no matter how those points are clustered together or who a team beats — but it might overstate just how dominant they were in the second half.
There’s nothing quite like visiting the Sounders locker room after a road win. Unlike home games, reporters are allowed in while virtually everyone is still there. As is a Sounders tradition, they’ve usually just finished singing their rendition of “Jingle Bells,” often scarfing down a quick postgame meal and wearing smiles that stretch from ear to ear.
The Sounders set a scene like that eight times this year, tied for the second-most in the league.
One of those was in Orlando following a 2-1 win that clinched a record-tying 10th straight postseason appearance.
“I feel a little spoiled just being part of this organization and you know, playing in the playoffs each year,” Roldan said, now almost yelling to be heard in the boisterous locker room. “You know it’s a difficult thing to do, this is a quality organization. We’re very proud of what we’re doing and hopefully we can continue this and from what I hear, beat a record next year and make the playoffs. But it’s about this year and hopefully we can make an impact in the playoffs.”