Heading into halftime of their road MLS playoff match against the Portland Timbers on Sunday, there was a feeling of justified unease among Seattle Sounders supporters. After a dream start that saw Seattle go up 1-0 in the 10th minute, things went from great, to good, to OK, to horrible over the span of 30 minutes.
In the 17th minute, after winning a duel near half, it took Portland just two passes to find Jeremy Ebobisse on a run that split Seattle’s center backs and find the equalizer (no more arguing about the offside call that wasn’t). Then, in the 30th minute, with Cristian Roldan off getting treatment and Waylon Francis waiting to come on, a combination of individual skill and unfortunate bounces allowed Sebastian Blanco to put the Timbers up 2-1. Not soon after, Chad Marshall was stretchered off the field, forcing Brian Schmetzer to make his second injury sub and put Roman Torres alongside Kim Kee-hee.
The momentum was firmly in Portland’s favor at this point, and Sounders supporters collectively breathed a sigh of relief when the halftime whistle finally blew (after 10 minutes of stoppage time). The 2-1 scoreline was still something they could battle back from — but only if they made some significant adjustments in the way they approached the game. With just one sub remaining, it would be up to the 11 men on the field at the end of the first half to turn the match around.
In the first half, Portland did two things very well. They switched the point of attack with diagonal long balls — pulling Seattle’s defense out of shape and giving Diego Valeri the space he needed to work effectively. The Timbers also capitalized on Seattle’s desire to push the attack through quick, well-executed counter attacks.
It would take a few tactical adjustments to keep the second-half scoreline even and create chances for Seattle. Luckily, those changes occurred — and while they still have an uphill climb, the Sounders’ second-half performance might have just kept them in the playoffs. So what exactly happened?
After Raul Ruidiaz’s goal, the Sounders were hungry to keep building their lead. It’s understandable. Goals change games, and Seattle had just set the tone with an early one at Providence Park. That desire to push quickly and relentlessly, however, would also be the Sounders’ downfall.
Portland is a team happy to concede possession and strike through quick counters. It’s how they’ve played all season, and they have the tools to do it well. On the season, the Timbers average 47.5% possession. It’s also a lot easier to counter when your opponent also tries to build quick attacks on their end, which Seattle did early on Sunday. It’s especially easy when your opponent loses the ball through poor passes or bad dribbling decisions, something Seattle also did a few times too many in the first half.
In the second half, Seattle’s possession was more patient and the build-up was slower. I can only assume this was intentional. While Seattle had the majority of possession in the first half (53.1%), that jumped to 57.3% in the second. Much of that came from deeper on the field, as the team tried to patiently find open space on the field. Osvaldo Alonso had a team-high 77 passes, while Kim Kee-Hee was second with 65.
A lot of commentators were quick to say that Portland played too conservatively in the second half. While I think they certainly could have been more aggressive, that argument gives Seattle far too little credit and Portland far too much blame. The answer lies a bit more in the middle: Seattle slowed down the game and connected 87% of their passes, and it worked in their favor. Seattle outshot Portland 6-4 in the second half and had 77 more passes in the final 45 minutes.
Defending Behind the Ball
In the second half, the Sounders adjusted defensively as well. Because of their more measured attack, they were able to keep Alonso and Gustav Svensson more planted in the middle of the field, giving the team numbers behind the ball on defense.
Portland didn't register its first shot until the 76th minute. Below is a screenshot of Seattle’s defensive shape before that opportunity. Valeri actually did manage to get around Svensson and create a shot after this screenshot — a low one that Stefan Frei had to dive and push away (Frei continues to save us). What Valeri wasn’t able to do, however, was send a ball through into the box or create dangerous space out wide. Seattle’s shape was more consistent, and the team wasn’t caught out of position as often.
I am not here to defend Schmetzer’s decision to sub Waylon Francis on for Roldan when he came off injured. I’m not here to say Francis had a particularly strong game. He struggled to make an impact. However, Francis also was a reason why Seattle was able to defend wider and deeper. In the second half, Portland had a few opportunities to counter on the right side of their attack. Instead of going for it, they opted to switch the point of attack. Francis didn’t tally many defensive actions, but the presence of two defensive-focused players on Seattle’s left was enough to scare Portland, I suspect.
Huge credit to Torres as well, who stepped up after losing his starting role for the last few months and was a physical force that prevented Portland from having many dangerous chances in the second half (that Valeri chance right at the end had me on edge though!). He came in at a difficult time, and did exactly what he needed to do.
Let’s talk about Nouhou
While Nouhou has had to work to earn his starting spot this year, and seems to only have won it recently because his main competition, Brad Smith, was injured, he stepped up in a few key ways this match. I won’t call his performance perfect — nobody’s was — but the young left back ended the game with more passes than Nicolas Lodeiro (62-60), a better pass completion rate (85.5%), and a team-high three interceptions. His interception also started the counter that led to the Sounders’ goal.
Nouhou is still trying to figure out timing when it comes to his offensive runs and crosses, but his ability to stretch Portland defensively in the second half — and his recovery speed to get back on defense — shouldn’t be discounted. His heatmap shows how much higher he was up the field this match.
Defensively, he had some key stops as well and showed some real growth in defense. In the 82nd minute, after a Sounders corner kick was collected by the Timbers, they pushed the ball quickly to jumpstart a counter attack.
Nouhou is the last defender back, with Kelvin Leerdam and a number of Sounders players sprinting to catch up. Blanco finds Lucas Melano on the right, and Nouhou does so well to not overly commit to Melano. His step out and then back — combined with Leerdam’s support — makes it difficult for Diego Chara to connect cleanly on the ball into him.
Changes for Thursday
With the health of Roldan and Marshall in question, Seattle will still have plenty to prove on Thursday. The somewhat good news is that we enter the match with the coveted road goal. The better news is that the second half showed what this team is capable of, and there is some real momentum and positive play to build on at CenturyLink. The other great news is that Harry Shipp was a difference maker in the three-plus minutes he got on the field.
There’s still plenty of unknowns when it comes to the Sounders team that shows up for Leg 2 of their playoff semifinal against Portland. But their second-half performance might have just been enough to help them earn their third-straight appearance in the Western Conference final.