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Postgame Pontifications: Focusing on Champions League was the right call

Sounders have been promising to do exactly this for years and needed to put their money where their mouth was.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Ever since Garth Lagerwey was hired to lead the Seattle Sounders’ front office, he has talked about prioritizing CONCACAF Champions League. It’s been easy enough to chalk that up to idle chatter when they’ve scheduled midseason friendlies against Liga MX sides two whole years before they could even play in the tournament, or look at their relatively conservative spending in order to ensure they have a full stocked roster, but Sunday’s MLS opener was perhaps the most obvious sign that the organization was serious.

Given the choice to put out their best possible team against Los Angeles FC or to hold out some key parts, the Sounders made it obvious they were far more concerned about having their best possible squad available for Wednesday’s game against C.D. Guadalajara. Roman Torres was pulled at halftime; Magnus Wolff Eikrem only played the second 45 minutes; Chad Marshall never got off the bench; and Clint Dempsey didn’t even suit up. Heck, head coach Brian Schmetzer even chose to give the team’s only healthy natural right back the day off, presumably holding Jordan McCrary for the CCL game as well.

Although there was some rather loud grumbling about this decision, it would appear that most of you reading this story at least understood it.

To some degree, how smart of a decision that was will be determined by Wednesday’s result. If the Sounders win that game 2-0 or better, I think we can reasonably say that it was a gamble worth taking. A one-goal win or worse, though, will open the door for some second-guessing. Resist being dragged into this debate.

As has been pointed out, how the Sounders perform in this one game or even in this tournament will not suddenly mean MLS has caught Liga MX. The only way we’ll know that is when these types of matchups are regularly considered toss-ups, and we’re a long way off from there.

Rather, the decision to prioritize a CCL quarterfinal over the first in a 34-game season is at least a symbol that the Sounders take their stated goal of becoming more than just another MLS team seriously. They have improvements to make, no doubt, but I’ll go on record as saying that this was the right decision. Now, let’s go beat Chivas.

The lineup was good enough, though

While we’re on this subject, one of the aspects that has been somewhat trampled in this discussion is that, despite putting out a decidedly second-choice lineup, the Sounders played plenty well enough to win. Yes, there are valid arguments to make about how LAFC’s 11th minute goal affected their play, but the degree to which the Sounders dominated can’t be written off so easily.

The Sounders held a 21-3 advantage in shots after LAFC’s goal (including a 14-1 advantage on shots from inside the penalty area), with a 12-1 discrepancy in the second half. LAFC may have taken their foot off the gas, but there’s simply no way a team plans to be shelled like that.

Although the exact xG data differs depending on who’s generating it, all sources agree that the Sounders generated by far the better scoring opportunities, and by a very large margin (relatively speaking). The exact xG figure doesn’t prove that the Sounders “should have” won, but it does speak to the chances they created and suggests that if they continue to play this way they should be fine.

How they did it

If nothing else, Seattle showed that they can generate scoring chances without someone who stretches back lines. As you might expect, they didn’t generate much in terms of counter-attacks, both because of their personnel and because LAFC wasn’t exactly exposing themselves by throwing numbers forward. But they did generate a ton of chances from set pieces and patient buildup.

Sounders’ key passes.

They also managed to create chances without becoming overly reliant on crosses, as we’ve seen so often in past years. While the 31 crosses may sound like a lot, 18 were from set pieces and most of those were corners. The Sounders had 15 key passes from open play, with five of those coming from Nicolas Lodeiro and three coming from Henry Wingo.

While the result was obviously far from ideal — and blowing a 15-game home unbeaten streak stings quite a bit — there’s encouraging stuff in all of this, the biggest of which might be that the Sounders are showing they know how to break down a bunkered defense even if they aren’t able to actually do it every time.

The kids looked all right

Immediately after the game I spoke highly of Handwalla Bwana, mainly due to him having a few nice plays in his 26 minutes. I’ll stand by my assessment that I liked the promise he showed, but upon closer inspection I think the guy I’m a bit more encouraged by in terms of their ability to contribute in the near term is Wingo.

Now, Wingo was from perfect. There was one chance, in particular, that he chose to collect a loose ball rather than fire it at goal while Tyler Miller was a bit out of position and the defense was scrambling.

Otherwise, I thought Wingo showed some markedly improved touch and patience. He completed over 90 percent of his 42 pass attempts, had three key passes, two shots and two successful dribbles. It’s true that LAFC seemed intent on attacking his side of the field, and there were times early on that he and Jordy Delem were struggling to figure things out, but overall I thought it was a good performance for the 22-year-old Homegrown Player.

More broadly, the Sounders gave more minutes to players born on Jan. 1, 1993 or later than any other team in Week 1. For a team that is supposedly overly reliant on veterans, that has to be seen as a positive sign.

The day in one gif

The Sounders did hit the back of the net once, and it came during a wild five-minute sequence that saw them pepper the LAFC goal with six shots, while taking five corners. But the goal was disallowed because Will Bruin never bothered to get onside. What’s particularly frustrating about this clip is that it shows that Bruin didn’t even gain an advantage from loitering a step beyond the last defender, since he had to wait for the cross anyway.

The stat that tells the tale

616 — It was way back in last September when the Sounders last allowed a goal in actual competition at home. The shutout streak had stretched to 616 minutes when Diego Rossi ended it, while also besting Fredy Montero’s record for fastest goal by an expansion team by 33 seconds.

Quote of the day

“That’s Tom Dutra’s hard work right there,” Brian Schmetzer on the performance of former Sounders goalkeeper Tyler Miller.

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