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Postgame Pontifications: Breaking down a breakdown

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Trouble on the left, trouble on the right, did anything go well Saturday night?

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Saturday could have served as a vindication of the Seattle Sounders’ early-season struggles. Nicolas Lodeiro and Will Bruin were back in the lineup after recovering from injury. Gustav Svensson, Roman Torres and Cristian Roldan were all fit to play after returning from national team duty. Kelvin Leerdam was present to relieve Jordan McCrary at right back... until he wasn’t.

For the third straight league match, the Sounders were unable to keep 11 men on the field for the span of 90 minutes. Leerdam, the latest offender, was sent off in the 40th minute for slapping Daniel Lovitz in the face.

Leerdam knows better than what happened with Lovitz. Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer acknowledged this and said Leerdam had apologized after the match, but at what point does the data start to suggest that the Sounders can be baited into these situations?

Nicolas Lodeiro was two fouls drawn away from being the most-fouled player ever in a single MLS regular season last year. Most other teams have long come in with the knowledge that the easiest way to trip up Seattle is to literally trip them. That the club’s players now seem able to be goaded into cheap responses, especially in the era of VAR, is not indicative of a team that is handling adversity in a positive fashion.

Schmetzer said that the club’s unwillingness to give up after going down a man was a characteristic of championship teams, but so is keeping your wits about you when tempers flare.

And tempers have been flaring. Just last week against Dallas, Leerdam drew a yellow card — not for a phantom foul on Reto Ziegler, but for looming over Ziegler and shouting at him after the incident. Passion and discipline exist on either side of a tightrope, especially for professional athletes, but recent activity shows that Seattle is having a tough time walking that line.

On the tactics

It’s not clear if the fact that Seattle looked better playing with 10 men is an indictment of Montreal or Seattle’s failure in the offensive third. The Sounders completed 55 percent of their passes in the attacking third and got a body on the end of 31 percent of their crosses Saturday.

Still, the situation seemed to get better after Schmetzer withdrew Magnus Wolff Eikrem at halftime to put in McCrary, freeing Roldan from the right back spot to go play on the wing. Most of this improvement seems to have resulted from moving Lodeiro deeper into the midfield, allowing the Uruguayan to never be far from the action and remain involved in whatever buildup play Seattle could muster.

As for the decision to pull Wolff, well, this chart showing the defensive actions of the attacking band of Lodeiro, Wolff, and Handwalla Bwana in the first half displays some of the evidence.

First-half defensive actions for Nicolas Lodeiro, Handwalla Bwana and Magnus Wolff Eikrem

In fact, Wolff was pretty much invisible against Montreal, finishing with 24 touches and 16 passes (four of which missed their mark). Waylon Francis had a similarly spotty match at left back.

Overall, though, the most bizarre thing about the match was an apparent reliance on through balls to Will Bruin in space. Bruin has many positive attributes. Blazing speed is not one of them. Bruin is very talented at what I like to call the give-and-leave, like his backheel that got Lodeiro a shot at an equalizer in the 49th minute, but Seattle looked almost out of ideas when trying to move into meaningful attacking positions.

Few conclusions can be drawn from a 10-man match, but it’s clear that an offensive breakthrough for Seattle is needed in a major way if the club hopes to get its season back on track.

Trouble in the back

Roman Torres had a mixed outing against the Impact. Torres has shown in his time in Seattle that he has difficulty dealing with speedsters, and Saturday was no different. On Friday, Torres had told the media that keeping Piatti and Vargas in front of the defenders would be crucial, and for the most part Seattle managed to do so.

When Torres did slip up, however, his attempts to rectify his mistakes, rather than recover his positioning, led to trouble. Twelve minutes in, Piatti was on the ball and running straight at Torres, before baiting Torres into a lunge and pulling the ball back around him. Though Torres had lost his positioning on Piatti, closing down on the Argentine’s left hip and continuing to force him wide would have closed down his angle for a shot. Instead, the lunge gave Piatti the channel up the middle (and plenty of targets to choose) while lining up a shot that was blocked by Chad Marshall.

In the 16th minute, a series of quick passes quickly moved Montreal behind Torres in transition. While retreating, Torres slid in against Ken Krolicki as the ball was going away, giving away a free kick that was only kept out of the net by a Stefan Frei wonder save moments later.

It’s not entirely clear where the finger should be pointed on the goal surrendered by Seattle. Francis held the ball too long and was dispossessed on his own 18-yard line. Torres was drawn in so much by Piatti that he left his feet as he went for the ball. McCrary, while holding down the back post, saw Vargas free in the middle and did no more than point at him. The defensive midfield failed to drop back and left a man wide open on the six-yard box, directly in front of goal.

It may have been an unsettled situation, but the display was equally unsettling. Seattle haven’t had a chance to have a consistent back four play many minutes together, but the breakdowns may get worse before they get better.

Where to from here?

Between the red card, the breakdowns at the back, and the failures in the attacking third, there aren’t many positives notes to take away from Saturday. The Sounders are the only team in the league with no goals and no points (though they do have games in hand on all but seven of their competition).

Now with another two weeks until the team plays a competitive match—this time on the road at Sporting Kansas City, a tough environment even for teams in good form—the main question is whether the Sounders will stagnate or improve in the time between now and April 15.

Certainly, the potential of a healthy Victor Rodriguez, Osvaldo Alonso, Kim Kee-hee and Henry Wingo (who recently had surgery on his left thumb) would suggest an improvement to Seattle’s lineup and outlook. Still, after three dismal results, it may take a magic moment to kickstart Seattle a month and a half into the season.

The game in a gif

In the words of Mike Leggo, you can’t do that

Quote of the day

“That sort of stuff is going to stop. It’s going to stop.” – Brian Schmetzer, on the red cards

One stat to tell the tale

72% - 55% – Montreal’s advantage on passes connected in the final third. Keeping hold of the ball in dangerous areas is a precursor to goals, and it explains why Seattle hasn’t scored any in 2018.