It was just a few days ago that I wrote about how the mood in the Seattle Sounders locker room was as bad as I’d ever seen it. I'm pretty sure the mood on Wednesday was just as dramatic, but in the opposite direction.
The Sounders’ well-deserved 2-1 win over Toronto FC was a master-class in how to win a game on the road. They defended hard, took their chances well and benefitted from a bit of good fortune. At the very least, they were “hard to beat”, something head coach Brian Schmetzer stressed he wanted to get back to.
That the Sounders managed to do this while deploying a never-before-used formation — the 5-4-1 — and without any of their three Designated Players was perhaps a sign that they are deeper than they had shown over the last month or so. Without Clint Dempsey (rest), Osvaldo Alonso (rest) and Nicolas Lodeiro (fractured toe), the Sounders put on no airs of trying to play TFC straight up. They ceded about 67 percent of possession to the home side and were out-shot 24-9.
But they were good where and when they needed to be. The Sounders held their own in duels (TFC led 63-57) and actually had just one fewer shot from inside the penalty area (TFC led 9-8), while keeping their lines compact and looking for chances to get out on the counter.
In postgame comments, Will Bruin pointed out that four points from these last two games was just about where the Sounders had hoped to be, and that’s where they find themselves now as they get ready for a massive match at Portland on Sunday. What once looked like a bleak path, now suddenly doesn’t look so awful. The Sounders are just three points shy of the playoff line, and as long as they get a few expected results they should be right in the thick of things by the time the summer transfer window rolls around.
Of course, that assumes a lot — just like last week’s dire predictions did — but the difference is that beating a team like TFC on the road is a reminder that this team has some talented pieces. They just need to play like it.
Schmetzer said he enjoyed these “chess matches” with Greg Vanney, which surely was an acknowledgement that a lot of pundits were starting to wonder if this was a colossal mismatch of the minds. Vanney’s TFC teams haven’t exactly blown Schmetzer’s out of the water — TFC holds a 2-1-1 +2 advantage in their four head-to-head matchups, three of which have been in Toronto — but his teams have looked better prepared for the most part.
I don’t know if Schmetzer meant for it to play out this way, but giving both the starting formation and lineup turned out to be pretty clever. During his halftime interview, Vanney seemed visibly annoyed that the Sounders weren’t doing much in the way of trying to possess the ball and it’s at least possible that TFC were expecting a far easier opponent (not crazy when you consider their players made about $16 million more than the Sounders who played).
This week was shaping up as one that could define the Sounders’ season. Schmetzer seemed to understand that and was willing to try something bold. It clearly worked.
The Wolff howls
If there was one change I was dying to see after the Crew match, it was the insertion of Magnus Wolff Eikrem into the lineup. I still get the sense that there’s some sort of disconnect between him and Schmetzer, but he at least showed he’s capable of some stellar play against TFC.
His best moment was undeniably his assist where he toe pokes it around Michael Bradley, ‘megged a second defender, and then delivered an inch perfect ball with just the right amount of weight and bend to Will Bruin, who made his left-footed finish from 16 yards look simple.
That is next level from Wolff Eikrem...— Bryan Babcock (@bcock7) May 10, 2018
Essentially deployed as the team’s only playmaker, Wolff attempted just 29 passes and completed 65 percent of them, but he had three key passes (including his assist). He was also active defensively — something I assume Schmetzer has wanted more of — and had three interceptions and two tackles.
The Sounders have been aching for someone to take some chances and simply “try shit.” That’s exactly what Wolff did and hopefully he’ll get more chances to do it going forward.
Does the formation stay?
The 5-4-1 is not a particularly sexy setup, as it features a fifth defender at the cost of a more offensive-minded player. It’s already proven useful, though, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of it.
In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it return against the Timbers. What’s more is that the available personnel should make it even more formidable.
The Sounders would likely swap out “Slide-tacklin’” Tony Alfaro for Kim Kee-hee, Kelvin Leerdam for Jordan McCrary, Osvaldo Alonso for Jordy Delem and Clint Dempsey for either Handwalla Bwana or Wolff. On paper, at least, it’s a far more talented and veteran group. It would also require a bit less running from Gustav Svensson and Chad Marshall, in particular.
A bit on VAR
Vanney, as you likely heard, went on a bit of a rant about Bwana’s goal probably being offside. For as much fun as we had at his expense, he actually had a decent point. Put aside his histrionics — and using your phone as a prop is undeniably hilarious — apparently he was more upset that there’s never any sort of explanation about when VAR is really being used more than whether or not Bwana’s goal should have counted.
This is actually a bit of a frustration for me, too. I think you can easily argue that Bwana’s goal, if offside, was close enough as to not be “clear and obvious.” But since we never really see what VAR is looking at, and when they do review a play they don’t always clearly explain why the decision was made, there’s a tendency for coaches, fans and, yes, media to get frustrated at the outcome.
Here’s a solution: coaches should be permitted to ask fourth officials if a play was examined by VAR and given a straightforward answer; once a decision is rendered the official should be required to clearly explain why; and in the case of overturned calls the defining replay should be shown on the scoreboard. None of this should cause significant additional delay and will leave everyone involved feeling better about the decision, even if they don’t agree with it.
The game in one gif
In order to win a road game against a team as talented as TFC, the Sounders were going to need to come up with some big plays. Leave it to Stefan Frei to come up with the biggest when they needed it most. Frei will surely tell you all he did was try to make himself big, but don’t let him undersell it. This is a GREAT save.
Quote of the day
I’m cheating a bit here because this was something Gustav Svensson said on Tuesday, but I loved it, as it was delivered with his signature Swedish dryness: “You have a lot of memories from last year, not really good ones so you want to change that. We are very motivated to beat Toronto and show them that last year was only luck.”
One stat to tell the tale
6 — A few days after sending in an eye-watering 45 crosses, the Sounders only sent in six against TFC. That’s more indicative of the team playing fast and trying to counter-attack more than any larger tactic, but it’s good to see regardless.