PORTLAND, Ore. — As soon as the schedule was released, it was obvious this week was going to be an emotional ride. A home game against a Columbus Crew team many feel is among the best coached teams in the league, followed by a midweek MLS Cup final rematch, and finally a road game against the Portland Timbers.
I suspect most people would have been satisfied with a 1-1-1 record if you’d told them that’s how it would play out. It’s safe to say few would have guessed that it would play out like it did, with the only win coming in Toronto on short rest with a heavily depleted roster.
The way it played out also made for a rather dramatic rollercoaster of emotions. The mood was downright dire after the Columbus draw, ebullient after the TFC win, and frustrated again after the loss to the Timbers.
But even looked at in the aggregate, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer admitted that the team couldn’t afford to feel satisfied.
“It’s an average week,” Schmetzer said. “We don’t want to be average. We want to be a championship-calibre team. So that actually drives us to be better. That’s what it does. We’re not going to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves just because we lost one game. Simple as that.”
To the Sounders’ credit, they executed most of a gameplan that was designed to limit the Timbers’ chances and make life difficult. Schmetzer has said he wants his team to get back to being “hard to beat” and they’ve at least done that. They’re winning duels, getting into tackles, and not allowing their opponents chances from dangerous areas.
What they haven’t done, however, is consistently generate anything going forward. Their performance on Sunday was particularly bad, as Opta had them with just .26 xG and even American Soccer Analysis had them at .48. Either way, it was a season-worst by a rather large margin.
Call it an excuse if you want, but injuries have undeniably played a role in this and the Sounders’ offensive cogs have been particularly decimated. All seven of the players the Sounders came into the season expecting to be provide most of their goal-scoring and playmaking have missed at least two games with injury. On Sunday, they were missing Will Bruin (heel), Nicolas Lodeiro (toe), Victor Rodriguez (knee) and Jordan Morris (ACL). Only one of those players appeared in any games last week.
But there’s also an element of this that’s self-inflicted. I think there’s a logical argument for waiting until the summer to make additional signings, but that also seemed to ignore the very real need for reinforcements now. Of course, banging that drum makes no sense anymore. This is what they’re going to have until late summer. One way or another the Sounders are going to need to figure out how to start scoring goals if they have any hopes of salvaging this season.
Ever since Morris went down with a season-ending injury, we’ve know the Sounders were perilously thin at forward. When Bruin was sidelined, we found out just how thin they were.
Clint Dempsey was pressed into the No. 9 role and, in his defense, did a lot of the holdup work you’d want pretty well. The problem was he was often left on an island, forced to drop into the midfield to get touches and frankly made Bruin look fast whenever he was asked to try to stretch the defense. His action map shows a player who simply could not get touches in dangerous parts of the park.
Dempsey ended up with 43 touches, which shows a fine amount of raw activity. It’s just not where you want that activity from your No. 9.
I know there were a lot of frustrations with Dempsey, but I saw a player that was simply not getting anything like the support he needed. Dempsey was a willing runner when he needed to be, and did his best to bring his teammates into the attack. But either through strong defending on the Timbers’ part or the Sounders’ over-emphasis on defending, Dempsey was essentially asked to do work he’s not especially cut out for. If we learned anything, he’s just not a good stand-in for Bruin, at least when there are only two other attacking players in the formation. Never before had the Sounders’ inability to bring in a capable backup to Bruin been more apparent than it was against the Timbers.
Whither the 5-4-1?
Considering the still uncertain status of Will Bruin, it seems fair to ask if the 5-4-1 simply doesn’t work if Clint Dempsey is the de facto No. 9. I’m not quite sure I’d go that far. What I think we learned is that the only way Dempsey makes sense as a lone forward is if he has ample support in the attack. On Sunday, that fell heavily on Magnus Wolff Eikrem.
Wolff was fine, I thought, and was in the middle of the Sounders’ most promising chance of the afternoon. But whatever he provided was not enough. Alex Roldan was on the other wing, and simply didn’t offer enough going forward to be anything like a viable threat. Roldan barely entered the final third and didn’t had just a single touch from 18 yards in. It’s not that Roldan was bad — he was fine! — it’s that he just doesn’t offer any real offensive threat at this point. He certainly doesn’t offer enough when asked to be one of only three players effectively charged with creating the offense.
With Handwalla Bwana and Wolff flanking Bruin — and Waylon Francis charing in on the left flank — on Wednesday, the 5-4-1 had enough punch to keep Toronto honest. I suspect that a similar setup behind Dempsey could do the same, especially if that other player is Nicolas Lodeiro.
Assuming that’s not a short-term option, it might make more sense to go back to the 4-2-3-1 and make room for another midfielder as long as Dempsey needs to play up top. As good as the Sounders have looked defensively with five at the back, one way or another they need at least three viable attacking options to keep the opposition honest.
More personnel problems
As shallow as the Sounders were at forward, their situation at left back was nearly as bad. For reasons Schmetzer declined to elaborate on, Francis was left off the gameday roster. That left Nouhou as the only natural left back.
Around the 40th minute, the Sounders figured out that Nouhou was being given tons of space if he chose to take on the left flank. Several times he got forward, once sending in a dangerous cross and two other times taking open shots.
Around the 60th minute, though, Nouhou essentially took himself out. When asked why Nouhou was removed, a clearly perturbed Schmetzer said “When I find out, I’ll let you know.” It has since come out that Nouhou was experiencing “flu-like symptoms.”
I thought Jordan McCrary actually did a fine job filling in and worked himself into dangerous spots more often than Nouhou did, but his insertion forced Schmetzer to burn a sub he surely would have preferred to save. Compounding the problem was Kim Kee-hee being forced out with a head injury, meaning Schmetzer had to use two subs on defensive players.
Those subs also contributed at least partially to some confusion on the Timbers’ winning goal.
The game in one gif
Until Blanco’s goal, this looked like it was going to be the play of the game. Even after watching it multiple times, I still don’t quite understand how Svensson managed to block this shot.
Svensson with an incredible saving challenge here pic.twitter.com/kbEiDqLs0m— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 13, 2018
Quote of the day
“We worked our butts off, but again, there’s a balance. You can’t just defend at all times. We talked the previous two years when we had good defensive spells, we talked about bend but don’t break. But if you keep bending without releasing a little bit of pressure, at some point you’re going to snap.” — Stefan Frei
One stat to tell the tale
6 — The Sounders have played nine games this season and failed to score in six of them. I’m not sure there’s a better way to illustrate their offensive struggles.