SEATTLE — I’m a big proponent of the idea that teams don’t really play “must-win” games until they are facing literal elimination. That doesn’t mean other games don’t matter, just that you can’t fake the pressure of a literal “must-win.”
In a lot of ways, it was the same old story of the season. The defense plays well, the Sounders do a decent job possessing the ball in dangerous areas, take some dangerous shots, make one big mistake and are saddled with a loss. They’ve now been shut out an astounding seven times in 10 games, but even more astounding is that four of those shutouts have come at CenturyLink Field. That’s more home shutouts than Brian Schmetzer had experienced during his entire stint as head coach prior to this season.
In contrast to the rather dour mood following their previous home shutout -- a 0-0 tie with 10-man Columbus — it was a little harder to get a read on things following this one. Confused? Perplexed? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t good and I don’t think many of Brian Schmetzer’s postgame press conference answers did much to provide clarity.
There were two questions I asked and I can’t honestly say that I felt any better after hearing his answers.
One was “what have you learned during this stretch?” Schmetzer’s first response was to talk about the individual errors that contributed to various 1-0 losses before then launching into a defense of the overall effort his team has put in. He’s not wrong, obviously, but the reasons for those losses had less to do with anything that went wrong defensively. The losses have far more to do with this team’s inability to generate consistent offense.
I also asked about the thinking behind using two of his three subs on fullbacks, first to bring in Waylon Francis to replace the injured Handwalla Bwana and then to insert Jordan McCrary for Nouhou and move Kelvin Leerdam to the midfield. In both cases, he essentially felt that bringing on the ostensibly defensive players would help boost the offense.
Individually, I think you can possibly argue they made sense. Taken together, they were head-scratching, especially since they failed to yield anything like positive results.
Broadly, though, the moves also underscored just how bad of shape the Sounders are in. You can argue that newly promoted Felix Chenkam or veteran Harry Shipp would have been better players to bring in when trying to inject some offense into the game, but neither were obvious upgrades. The roster situation is just very bad right now, and it’s not going to get any better until the Sounders start getting healthy.
Where are the Sounders going to find solutions? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Digging into the Nouhou-Francis pairing
Speaking directly to the decision to bring in Francis, Schmetzer suggested he was attempting to conjure a bit of the magic that Nouhou and Joevin Jones had together last year. At the time, it struck me as a bit odd as I didn’t remember that pairing being especially dynamic going forward. Stout defensively? Very much yes. But not necessarily a pairing I’d want when chasing a goal.
Not one to trust my memory, I went ahead and checked the numbers. I was surprised to see what I found and a little embarrassed I never realized this last year: The Sounders’ play when Nouhou and Jones were on the field together was nothing short of awesome.
I didn’t exactly try to correct for any number of variables, but simply looking at the Sounders’ goals for and goals against when they were playing together yielded some results that are hard to ignore.
The pairing was first fully unveiled in a road game against the Colorado Rapids. The Sounders won that game 3-1. The Sounders would eventually use that pairing 13 times with them being on the field together for 743 minutes. The Sounders outscored their opponents 23-2 in that time, good for a +2.54 goal-difference per 90 minutes.
During that same time, the Sounders played 1,147 minutes without that pairing. Again, I didn’t bother to try to correct for the variables, but the Sounders outscored their opponents 14-12 in those minutes, or +.16 gd/90.
Which is all a long way of saying, I can see why Schmetzer might want to recreate that sort of dynamic with two ostensibly defensive players who can both get up and down the line, whip in crosses and keep defenders on their heels.
The big difference, though, is that Francis is not Jones. Sure, they both have broadly similar passing profiles, but Jones is far more likely to beat opponents off the dribble. He’s also just a more dynamic offensive player.
Still, it was probably worth giving it a shot and this might not be the last time we see this pairing. My hope, though, is that Schmetzer has some better options.
Not so dynamic Dempsey
Clint Dempsey was deployed as a lone forward for a second straight week. For the second straight week, he did a lot of the hold-up stuff you’d want him to do. He drew some fouls, brought his teammates into the offense and had a game-high three key passes. For the second straight week, he also only managed a single shot and wasn’t particularly dangerous in front of goal.
He’s now gone six straight MLS games without a goal, seven if you include last year’s MLS Cup final. Either way, that’s the second longest stretch of goal-less games since he joined the Sounders. The only time he went longer was his first eight appearances for the Sounders back in 2013.
I don’t buy the idea that Dempsey is simply incapable of being an impact player. But what is becoming apparent is that he’s not capable of being the team’s offensive focal point. When both Handwalla Bwana and Magnus Wolff Eikrem were on the field, the Sounders looked pretty good. When Bwana was forced off and replaced by Francis, who was basically just out there to put in crosses, the Sounders’ offense ground to a halt.
One possible solution to this is to free Dempsey from some of the responsibilities of being a lone forward and drop him back into his more natural withdrawn position. I don’t think it’s guaranteed to work, but it’s something the Sounders almost have to try at this point.
Those empty seats
It’s starting to become a nearly every game thing, someone tweets at the Sounder at Heart account talking about how empty the stadium looks 10 or 15 minutes before kickoff, along with the claim that Sounders fans are refusing to watch bad soccer. Invariably, the stadium fills in pretty normally once the game is underway. This same thing happened on Saturday, something that was likely heightened by the Memorial Day weekend and the Champions League final that had just finished.
What was different about Saturday’s game was that well before the final whistle of a game the Sounders were trailing by just a single goal, the crowd was noticeably thin. I have no idea how many people actually left early or when they started to leave, but there was a palpable frustration in the crowd.
Who could blame them? Facing one of the worst defenses in the league, the Sounders were punchless. The last shot they took was an 83rd minute Jordan McCrary blast from about 25 yards out. You read that right, the Sounders did not take a shot during the final 10 minutes of the match despite chasing a goal at home. RSL didn’t take a shot over the final 15-plus minutes either, but that only served to make the ending of this game particularly boring.
Sounders fans, despite all the online chatter, are still coming out and proving rather resilient in person. But all fans have their limits. I suspect most Sounders fans can tolerate a bit of losing. What they won’t tolerate is losing while also being boring.
The game in one gif
I’m totally cheating here as this is very much not a gif, but this play was so nice and the photographer did such a good job capturing it that I feel like it works. Shame the play came to nothing.
Quote of the Day
“[It was] frustrating. Another lost opportunity to get three points and potentially gain some confidence. And at home, which is very frustrating.” - Stefan Frei
One stat to tell the tale
222 — Best I can tell, the longest the Sounders have gone without scoring at home was 222 minutes in 2012. The Sounders currently sit on 180 minutes of scoreless play at home. They’ll need a goal in the first half against D.C. United on June 9 to avoid ignominy.