SEATTLE — There’s a saying that goes something like this: Good teams find ways to win, bad teams don’t. Right now, the Seattle Sounders are not a good team.
Going into Saturday’s game, this looked very much like a must-win encounter. Not only are the Sounders in desperate need of points, but they were fielding what was pretty much a first-choice attacking group and were playing at home against a very mediocre Chicago Fire team on short rest. They still managed just one goal and settled for a 1-1 tie.
Given how bad the Sounders have been offensively this year, the 18 shots have to be seen as a positive (with seven on target). They also created plenty of chances, a refreshing change from many of their previous games, including one genuine beauty that saw Magnus Wolff Eikrem set up what would have been a spectacular Clint Dempsey goal if not for a diving save. At the other end of the spectrum was a chance Cristian Roldan openly rued, as he failed to put his left-footed shot on frame when the goalkeeper was out of the play.
But defensively, especially in the second half, Seattle was an absolute mess. Starting Nicolas Lodeiro in the defensive midfield has been a recipe for success in previous attempts, and doing so here made a ton of sense. But we also saw the danger of such a move, especially when he’s paired with a clearly limited version of Osvaldo Alonso. The Fire created far too many dangerous chances in this game and the Sounders were very lucky not to have surrendered a second goal (Alan Gordon’s miss toward the end of regulation had an xG value of .70!).
This is sort of how it goes for bad teams, though. One week, you feel like things would come together if you could just put together the semblance of an offense, the next it’s something missing on the defensive end.
The Sounders knew they needed to win this one. Head coach Brian Schmetzer said it, various players said it, we all knew it. And yet, the Sounders couldn’t pull it together.
Roldan-sized hole in the midfield
Cristian Roldan has proven himself a very versatile player. That’s why we’ve seen him used all over the midfield and even as a right back, where he was mostly fine on Saturday. And while I understand why Brian Schmetzer elected to pay him there — Jordan McCrary is apparently nursing a foot injury and Kelvin Leerdam remains unavailable due to a hamstring injury — the decision left the midfield woefully undermanned.
While Lodeiro racked up 108 touches deployed in the defensive midfield, he was understandably more focused on linking up with offensive teammates than tracking the opposition’s attackers. That left Osvaldo Alonso to theoretically do most of the defensive work. There was a time not so long ago that this would have been a fine tactic. That time has passed. Alonso had just two tackles — admittedly more than the other four starting midfielders combined — and five defensive actions.
The evening was probably best typified by the play that ultimately led to Nemanja Nikolic being stopped by Stefan Frei, which featured three Sounders midfielders being beaten on the dribble.
Simply put, if the Sounders are going to drop Lodeiro back a line they probably need Roldan — or at least the discipline of Gustav Svensson — to be his partner. Alonso still does some things well — he did complete all 53 of his passes — but he’s no longer the one-man shield of the backline that he once was.
We can thank Stefan Frei it wasn’t worse
In addition to the save above, Frei made five others. Several of them were just as difficult, as illustrated by this video.
Stefan Frei Appreciation Post pic.twitter.com/hrW4VUkGfD— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) June 26, 2018
Yes, that’s a compilation of several games’ worth of saves, but four of those saves were in this one and none of them were remotely easy. Frei’s stats may suggest he’s having a tough season — he’s got just one shutout — but the eyes suggest he’s had to come up big a lot more often than he’s been asked to in the past. And it turns out, xG sort of agrees. American Soccer Analysis suggests he’s allowed 5.29 fewer goals than he should have, the fourth best figure in the league.
The math isn’t looking too great
The Sounders currently sit on 12 points, which is 11 shy of the sixth-place team in the West. Thanks to the rather underwhelming nature of the conference, the current red line is setting up to be 48 points. That means the Sounders would have to average about 1.78 points per game over their final 20 to get there.
Realistically, they will need to start playing a lot better at home to do it. They've already dropped points in five of their seven home games to date. That’s basically erased any margin of error they have for the remainder of the season. Even if they won all 10 of their remaining home games, they’d still need to figure out how to get six points from their remaining road games.
History tells us this is not impossible — the Sounders have put together similar runs in each of the past two years — but as it stands today it does not look likely.
The game in one gif
This is the play that ends the game. pic.twitter.com/mO6eIf3QvV— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) June 24, 2018
Frei played about as well as he has all year — even getting a hand on the Fire’s one goal — and all he had to show for it was some ringing ears after taking this hit from Alan Gordon on the game’s final play.
One stat to tell the tale
10 — The five players who started in the Sounders midfield combined for a total of just 10 defensive actions — tackles, clearances, interceptions and blocked shots. I definitely understand starting a more offensive-minded group there, but they’ve got to do better than that.
Quote of the day
“It’s not just Portland; we absolutely, 100 percent have to win next Saturday.” — Harry Shipp