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Postgame Pontificiation: Brian Schmetzer knows what’s working even if we don’t

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The Sounders coach seems to just trust his players.

SEATTLE — There’s no denying that the Seattle Sounders are playing better of late. That they are coming off a 5-0 dismantling of the an admittedly short-handed LA Galaxy and are now riding a six-game winning streak are only the most recent and obvious examples of the improved play.

Figuring out why they are playing better is a bit a more complex. Prior to the Galaxy win, there wasn’t even a ton of statistical evidence that the Sounders were actually playing all that much better.

Bobby Warshaw recently wrote a column for MLSsoccer.com in which he tried to figure out what the Sounders have been doing so much better during this streak. He came to the rather frustrating conclusion that he couldn’t quite identify something obvious.

Following the Galaxy game, I asked Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer about that.

“I’ll let Bobby and some of those smart guys over there figure out where our team is all about,” Schmetzer said. “I know what our team is about.

“We’ll figure subtle different ways to win every season.”

At first glance, there wasn’t anything particularly illuminating about that answer. Schmetzer seemed to be going out of his way to not really shed any light on anything the Sounders were doing particularly better than they had been doing earlier in the year aside from “scoring more goals than our opponents and winning more games.” Essentially, Schmetzer was telling us that his players were just ... playing better.

But if you look at what he said with a bit more of an open mind, I think I understand his point a bit more. Warshaw and other analysts are broadly right about one thing: There’s not a ton tactically that the Sounders have changed. They’re still running a pretty standard 4-2-3-1, playing a relatively low-risk brand of defensive soccer, and trying to get the ball to their creative players as much as possible.

The change has basically come down to an upgrade in talent at a few key positions — most notably the addition of Raúl Ruidíaz — but also in sticking to the core belief that if you trust good players to make good decisions, they will.

Schmetzer is not wowing anyone with his tactical acumen. The beauty, I suppose, is in how little he tries to convince you otherwise. Sure, he has made some good tactical shifts. He seems to understand that subtle tweaks can often yield significant results. But he’s also not trying to fit round pegs into square holes. He looks at the players he has and gives them as much freedom as he can, trusting them to figure out how to solve various problems that present themselves throughout a game.

As Heath Pearce pointed out during an in-studio discussion of the Sounders’ play, while this sort of approach has some downside, the upside is that there are more potential avenues for improvement than in a more rigid system.

This is not so dissimilar to how the Sounders often approached the game under Sigi Schmid, although Schmetzer seems to be even more committed to empowering players in this way. It was constantly on display during Saturday’s romp.

I don’t think there was a single goal from which you could divine a particular tactical style. They were mostly just good players making smart plays. There would be a comfort in knowing that something identifiable had changed and that the Sounders can ride that thing all the way to another MLS Cup appearance. Instead, we may just have to be satisfied with enjoying ride and seeing where it takes us.

That one big variable

A week after being held to about a dozen touches, Ruidíaz finally had one of those matches we’ve been waiting for. The Peruvian forward was far more active — making 41 touches — and more importantly, received the ball in far more dangerous positions. Ruidíaz only scored the one goal, but he easily could have scored a hat trick with slightly better finishing as nearly all of his six shots were from dangerous spots. Notably, he was also the player best positioned to finish Lodeiro’s cross that ended up as an own-goal.

As Scott Levy observed in his highlights post, defenders just seem to look more worried when Ruidíaz is on the pitch and that is opening space for everyone.

What also continues to be remarkable is how little space Ruidíaz needs to squeeze off a shot and how much power he can generate.

His best moment was undeniably his goal, as he clogged the passing lanes, picked off a pass and then raced in on goal. This ended up being a bit more difficult of a finish than it first appeared as there were two defenders to deal with, but Ruidíaz didn’t seem at all bothered, took a touch wide to create a bit of separation from one of them and still managed to beat David Bingham with a shot inside the far post.

That’s the sort of finish few players in the league are going to be able to make and it bodes well that Ruidíaz seems to be hitting his stride.

Stockpiling weapons

It’s probably notable that four of Ruidíaz’s shots — and his goal — came after the Sounders switched to a 4-4-2. But I think it’s probably also notable that five of his shots came after Victor Rodriguez entered the game.

In just 30 minutes, Rodriguez managed two shots and two key passes — both to Ruidíaz — while generally making sure that the Sounders didn’t take their foot off the gas late in the match.

As much as having another forward to help draw attention and to play off of is a benefit, I think having another attack-minded midfielder will help bring out the best in Ruidiaz. That’s no knock on Harry Shipp — who had another strong outing with a goal and an assist — but Rodriguez gives the Sounders a brand of creativity that no one other than Lodeiro possesses on the team.

Even if Shipp continues to start, it’s a nice luxury to be able to bring the likes of Will Bruin and Rodriguez off the bench in case the Sounders need some added bite at the end of matches.

Dad on Fire

Perhaps lost in the rather stunning play of Nicolas Lodeiro and the offense as a whole has been the impressively steady play of the defense, led by Chad Marshall. The Sounders have posted three shutouts during this six-game winning streak, and they’ve now had four during their nine-game unbeaten streak in which they’ve outscored opponents 18-5. That comes in contrast to their previous 15 matches, where they had just one shutout and were outscored 21-13.

Marshall has started all but one of those nine games during this streak and has played all 90 minutes in all but two. He hasn’t necessarily put up any eye-popping numbers during that time, but has been remarkably steady and almost never seems to put a foot wrong, while cleaning up any of the rare mistakes his defensive partners may make.

There’s also been the added bonus of a sudden surge in scoring. Marshall’s header to open the scoring against the Galaxy was his second straight game with a goal and he probably should have had another, but his header off a corner kick right before halftime hit the post. That brings his season total to three — one shy of his career high — with all of them coming in his past nine appearances.

What’s particularly notable about that is Marshall hadn’t even attempted a shot in any of the 10 appearances he made prior to this recent run of form. He’d gone scoreless and attempted just five shots in the 20 appearances leading up to it. He’s now got 10 shots in his past nine games.

One possible explanation is that Marshall is simply getting better service, and considering his shots almost all come from set pieces that would make a lot of sense. But why is he getting better service? That’s also harder to determine, since Lodeiro is still the guy providing most of it.

Chad Marshall’s action map (left) vs. Kim Kee-hee’s action map (right).
MLSsoccer.com

My personal theory? Partnered with Kim, Marshall doesn’t need to do as much running and chasing forwards into midfield. Kim is clearly the faster of the two and seems to excel at that aspect of the game, giving Marshall more time to save his legs and energy for attacking. Whatever it is, being able to score from set pieces has been an underrated aspect of the Sounders’ turnaround.

The game in one gif

As great as most of the Sounders’ goals were, my favorite attacking sequence didn’t actually result in one. This was one of the last plays of the match and it’s possible the Galaxy were just going through the motions, but everyone from Kim to Bruin to Rodriguez played this perfectly. Watching it for about the 100th time, I still can’t believe Ruidíaz didn’t finish this, especially since it looks like he could have passed it into the net if he’d have used his dominant right foot.

Quote of the day

“We haven’t had a ton of super easy goals, so it was nice to kind of have the time and space to think about where I wanted to place it and place it accurately.” — Harry Shipp on his goal

One stat to tell the tale

5.14 — Sounders have now scored four goals over the course of 70 minutes in four games where they’ve used two forwards. The Sounders were already leading in most of those games, so game state is clearly a bit of an issue, but that works out to 5.14 goals per 90 minutes.