PORTLAND, Ore. — For all the success the Sounders have had over the past couple months, there has long been a sense that this streak was built largely on beating bad teams or teams in bad spots. Even among the trio of teams in playoff position the Sounders beat, all of those were at home. Facing the Portland Timbers at Providence Park — a place the Sounders had not won since 2014 — was easily their biggest test.
I won’t act as if the Sounders passed with flying colors, but we now have our best piece of evidence that this team is capable of winning games they had no business winning even a few months ago.
Sure, the Timbers are not in their best form, having now lost four straight and falling below the playoff line following the loss. But this is still a relative fortress, a place the Timbers had only lost once in their 11 previous matches this year.
The Sounders did it by simplifying their game, not taking unnecessary chances, and generally not allowing the Timbers to get any chances in transition. As much as the 22-6 shot difference may suggest otherwise, the Sounders were rarely under any sort of bombardment and did well to keep the Timbers’ defense honest by constantly looking for counter-attacking chances of their own. That the Sounders ended up with the match’s two highest-valued chances speaks to how well they managed the game.
There was nothing particularly attractive about the performance, but it worked as a fine blueprint for how we might expect the Sounders to attempt to win a second MLS Cup in three years.
Vintage Ozzie, Part II
Ever since Osvaldo Alonso regained his starting spot, I’ve been a bit of a skeptic. Even after the Minnesota United match — the first time I believe I declared him having a “vintage” performance — I continued to harbor doubts. I think I’m through with that.
Simply put, I don’t think there’s any way the Sounders win this game without Alonso playing the way he did. I can’t say for certain how I’ll feel in a few months, but if the Sounders were playing a must-win game this week, I think you have to start Osvaldo Alonso. Just look at his actions against the Timbers:
Ozzie Alonso was #PORvSEA Man of the Match:— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) August 27, 2018
56/63 (89%) passes
8/12 long balls
10/12 duels won
2 aerials won
Incredible defensive work in midfield. Made for gritty, intense rivalry matches.#Sounders #MLS pic.twitter.com/qWRnk1kJ4p
I haven’t gone through all his chalkboard over the last few years, but I’d be surprised if you found more than one or two that were considerably better, and I doubt you’ll find any that came in a bigger game than this one. By winning, the Sounders jumped into fifth place and suddenly have a reasonable path to getting a home playoff game in the Knockout Round. A loss would have kept them simply fighting to get into the postseason and in danger of falling a few rungs in a short period.
Continuing to start Alonso is not without risk, especially when you consider his defensive midfield partner is 31-year-old Gustav Svensson. It’s hard to imagine this pairing being anything more than a temporary solution, and it’s relevant to suggest that Cristian Roldan is, at the very least, losing opportunities to further develop in the middle of the park.
At the same time, I just don’t see how you break up that pairing right now.
As good as the Alonso-Svensson pairing is working right now, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect combination than that of Chard Marshall and Kim Kee-hee at center back (commenters have affectionately dubbed them MAIM/KILL, MArshall-kIM/KIm-marshaLL).
I know I talked about how Kim’s mobility allows Marshall to save his legs a bit last week, but we also saw how Marshall’s ability to lock down the penalty area gives Kim the freedom to join the attack like he did on the game-winning goal this week.
Their relative attacking prowess aside, the two center backs had monster performances on defense while mostly staying at home. They combined for five tackles, nine interceptions, 16 clearances and five blocked shots while only conceding one foul.
While those numbers might suggest the Sounders were defending for their lives, the reality was far less dire. The Timbers were mostly forced to settle for long-range attempts. On the few instances where they worked themselves into dangerous positions inside the penalty area, it was often Marshall or Kim there to block the shot or clear the danger.
Add Román Torres to the mix and it’s darn near impossible to imagine a center back trio in MLS who you’d rather have defending a lead late in the game, especially on the road.
If you’re looking for an explanation as to why the Sounders actually generated more dangerous chances after they took the lead than the Timbers did, a large share of the credit probably belongs to these three.
Much digital ink has been spilled discussing the Sounders’ desire to have a secondary formation they could go to when needed. What I think has gotten less attention is that they now have four or five of them.
In this game alone, we saw the Sounders switch from a standard 4-2-3-1 into what was effectively a 5-1-2-2 after Will Bruin came on which then morphed into a 3-4-1-2 after Torres’ insertion.
While it’s true that the Sounders looked to be on the verge of being overrun for nearly 10 minutes after Bruin came on, they were able to settle things down by the 70th minute and were basically back in control by the time Kim’s cross created the own-goal.
Even without parsing the formations into four bands, I think we can now say the Sounders have proven they can play effectively in at least four distinct setups for extended periods: 4-5-1, 5-4-1, 5-3-2 and 4-4-2.
Sure, they’ve only started matches in two of these formations, but that shouldn’t take away from the reality that they’ve been able to adjust into these formations on the fly and been able to flip results by doing so.
The game in one gif
Alonso’s decision to send the stoppage-time restart into the coffin corner was considered controversial by some, but I saw no problem with it at all. More to the point, I think any team with championship aspirations needs someone like this who’s willing to be the bad guy (within reason, of course).
Quote of the day
“I guess that’s what they’re into, but we’re about winning games.” — Roldan when asked what he thought of the Timbers Army casting themselves as a child-eating clown in their pregame tifo.
One stat to tell the tale
1.44 — How far have the Sounders come? They only need to claim 13 points over their final nine matches to reach 51 points, likely the total they’d need to qualify for the playoffs. They’ve still got five home games remaining.