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Postgame Pontifications: Feeling special

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The Sounders scored a rather improbable win. Could it be a precursor to another remarkable finish?

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In each of the past two summers, there were games that seemed to suggest the Seattle Sounders were turning around their season. In 2016, you could point to any number of them, but Nicolas Lodeiro’s 94th minute equalizer in Houston was particularly emblematic of a team suddenly finding a way to get results when they had no business doing so. Last year, the 4-3 win over D.C. United in which the Sounders erased a three-goal deficit probably best exemplified that same ethos.

Saturday’s win may be that result for this year’s run, if it ends up being completed. The Sounders did, after all, score two stoppage time goals to flip a result that seemed destined to go the other way.

But don’t let the two late goals fool you — this was a performance that was encouraging for more reasons than just the three points. Equally encouraging was the way the Sounders played. After weeks of earning results despite some rather lackluster play, the Sounders finally put together a nearly complete performance. That it came against a team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings was all the better.

You’d have to go all the way back to that frustrating 0-0 tie with the Columbus Crew, in which Seattle played 75 minutes up a man, to find a game in which the Sounders dominated more of the possession than they did on the road against Minnesota United. Their 23 shots were a season high, with 14 of those coming from inside the penalty area.

I won’t try to convince you that Minnesota is actually a good team, but United came into the match tied for the most home wins in the Western Conference and tied for the second most in the league. At least at home, they definitely aren’t a bad team. Make no mistake, this was a game they absolutely had to win if they wanted to make the playoffs.

That the Sounders didn’t just win, but dominated the vast majority of it suggests the team is starting to figure out who they are. And who they are appears to be a team capable of making a push for a playoff spot and maybe even advancing to a third straight MLS Cup final.

Vintage Ozzie Alonso

If you’ve been paying attention to my Twitter feed, you’ve probably noticed me bemoaning Osvaldo Alonso’s inclusion in the starting lineup. As much respect as I have for what Alonso has done for this organization, I had become convinced his best days were behind him. Last week I even drafted a section about how for all the proclamations, I just wasn’t seeing the revival that people like Brian Schmetzer were claiming was there. I opted not to run it not because I didn’t believe it, but because it was starting to feel like maybe it was piling on.

Anyway, I’m happy to say that we actually did see a vintage Alonso performance against Minnesota. If it had been up to me, I’d have started Jordy Delem and asked him to do to Darwin Quintero what he did to Miguel Almiron. Admittedly, what Alonso did overall was better.

Quintero wasn’t really shut down, but he was almost literally the only thing Minnesota had going for them. Their one goal came from a bit of individual brilliance from the former Santos Laguna man, and most of the other danger they created was through him.

Osvaldo Alonso’s defensive actions and passing map.
MLSsoccer.com

The otherwise ineffectiveness of Minnesota’s offense can be chalked up at least in part to Alonso’s play. Just as importantly, he was a key cog in the central midfield that kept the Sounders pushing forward and creating chances. In the end, Alonso doubled his season averages for tackles (4), interceptions (2) and clearances (3), while completing a rather impressive 94.6 percent of his 92 passes (the second highest total he’s had this year).

His defensive action map shows a player who absolutely clogged the center of the midfield, while his passing map shows a ton of forward passes that were repeatedly probing the United backline. Alonso might not be quite as mobile as he once was, but he at least showed he’s capable of providing the kind of stability the Sounders need in the defensive midfield, which gives players like Cristian Roldan or Gustav Svensson license to roam and join the attack more freely.

The majesty of Stefan Frei

The shutouts have not been coming with the frequency they did a year ago — he’s on pace to have fewer than in any of his previous four seasons with the Sounders — but Stefan Frei is quietly having another standout season. In fact, his current goals against average of 1.05 is tied for the second best in the league — and best among players with at least 15 appearances — yet it would be a career low for him.

Frei also seems more adept at making the highlight-reel save, something he was asked to do yet again this week. Granted, the save of Quintero’s open-goal attempt didn’t technically count — assuming VAR would have worked the way it was supposed to, the goal would have been wiped off the board and a penalty given to the Sounders — it was still an amazing stop. That it’s the second save on a nearly identical play this year boggles the mind.

Despite plays like this, Frei seems to somehow go underappreciated. Over the past 14 months, he’s allowed more than two goals in a game only once, and that was in a match where the Sounders played down a man on the road for 53 minutes. He’s allowed two or more goals just nine times in that period, while posting 16 shutouts. During that time — a span of 44 MLS matches, including playoffs — he’s posted a goals against average of .82. These are elite numbers, and only three goalkeepers in the history of the league have posted a better goals against average in a season in which they played at least 25 matches (Tim Melia in 2017, Jimmy Nielsen in 2012 and Nick Rimando in 2010).

Return of Sigi’s Arrow?

It has been no secret that one of the Sounders’ goals this year was implementing a secondary formation that would more easily allow them to change tactics when needed. During the offseason they toyed with running a diamond formation, but ruled that out after Jordan Morris went down for the season. During the year, they have rolled out a 5-4-1 a few times to varying degrees of success.

More recently, we’ve seen them try more of a 4-4-2 with Raúl Ruidíaz and Will Bruin. Against New York City FC it helped get them an important insurance goal, with Bruin providing the assist. It worked even better against Minnesota, as Ruidíaz was able to win a header that he flicked on to Bruin, who was sprinting toward goal. In 28 minutes (plus some stoppage time), that formation has yielded three goals, which extrapolates to a rather eye-popping 9.64 goals per 90. In the 152 other minutes of those two games, the Sounders have scored two goals (about 1.18 goals per 90).

I don’t think anyone believes the 4-4-2 is THAT much better than the Sounders’ more traditional 4-2-3-1, but it’s a formation that definitely shows some promise.

If the Sounders do roll this out to start a game, I think we can assume it will play more like Sigi’s Arrow from yesteryear than a traditional empty-bucket 4-4-2. Two things make this possible and intriguing: One of them is the resurgence of Alonso as a sort of defensive shield (see above), the other is the unexpected versatility of Ruidíaz.

All the scouting reports on Ruidíaz seemed to suggest he was sort of a glorified poacher, someone who would stay high and push the offside line. The reality is considerably more nuanced. He’s shown a surprising willingness to drop into the midfield and help with possession and remarkable ability to do some hold-up type of things (like his header that sprung Bruin). For Sigi’s Arrow to work, it really needs two forwards who can do both of those things. That’s why guys like Nate Jaqua, Blaise Nkufo, and to a lesser degree O’Brien White and Eddie Johnson worked so well alongside Fredy Montero.

At the very least, I suspect we’ll be seeing this formation more and maybe for longer periods at the end of games after the possession-focused formation has worn down defenses a bit, making them more susceptible to runs in behind like the one Bruin made.

The game in one gif

The old man’s still got it.

Quote of the Day

“I’m sure I did. I’m focused on what I need to do to make an impact. I just get my mind right, nod my head and say ‘yes’. I have some of an idea, it’s basically just go and score a goal.” — Will Bruin on what instructions he received from Brian Schmetzer

One stat to tell the tale

0 — That’s how many career points Adrian Heath’s teams have gained in six meetings with the Sounders. It includes four losses with Minnesota United and two more with Orlando City.