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Tactics and Trends: A bye-week retrospective

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Early season adversity has forged a historically great team.

MLS: Sporting KC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

As the MLS schedule takes a pseudo-international break before the final stretch of regular season matches, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of where the Sounders are and how they got there. In terms of ups and downs, the 2018 campaign has oscillated like a mad seesaw, making the three previous dramatic turnarounds of the Lagerwey era look tame by comparison. This Tactics and Trends will break down the year—from slow start to possibly even slower middle to white hot current form—into parsable chunks that highlight the defining elements of the season’s many ebbs and flows.

0-3-0 (LAFC, @DAL, MTL)

An ACL sized tear in the roster

So many storylines emerged in the opening three losses of the Sounders’ MLS campaign that it was hard to pick out the key problem for the back-to-back Western Conference champs. Lack of discipline was the easiest scapegoat as the Sounders suffered a red card in each of their first three matches, amassing over 120 minutes of soccer played with a man down. Squad rotation also played a factor with the team failing to find cohesion amongst the 17 different starters and 21 different players who saw time during the three matches.

Ultimately, though, the high number of red cards taken or players used didn’t define the Sounders’ terrible start as much as the low number of goals scored, which was zero. Though the Sounders created plenty of chances in the opener against LAFC, and looked dangerous in moments against Dallas and Montreal, their problems in the final third began to look systemic by the end of their third straight scoreless loss.

Despite still having double-digit 2017 goals scorers Will Bruin and Clint Dempsey healthy and available, Jordan Morris’s ACL tear had thrown the Sounders roster balance out of order. With Morris’s injury, the Sounders had a bevy of service specialists (Nicolas Lodeiro, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, Harry Shipp, and the at-the-time injured Victor Rodriguez), but nobody who could consistently get in behind opposing backlines. Both Bruin and Dempsey suffered as defenses collapsed on them without fear of giving up a through ball to the speedy Morris or even the recently departed Joevin Jones.

2-2-1 (@SKC, MNUFC, @LAFC, CLB, @TOR)

Tough kids tough to beat

The Sounders health issues only worsened over their next five matches. Injuries to Henry Wingo and Harry Shipp further depleted the Sounders midfield while Victor Rodriguez flirted with returning to the line-up (appearing in the 18 against Minnesota United) only to suffer another set back that would keep him out until June. Nicolas Lodeiro and Roman Torres also struggled with injuries that threatened their World Cup roster spots. While Osvaldo Alonso briefly flipped the injury narrative by returning to the starting line-up for three matches, he too would go down with another injury that would keep him out until June.

Amidst the chaos, players both young and new found opportunities, and, for the most part, took advantage. The Sounders got a win and a draw in the two matches Jordan McCrary started as the journeyman defender providing high-energy play and getting up and down the line as a right fullback and wingback. Moreover, the team didn’t allow a single goal for the 162 minutes Kim Kee-Hee played over the five-game spell, while Alex Roldan showed off his impressive engine and registered three tackles a match as a starter in the attacking midfield. Perhaps most impressively, rookie Handwalla Bwana showed game-breaking quality, registering at least one successful dribble in each of his appearances and notching a vital goal on the road against Toronto.

Though the team rarely played beautiful soccer and often relied too heavily on crossing (see 43 crosses against Columbus), the five-game stretch may have saved the Sounders season. The defense-first, one-for-all mentality established during this time has remained with the team through the subsequent ups and downs of the season and ultimately come to define their current eight-match win streak. Moreover, not starting Magnus Wolff Eikrem for four out of the five matches, though troubling at the time as the Sounders offense continued to sputter, showed that a player’s offensive quality would not save their spot in the absence of defensive hustle. That precedent would later set the stage for an even bigger star to lose minutes, with Clint Dempsey eventually falling out of the starting line-up in July.

0-3-0 (@PTL, RSL, @RSL)

When moxie isn’t enough

If the Sounders had scraped by in the previous five matches on work rate, will power, and young players out-performing their trajectories, then the next three matches showed why quality and experience remain vital in MLS. With injury and the looming World Cup stripping the already depleted roster of Lodeiro and then Gustav Svensson, the Sounders core disintegrated. In the face of staggering line-up limitations, the team regrettably entered what can best be described as a throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase of the season.

First, the Sounders rolled out a 5-4-1 for the second match in a row, only to discover the counter-attack oriented formation didn’t work nearly as well against a defensive Portland side as it did against an attacking Toronto side. Then the team played host to Real Salt Lake in a 4-1-4-1 formation that limited the squad’s ability to build out of the back without a second holding mid to help Jordy Delem connect through lines.

Finally, traveling to Salt Lake to face RSL for the second time in a row, Schmetzer reverted to the usual 4-2-3-1, but this time with Kelvin Leerdam, naturally a right back, lining up as right mid in the attacking band of three. There, the Sounders once again struggled to establish possession, leading to the offensively aggressive insertion of Harry Shipp as a holding mid, which immediately helped the Sounders move the ball forward, but cost the team defensively en route to the second three-match losing streak of the season in which the Sounders failed to score.

1-1-2 (DCU, @NYRB, CHI, PTL)

White knuckle performances

After getting shutout in an astonishing eight out of their first 11 matches, Schmetzer and co. had no choice but to roll the dice with more attack-minded line-ups in the team’s next stretch of fixtures. Against D.C. United and Chicago Fire, that meant moving Lodeiro back a line to holding mid, where he still had license to get forward and join the attack. Against New York Red Bulls and Portland, that meant starting Waylon Francis over Nouhou and hoping improved service into the box could jump start the team’s anemic attack.

To an extent, the aggressive mindset—which also included bold sub rotations such as Cristian Roldan sliding to right back multiple times and Shipp reprising his role as a very attacking holding mid against New York Red Bulls—paid off. The team stopped their losing skid and scored in all four matches. Their 1.5 goals per match over the four-match stretch more than doubled the .64 goals per match over the first 11 fixtures.

Still, four points in four matches, three of which were at home, was not enough to climb back into playoff contention. If fact, the Sounders were lucky to escape with the points they did as the team gave up a combined 8.4 shot-based expected goals to D.C., Portland, and New York (per 538), while only conceding four actual goals. Massive performances from Stefan Frei kept the team afloat.

Backed into a corner after the second scoreless three-game loosing streak of the season, Schmetzer and the rest of the squad came out swinging. Credit to the coaching staff for rolling the dice on attacking line-ups and not letting the season end with a goalless whimper. Similar to the response after their first three-game loosing streak, the soccer wasn’t perfect, but was just good enough to keep the hope of a mid-season turnaround alive.

By the numbers, the Sounders hit rock bottom in their back-to-back losses to RSL that dropped the team to .72 ppg. But in terms of an emotional gut punch, the season’s low point came with the franchise’s first ever home loss to Portland in the MLS era. Though they’d finally started scoring consistently, the Sounders we’re gambling far too much at the back and reaping too little going forward for anybody to believe they’d created a formula they could replicate.

1-0-2 (@COL, @ATL, @NE)

Reclaiming the middle of the park

With Svensson still wrapping up his impressive World Cup run and Alonso still struggling to gain consistent health and fitness, the squad had to figure out a way to shore up the midfield with limited resources. Enter Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem, a holding mid tandem with enough energy and athleticism to make even the New York Run-forever Bulls blush. On a three-game road trip where the Sounders needed to pick up points by any means necessary, the dynamic duo put out fires all over the pitch and allowed the Sounders to slide Lodeiro back to an attacking role where he could orchestrate movements consistently in the final third.

Beyond just Roldan and Delem, the Sounders needed to field 11 players capable of putting in the type grueling defensive performances that generate road results. That meant Clint Dempsey, possibly dealing with a back injury and clearly limited in his movement, was left out of the starting line-up for all three matches. The move had tactical implications that reverberated throughout the team.

When Dempsey started as the attacking center mid, his lack of pressing meant that in order for the team to apply pressure in their opponents’ half, an outside mid (usually Lodeiro) would have to fly forward and leave the team potentially stretched in the space he’d vacated. But with Lodeiro starting as the attacking center mid, he could work with Bruin to apply a two-man press down the middle that allowed the outside mids to hold a more compact shape further back on the field in line with the holding mids. The two-man press with organized banks of four behind it has become a staple of the eight match winning streak.

4-0-0 (VAN, @SJ, NYCFC, @MNUFC)

Return of the summer signings part I: Raul Ruidiaz

Credit to the team that started the season for building a lifeboat to get off of No-playoffs Island before the annual Lagerwey summer supply drop gave them the engine to propel their way above the red line. Even prior to Raul Ruidiaz stepping onto the field against Vancouver, the Sounders were well on their way to four matches unbeaten for the first time all year.

Victor Rodriguez’s return from injury and Shipp’s return from bottom-of-the-bench exile helped as the two combined with Lodeiro to merrily give and go their way up the field against the likes of Colorado, Atlanta, and Vancouver. The budding partnership of Kim Kee-Hee and Chad Marshall also helped as Maim/Kill became the hottest summer ticket since Grimes hit the festival circuit with the song, “Maim v. Kill” in 2016. Bruin’s timely goals that kept the team from self-destructing multiple times throughout the year deserve credit as well.

Still, it would’ve been hard to imagine the Sounders rattling off an MLS record eight straight wins without the help of some key summer signings. The first of those signings was the enormous acquisition of Raul Ruidiaz. Whether scoring or assisting game winners as he did at San Jose and Minnesota, or simply attracting defenders and making space for teammates as he did against NYCFC, the new DP immediately brought the Sounders attack to another level.

His run that nearly led to a third goal for the Sounders against Vancouver was a warning shot to the league that the team would no longer struggle to get in behind defenses. Ruidiaz’s pace and clever movement not only opened up space for the team’s midfielders, it provided a perfect complement for Will Bruin’s style of play. Since the Peruvian international’s arrival, Bruin quickly became one of the most dominant super subs in the league, recording a goal and an assist in 24 combined minutes off the bench against NYCFC and Minnesota.

4-0-0 (DAL, LAG, @PTL, SKC)

Return of the summer signing part II: Brad Smith

Many hoped for a speedy winger. Instead, the Sounders got a speedy left back who can play on the wing in a pinch. Did the team already have a speedy left back? Yes, they had two. Did Brad Smith immediately make the team better anyway? Yes, in his debut, the Sounders snagged the season’s first win against a surefire Western Conference playoff team and the Australian international was dynamic on both ends of the pitch. In his third start of the season, the lightning quick left back put the league on notice as he drew a PK and recorded an assist in a 3-1 victory against another Western Conference powerhouse, Sporting Kansas City.

The way the Sounders play requires fullbacks who are equally good in attack and defense. Brad Smith joins Kelvin Leerdam in providing exactly that. With Smith’s addition, the Sounders have become a tactically complete team with near all-star talent at every position and a bench filled with starting quality players.

Their keeper is exceptional. Their centerbacks dominate in the air, are positionally sound, and pass well out the back. Their outside backs are good one-v-one defenders capable of notching an assist at any given moment. Their holding mids are clean in possession and ruthless ball-winners. Their attacking mids are energetic, skillful, and intelligent. Their strikers provide a devastating thunder and lightning punch-counterpunch (with each able to play both rolls better than you’d expect).

Moving forward

The Sounders have become the first MLS team to win eight straight matches in the non-shoot out era. It’s not by accident. While nobody—not players, not coaches, and certainly not fans—would like to repeat the season’s challenging opening half, the uncomfortable truth is that the Sounders are historically great in large part because their early season struggles forced them to tests options, back-up options, and back-up back-up options until they landed with a system and roster capable of countering nearly every look.

After running a veritable gauntlet of adversity to start the season, they’ve come out the other side battle-tested and ready to take revenge on a league that knocked them off their rightful throne last December and did it’s best to keep the rave green down. If there was ever a time to board the hype train, it’s now. The journey back to the top has begun.