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Postgame Pontifications: Finding new ways to win

The Sounders are playing with the sort of confidence that is hard to quantify.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s been one constant during the Seattle Sounders’ nine-game winning streak — aside from the winning, of course — it has been a stout defense. Even in matches where they are giving up a reasonably high number of shots, the genuine chances have been few and far between. On the rare occasion they give up a genuine chance, Stefan Frei has mostly been there to bail out the defense.

By itself, though, defense can only get you so far. The win over the Portland Timbers withstanding, you usually need to be able to score in order to actually win. There have also been five games where the Sounders have given up a goal, meaning they needed at least two.

Even though the 21 goals they’ve scored during this stretch suggest a reasonably strong offensive game plan, the reality is that the Sounders have had to find a lot of different ways to secure three points.

The Whitecaps game may have been the first where they genuinely needed to do some grinding, especially on the defensive end. The Whitecaps generated 21 shots, and all but two of them came in or around the penalty area. Perhaps more than any other opponent during this stretch, Vancouver did a good job of creating chances. Frei was his usual reliable self — only failing to stop Kei Kamara’s powerful header — but he was helped out immensely by his defenders’ six blocked shots, three of which were from 11 yards out or closer and one of which was a goal-line clearance.

“Grinding” isn’t necessarily a repeatable skill, but learning to win ugly when needed is useful.

“The diversity of wins is great,” Frei said in the postgame locker room. “You need to rely on these experiences at some point; you need to be able to deal with tough situations. So if you have experienced a number of them, then chances are you can recall that tough battle, coming back from down a goal or grinding out away from home, playing down a man... you need all that.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in the playoffs? Obviously we haven’t qualified for the playoffs, but I think we’re on our way. I’ve always maintained that lots of different experiences are important for coming together as a group and moving up a step as a squad.”

Scoring helps, too...

Being able to grind out results is great and all, but the Sounders were doing a fair amount of grinding back in the bad ol’ days of a few months ago and not getting results.

The big difference is that they are backing that up by finding the back of the net. Over the last 9 games, the Sounders are averaging 2.33 goals per game. For reference, the only team in MLS history to average more than that over a whole season was the 1998 LA Galaxy (who scored 85!!!!! goals in 32 games). From 2002-2017, only five teams have averaged even 2.0 goals per game in a season.

This has allowed the Sounders to at least temporarily shuck the ignominy of being the lowest scoring squad among likely playoff teams (that honor now belongs to the Columbus Crew, who have just 35 goals this year).

It’s tempting to chalk this up to the insertion of Raúl Ruidíaz into the lineup. While it’s true the Sounders’ offense has been undeniably better since he made his debut in the first game of the winning streak — during which he has scored five goals — it’s notable that the offensive turnaround started several games before.

I’d argue that the offense first started showing signs of life during the 2-1 win over D.C. United on June 9. That was the first game Victor Rodriguez started and marked the first time Harry Shipp had started in 10 games. It was also one of the first times the Sounders fielded a lineup that looked at least somewhat like the one Garth Lagerwey had envisioned when he assembled this roster in the offseason.

Starting with the D.C. United win — a stretch of 16 games — Seattle’s goals per game average is a borderline elite 1.875. Only three teams have better GPG this year, and the Sounders have only once averaged better than that over a full season (2014, when they were at 1.89).

I don’t think anyone who watches this team every week would suggest the offense is, in fact, “borderline elite”, but I do think it’s a lot better than people are giving them credit for, and it’s not all thanks to the addition of Ruidíaz.

“This is a confident group,” Schmetzer said in rejecting the notion that the team’s confidence stems directly from Ruidíaz. “The entire team is confident. You’re looking at a bunch of guys who came into a hostile environment and had the confidence to play out of the back even when they were putting us under pressure. No one was afraid to demand the ball in tough parts of the field.”

The first trophy

When you’re talking about preseason goals, I’m not sure anyone in the Sounders organization lists the Cascadia Cup near the top. It’s not that they don’t think it’s important, but rather that it’s more a product of a good season, not necessarily something you pick out as an accomplishment in itself.

Still, it’s a real trophy that players get to lift in front of fans and from which those fans get to drink celebratory libations. The winner’s name gets etched on a plate that will be attached to the trophy as long as there is a trophy.

Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, Stefan Frei seems to understand this on a core level.

“It’s a trophy,” he said simply. “It’s really nice to have accomplishments like climbing out of holes and streaks and things, but those will all be forgotten. What stays is history, trophies, filling the cabinet. Today was a really big win and to get a trophy I know our fans appreciate ... they can celebrate and we will as well.”

One note of caution

If there’s one area where the Sounders have struggled a bit, it’s how to handle dominant aerial presences. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a consistent problem, but Kamara’s performance was a reminder that the Sounders have struggled defending corner kicks at times this year.

Kamara’s goal was pretty much unstoppable — and no, I don’t think he fouled Osvaldo Alonso on the play, nor do I think he fouled Frei on the play before it. I’m not entirely sure Chad Marshall could have done much to stop it even if he hadn’t lost his man.

But that wasn’t the only play where Kamara was causing trouble for Seattle. He won four of his five aerial duels, including one that created a gilt-edged chance for Nicolas Mezquida early in the game. By the end of the match, Kamara had racked up seven shots — one of which hit the post — and three key passes. He was, to put it mildly, a handful.

Kamara’s actions in and around penalty area.

Schmetzer said they changed some of the marking assignments at halftime, but Kamara remained pretty good in the second half and the Sounders didn’t have much of an answer for him.

The good news is that this is the same Kamara who the Sounders bottled up just fine a couple months ago. It’s also worth pointing out that there aren’t many forwards like him in MLS. But this does look like an area where the Sounders might be a bit exposed.

Gif of the game

It doesn’t get much better than Mama Roldan lifting the Cascadia Cup.

Quote of the day

“It is Kick Childhood Cancer Month and there are lots of other people that struggle with stuff that keeps us grounded, people that have issues in their lives that are way more challenging than what we face out there. So good luck to Haley on Tuesday.” — Brian Schmetzer, referencing a get-well wish he sent to a supporter

One stat to tell the tale

9 — The Sounders won their ninth straight game. I know what you’re telling yourself “Yeah, yeah, but they already had the record for longest winning streak in any non-shootout season.” But No. 9 was significant! Not only did it tie Sporting KC’s overall post-shootout record of nine straight wins (that streak stretched over two seasons), but they also moved past the 1996 LA Galaxy for the longest win streak in regulation during ANY season. Although the Galaxy’s MLS-recognized win streak of 15 games is still a ways off, it’s notable that they never won more than six straight in regulation during that streak, which spanned the 1997-98 seasons.

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