The Sounders are no strangers to up-and-down seasons. In each of the three years prior to 2019, the team looked destined to miss the playoffs in the first half of the campaign only to take the league by storm in the second half. Conversely, the start of this season saw the Sounders break those beginning-of-the-year blues with a five-win, six-game unbeaten streak that has since given way to a long run of inconsistent performances.
It’s not exactly that team has been bad after their initial hot start, it’s that they’ve never put together the type of streak that shows they’ve got a clear identity — a style of play that, when clicking, makes them very hard to beat. For perspective, the Sounders are the only team in the top nine of the Supporters’ Shield standings who haven’t won three straight games since the start of April.
In many ways, the team’s prolonged inconsistency has made this season more frustrating and nerve-wracking than any of the three previous weak start/strong finish campaigns. After all, the longer a stretch of success lasts, the shorter its preceding struggles appear to the memory. But to build a foundation of success every few weeks only for a multi-goal road defeat or a perplexing home loss to shake the building blocks loose again — that’s torturous.
Of course, there are myriad reasons for the Sounders’ frequent hiccups in form. The top three, in no particular order, are injury/suspension/unexpected retirement absences, more frequent midweek games that further force increased squad rotation, and the Gold Cup devouring most of the teams’ starters in the middle of the season.
More interesting, however, than why the Sounders have been inconsistent is what that inconsistency has done to their style of play.
Like a jilted lover, the Sounders seem to have become less daring, perhaps even more cynical with each broken promise of a win-streak. This pattern reached a new peak in Sunday’s 1-0 win at San Jose, which saw Seattle cede increasing ground to their opponents with three straight defensive subs, only to nick the game-winner by taking advantage of a bad back pass and the Earthquakes’ desperately-attacking team shape.
That win put the Sounders back in the driver’s seat for a second seed in the Western Conference, essentially a best-case scenario since LAFC ran away with the one seed months ago. As such, it’s hard to be overly critical of the team’s tactical choices down an adversity-laden final stretch of the season. Still, figuring out how the group transitioned to a defend-and-counter style and what that means for the playoffs remains a worthy endeavor.
A different kind of star
First things first, it’s important to get on the same page about the definition of a counter-attack. As an isolated event, a counter-attack is any goal-scoring chance generated by winning the ball deep in your own end and quickly taking advantage of the space left by the opponents who are still spread out and up the field.
All teams do this, just to varying degrees. As such, when defining “counter-attack” in the broader context of a team identity, it’s less important to look at how each isolated goal is scored (though that does matter) and more important to look at the stats that define the broader themes of a game. These stats include, but are not limited to: possession, possession in final third, shots, corners, and expected goals.
It’s an imperfect science, but the higher the number in each of those categories, the more likely it is that a team played on the front foot, controlled the ball, and sent many players into the attack to create lots of chances. The lower the number, the greater likelihood that a team played more on the counter, sitting lots of players behind the ball and relying on just a few players to attack space quickly after winning possession.
A major reason the Sounders have felt like a counter-attacking team in the second half of the season is that they have one of the best players at quickly attacking space in the league: Jordan Morris. The Seattle homegrown thrives in space, and the faster the Sounders can get him the ball before a defense is set, the more damage he can do. In fact, Morris was the star of the 2-2 away game against the LA Galaxy that marked a significant transition in the Sounders’ first-choice style.
The Sounders didn’t actually play much of that match on the counter, mostly because they were up a man nearly the entire time. However, despite the man-advantage, the team struggled mightily to break down LA in possession and found themselves losing 2-1 through 80 minutes. While their first goal did come through nice build-up play (albeit buildup that featured Morris attacking space), they weren’t able to find a second goal until Nico Lodeiro hit a hopeful ball from deep in his own half over the top to Morris, whose speed forced LA’s keeper to frantically come out of his box and attempt a diving header that careened off his own defender’s face for an own-goal.
That goal encapsulated how dangerous the Sounders could be on the counter as Morris’ speed caused the Galaxy back line to hilariously self-implode on a sequence that only took two passes to go from Stefan Frei to the back of the Galaxy net (three if you count the keeper’s diving header off his defender’s face).
Since then, the Sounders have won four matches (@PDX, LAG, NYRB, @SJ), and in all four, the ball was in the Sounders’ defensive third more than in their opponent’s third. In three of those matches, the ball was in the Sounders’ third over 10% more than in their opponent’s third. For context, the only MLS team to have the ball in their own third over 10% more than their opponents’ third throughout the course of the season are the lowly Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Sounders’ best player over those four matches was, without question, Morris. Thanks in large part to his ability to get in behind and attack 1-v-1 in space, the pacey winger racked up three goals and three assists over the season-saving stretch.
A different kind of role player
As much as Morris has influenced the team’s style as its most impactful star player, Jordy Delem has done the same as the team’s most featured role player. Every year, injuries force role players to step up from the bench, and Brian Schmetzer has always been egalitarian in giving the most opportunity to those whose appearances correlate with wins, regardless of star power or salary. Last year, Harry Shipp rose from the ashes and started all nine matches of the teams’ record-breaking win streak. This year, Delem has staved off both Shipp and TAM signing Emanuel Cecchini as the first midfielder off the bench.
Delem’s play style is essentially the polar opposite of both Shipp and Cecchini. While Cecchini and Shipp are also different from one another, they share the common quality of wanting the ball at their feet to control games with quick, short passing. Both players attempt more passes per 90 and have a higher pass completion rate than Delem. But where Cecchini and Shipp control games with their passing, Delem controls games by eliminating opposing attackers’ space, notching 2 interceptions per 90 as compared to Cecchini’s 0.6 and Shipp’s 0.7.
When Delem plays over Cecchini, the Sounders gain defensive presence and mobility while losing the ability to dominate the ball and dictate tempo. When Delem plays over Shipp, the effect is the same but amplified as Roldan makes way at holding mid for Delem (who’s more direct than Roldan) and slots into attacking mid for Shipp (who’s less direct than Roldan).
Piece that all together, and the Sounders end up with a very defensive team when Delem is in the starting 11 — a team that can sit back, absorb pressure, and open up space to hit on the (you guessed it) counter.
There’s no question that over the second half of the season, the Sounders have been more effective with a defense-first lineup that features enough pace and power to hit on the counter. Whether dropping points at home in matches where the team rules the expected goals battle (Portland, Kansas City, New England) or getting dominated on the road in matches where the opponent controls possession (Colorado, D.C.), the Sounders have simply struggled when playing on the front foot, both failing to break opponents down and leaving themselves exposed at the back.
Still, the team will surely look to become more balanced as they head into the playoffs. In that regard, getting passing maestros Lodeiro and Víctor Rodríguez on the field together will help, as will using Joevin Jones to rotate in the midfield if he’s able to find the balance between possession retention and chance creation that he had against San Jose.
Even then, the Sounders are likely to be a team that sits deep and looks to spring Morris quickly down the right while using quick passing between Rodríguez and Lodeiro to spring Brad Smith down the left. That can be an effective strategy, especially if Jones can become a late-game sub who can control tempo in the midfield to kill a game that the Sounders are winning (a serious weak point throughout the season).
If Jones is unsuccessful in that role, Schmetzer will have to decide if he trusts Shipp to take the mantel of clock-killing-possession-sub (a role he played well over the Sounders’ early stretch of matches but has been frozen out of lately) or if he’d prefer to go with proven defenders who cede possession but can weather a storm (Delem, Nouhou, Román Torres). Moreover, if a team comes into CenturyLink and chooses to sit back and eliminate space in behind to Morris, Schmetzer will have to decide if he trusts line-breaking passers like Shipp and Cecchini to open up the game without ceding a goal.
All of that is assuming the Sounders are healthy and Stefan Frei and his centerbacks can play well enough to keep teams off the board even when the Sounders defend deep. If Schmetzer’s men suffer multiple injuries or go down early, there’s not much evidence from the season that a proven plan B exists.
In other words, winning an MLS Cup is hard. At least the Sounders have found a way to scrap through an adversity-filled season to give themselves a chance. Whether or not they’re able to adapt their survival-style soccer to fit the demands of the playoffs remains a serious question.