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Postgame Pontifications: Finding an identity

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The Sounders don’t control games, but they’ve excelled at working with what they’re given.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — It’s been more than six months since the Seattle Sounders put together anything like a truly comprehensive performance. While once this was a dynamic offensive team that could suffocate opponents defensively when needed, they had become one whose identity was nearly impossible to clearly pinpoint.

With Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, they finally showed a glimpse of what that might look like.

It was not a perfect performance by any measure. Even Brian Schmetzer admitted that the game did not exactly go according to plan and he was clearly frustrated at halftime after RSL had won the possession battle decisively.

But what emerged after a second half that the Sounders thoroughly dominated in just about every meaningful metric — except maybe possession — is the image of a team that knows what it needs to do to win. I’ve noted this particular skill at various times over the last couple months as they’ve piled up results in a variety of different ways. What was new this week, though, was how comfortable they looked in doing it.

At no point in this game — even during the first half that Schmetzer was so frustrated by — did it seem to me that the Sounders were in any serious trouble. While RSL was connecting more passes and possibly even dictating the way the match was being played, it was the Sounders who were creating the more dangerous scoring chances. If not for some spectacular play by Nick Rimando and an unlucky bounce off the woodwork, the Sounders would have gone into halftime with a lead. Even after losing Román Torres to a hamstring strain early in the second half, the Sounders continued to generate scoring chances. By the time Gustav Svensson finally broke through in the 64th minute, it felt more like RSL succumbing to the inevitable rather than a massive relief. Over the game’s final 26 minutes, the Sounders continued to be the team asking the bigger questions and were probably a bit unlucky not to have more than Nicolas Lodeiro’s perfectly curled strike to show for it.

Throughout the match, the Sounders showed a willingness to sacrifice possession whenever they saw a chance to get an attack going. Based on Schmetzer’s comments, that may not have been the overt plan, but there was clearly an understanding among the players that they were free to attack whenever they saw an opening. One particularly telling stat is that the Sounders only completed 217 passes but 14 of those resulted in a shot (6.3%) while just five of RSL’s 414 completed passes resulted in a shot (1.2%).

Not surprisingly, the Sounders ended up with a 20-7 shots advantage — which was 12-2 in the second half — and took 13 shots from inside the RSL penalty area while only allowing two in theirs. More than just the shots was how they were creating them. I counted the Sounders with eight “breakout” opportunities to RSL’s one. (I defined “breakout” as any potential scoring sequence in which the offense was effectively running at the defense.)

This was the Sounders showing that they could adapt to whatever their opponent threw at them, and not only handling it effectively but doing so with relative ease. No, it might not have been some sort of tactical masterclass, but it was the sign of a team confident enough in their abilities as to not panic when the game plan isn’t playing out as expected.

As much fun as it is to watch a team that’s dictating terms to the opponent, there’s a beauty in seeing a team organically figure out an opponent’s weakness and exploiting it.

Nonstop Nico

It’s been awhile since we’ve been treated to a vintage Nicolas Lodeiro performance. We got one against RSL. The Sounders midfielder wasn’t quite as active from a volume standpoint — his 81 touches were among the lowest he’s had this season — but he was highly efficient with the ones he had. Among those touches were four key passes, four shots, nine recoveries, a goal and an assist. Even though he only completed 63% of his passes, he was constantly forcing the RSL defense to react and had them scrambling all over the field.

If Lodeiro has two more games like that in his system, the Sounders may have another trophy waiting for them.

“Old and Tired”

I’m not going to lie, anytime the Sounders head coach says this website’s name during a postgame press-conference a jolt of joy runs through my body regardless of the reason he’s saying it. So it didn’t really bother me that Schmetzer chose to call us out for supposedly calling his team “old and tired.” (For the record, none of our writers have ever hung that label on the team and the closest I ever came to saying it was noting that the Sounders’ roster is the oldest in the league while acknowledging that I didn’t think they were playing like it.)

What bugged me a little more was how that line was perceived among some of my fellow journalists, who seemed to interpret this as part of larger trend where coaches and teams are freezing out independent voices. From the outside, I can definitely see how his quote could be perceived that way.

Allow me to set the record straight: Schmetzer might be the most accessible head coach in all of North American professional sports and he’s been nothing short of outrageously accommodating to Sounder at Heart. If he’s trying to influence our coverage, it’s by being an exceptionally nice guy, not by threatening to cut us off.

Just to be sure, though, I talked to him about this on Friday at training and he not only apologized for singling us out, but also acknowledged there wasn’t anything we wrote that even irked him. As I suspected, we were just a convenient foil for what he thinks is a growing perception around the fanbase.

Still, given the choice of being an anonymous site and one that gets singled out by the coach for both praise and frustration, I’ll happily take the trade-off.