SEATTLE — Sometime around the 85th minute I allowed myself to take a deep breath. Despite the Seattle Sounders holding a narrow-as-could-be 1-0 lead, they were seemingly in control. I, of course, knew that a flukey goal could happen, but the Sounders had managed the game well to that point and the No. 2 seed felt secured.
Given how the last six months or so of the season have transpired, it was a funny place to be. The Sounders have not made any of these games feel easy and I don’t think it’s remotely hyperbolic to suggest they hadn’t entered stoppage time of any match feeling anything like three points were assured.
The result felt secure enough that given a chance to break out on an attack against a goalkeeper-less net late in the match, Stefan Frei actually decided to hold the ball and ignore two streaking offensive players.
Now, the Sounders head into the playoffs in as strong of a position as they’ve been in any season since 2014 when they won the Supporters’ Shield. The Sounders will open against the lowest seed to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs, might have an easier path to the conference finals than LAFC and could at least theoretically never have to leave home for entirety of the postseason. That would obviously take a lot of help from other teams around the league, but it’s not a remotely impossible scenario to imagine thanks to their No. 4 spot in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
If you’re thinking “that doesn’t make sense,” you have plenty of company.
Analysts around MLS have been scratching their heads trying to figure out how the Sounders managed to put themselves in this enviable position despite spending significant portions of the season seemingly stuck in neutral.
But if you’re looking for one stat that explains the Sounders’ impressive place in the standings despite an exceptionally middling +3 goal-differential here it is: The Sounders went 12-5-8 in matches decided by one goal or fewer. Only the Vancouver Whitecaps (26) played in more games decided by a goal or less and the Sounders’ 12 one-goal wins were two more than any other team (Minnesota had 10). The Sounders’ two additional one-goal wins provided the difference in the standings between them and No. 4 seed Minnesota.
While that led to a lot of tense and frustrating games, the upside could be that the Sounders are more accustomed to playoff-like matches where neither team has much room for error and no one has been better at maximizing results this year in those types of situations than the Sounders.
Torres strengthens defense
At various times this year, the Sounders have been a solid defensive team that struggles to score goals and a good offensive team that tends toward giving up too many chances. Right now, the Sounders seem to be trending toward the former.
Sunday’s 1-0 win was their third shutout in four games and their second straight at home. This one also coincided with the return of Román Torres to the starting lineup.
While the defense was already looking far better from the one that had given up 21 goals in their previous 10, it’s worth noting that the Sounders have been mostly pretty good defensively whenever Torres plays.
In the 24 games the Sounders have played since Chad Marshall’s final appearance, Torres has started 10 times. In those 10 games, the Sounders have given up a respectable 10 goals (1.0 goals per game). LAFC had the league’s best defense while allowing 1.09 goals per game. In the 14 games they played without Torres in the starting lineup, the Sounders allowed 25 goals (1.78 GPG). That would rank as the third worst defense in MLS this year.
I’ve long felt as though Torres better complements either Kim Kee-hee or Xavier Arreaga than either complement each other and the results seem to bear that out. It will be interesting to see how Brian Schmetzer navigates this potentially tricky situation.
Whatever you may think of Joevin Jones’ performance since being acquired around midseason, most would probably agree that it’s been something short of expectations. Still, he’s found himself getting pretty regular playing time.
Schmetzer’s patience paid off on Sunday, with Jones delivering a vintage performance that included the game-winning assist on a perfectly whipped in ball. I asked Schmetzer what, perhaps, he’d been seeing in Jones that people like myself might have been missing.
“I think he’s a fantastic player,” Schmetzer said. “Whatever you guys see as fans and journalists, maybe that’s where I had to pause there and see if I’ve been seeing things with rose-colored glasses. Since he’s been back, he’s not been at the 2016 levels but he’s a tremendously talented player and can do things that some of our other players can’t. He gives us a lot of options.”
Frei offered a bit more detail.
“I think he really enjoyed his football today,” the goalkeeper said. “He was taking players on, playing 1-2s, finding himself with the upper hanad against opponents. We got him into those situations again.
“When he’s engaged, when he’s having fun out there, he’s got pace, he’s got skill, he can whip in a ball, he’s got some tools that can be very helpful for us. It’s down to us as a team and a coaching staff to put him in positions — mentally or physically — to have games like today.”
Especially considering the unreliable nature of Victor Rodriguez’s health, Jones probably offers the Sounders the highest upside among their non-Jordan Morris wide midfielder options. If this is the player they get, his signing may pay off yet.
One cause for concern
It would probably be a stretch to say that the Sounders’ offense has completely dried up over the last four games, but it’s worth considering that the offense has only scored two goals in that time. One of those was off a poor defensive giveaway and the other was off the head of a centerback, neither of which are the kind of goals the Sounders can probably count on.
The player who best personifies these struggles is probably Raúl Ruidíaz, who is now scoreless in his past five games. While that’s the longest scoring drought he’s experienced since joining the Sounders, there are a few reasons I’m not necessarily worried about his scoring at this point. The main reason is that Ruidiaz had scored in each of the three games and in 5 of the 7 games that preceded this scoring slump. So I’m skeptical that defenses have suddenly figured him out after he’d already made 33 league appearances.
I think it’s also important to note that Ruidiaz has been mostly playing well during this streak, with the main exception being that road game against D.C. United where he seemed completely starved of service. As I said last week, I thought he was very good against the Earthquakes and while he wasn’t quite as good against Minnesota, he was doing a good job of staying high and occupying the opposing centerbacks. It’s also not like he’s failing to get into dangerous positions, as this 25th minute chance shows:
Raul Ruidiaz is in longest scoring slump since joining the Sounders -- 5 games -- is of some concern. But I'm not seeing the "bad body language" and actually thought he was doing good job of staying high, occupying CBs against Minn. Also was solid Ozzie tackle from scoring here: pic.twitter.com/lBuG9JrQg1— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) October 8, 2019
Ruidiaz has already proven himself a capable playoff goal-scorer. I suspect he’ll be just fine.