The most sympathetic analysis of the Seattle Sounders’ performance over the last six months of the season has been that they were simply a team that could find different ways to win. While they may not have been at their best, they were getting results when they needed them. It didn’t make for attractive and certainly not stress-free soccer, but it was getting the job done.
The optimist would say they were biding their time. The pessimist would say such a pragmatic style was fine as long as the Sounders were playing teams that lacked a clear identity of their own — like against Real Salt Lake in the conference semifinals — but that it would be less successful against a team with a clear sense of self. That was especially true against an opponent like Los Angeles FC, who had established themselves as the closest thing to a juggernaut that MLS had ever seen.
Turns out, that line of thinking woefully underestimated what the Sounders were capable of.
It wasn’t just that the Sounders upended all logic and statistical probabilities by beating LAFC 3-1 to punch their ticket to a third MLS Cup final in four years, it was that they did so emphatically.
The first 15 minutes played out almost exactly how they surely had planned. The Sounders set a tone by disrupting LAFC passing lanes, driving forward offensively and generally dictating the terms of the confrontation. You could see it Raúl Ruidíaz’s early defensive work rate, Xavier Arreaga brutally shouldering Carlos Vela off a ball near the endline or in the way that Brad Smith was dead-set on pushing deep into LAFC’s end.
The Sounders came in ready for a street fight. LAFC never got it out of their head that they wanted a dance-off.
Even after falling behind 1-0 on a wonderful free kick by Eduard Atuesta, the Sounders never looked remotely overwhelmed or even gave off the sense that the game was out of their control.
Over the final 75 minutes, the Sounders gave up their possession advantage, but the match continued to be played almost entirely on their terms. The Sounders found the equalizer just a few minutes after Atuesta’s goal on an opportunistic chance created by Xavier Arreaga winning a header off an attempted LAFC clearance. Before LAFC could catch their breath, the Sounders executed a perfectly worked counter-attack.
Hit in the mouth with a vicious 1-2, LAFC never mustered much of a response aside. Aside from LAFC’s goal, they really only had two dangerous looks from open play. Brian Rodriguez beat Kelvin Leerdam on the wing and forced Stefan Frei into his only difficult save of the night on a play that was sandwiched between Atuesta’s goal and the Sounders’ equalizer. The next time LAFC looked dangerous was after they had gone behind 3-1 when Diego Rossi whipped in a cross that was just a bit behind Adama Diomande, who had a step on his defender.
Aside from those chances, the Sounders did a remarkable job of not only keeping LAFC off the scoresheet but not even giving them much hope of doing so. Just three of LAFC’s 15 shots came from inside 12 yards and Rodriguez’s blast was the only one that came virtually uncontested.
It was decisively LAFC’s worst offensive performance of the season.
LAFC had its fewest expected goals (0.58) and xG/shot (0.04) in any of its 36 MLS games this season.— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) October 30, 2019
Previous lows were 0.87 xG (win vs SKC) and 0.05 xG/shot (win vs RSL).
The Sounders weren’t exactly gangbusters by most metrics in the attack, but that’s due in part to the inefficiencies in various xG models to account for the quality of chances independent of where a shot comes from and what kind of pass is being delivered. Most xG models don’t account for defensive player positioning, for instance, or who’s taking a shot. In other words, they tend to underestimate the probability of someone like Ruidíaz or Nicolás Lodeiro scoring on a relatively wide open shot from the top of the penalty area.
All three Sounders goals also came out of transition, once again showcasing how the Sounders are more than happy to give up possession for the opportunity to create attacking sequences. That’s what they did against FC Dallas, it’s what they did against RSL and there’s every reason to believe they can do it again against Toronto FC.
Stepping up when it matters most
The first half of Sounders playoff history is mostly forgettable. During those first five postseasons, the Sounders only advanced beyond the conference semifinals once and that one appearance featured them going behind 3-0 to the LA Galaxy in the first leg.
In the six postseasons since then, the Sounders have made it to the conference finals four times and have now been to MLS Cup final three times. A big part of the difference is how much more consistently they’ve been able to score goals.
Those first 13 playoff games saw the Sounders score just 11 goals, an average of .84 goals per game. In the 24 playoff games they’ve played over the last six years, they’ve now scored 37 goals, an average of 1.54.
The biggest contributors to this change in fortune have been Designated Players, with Lodeiro and Ruidíaz being particular standouts.
These two were in especially rare form against LAFC, combining for three goals and three assists. Lodeiro is now has seven goals and six assists in just 15 postseason appearances. Ruidiaz has been even more efficient, with six goals and three assists in only five postseason appearances. Ruidíaz is currently the all-time MLS leader in playoff goals per game at 1.2 and he’s the only player in the Top 10 who has played more than three games or who has scored more than three goals.
MLS doesn’t keep official records on things like goals or assists per 90 minutes, but it’s appears as though he would easily lead that category as well. Ruidíaz is currently averaging 1.58 goals+assist per 90 and the only player with anything close to that seems to be Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s mark of 1.30.
One of the things that kept people doubting the Sounders’ ability to make a run like this was the inconsistency of their defense. Critics found ample ammunition for further doubts after FC Dallas scored three goals and erased deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 in the first round.
Over the last two games, however, the defense has been just about perfect.
While the four primary defenders and Frei have looked strong — Arreaga and Brad Smith had particularly impressive outings — a huge part of the Sounders’ defensive success deserves to be given to the whole-team approach.
The Sounders’ four primary offensive players — Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones — collectively registered 33 defensive actions. By contrast, LAFC’s five primary offensive players — they started in 4-3-3 with two box-to-box midfielders — had just 23 defensive actions. Even including Mark Anthony Kaye, who replaced Latif Blessing in the 45th minute, only adds four more defensive action. Broken down a different way, the Sounders’ main offensive players had 9.2 defensive actions per 90 minutes. Adding Cristian Roldan to the equation would bring the Sounders to 10.7. Meanwhile, their LAFC counter-parts averaged only 7.0.
So close Nouhou
The only thing that could have possibly made the Sounders’ win over LAFC better was a Nouhou goal, something many of us have been dying to see for years now. He came about as close as he ever has. First, there was a sequence in the 88th minute when Smith won possession and outraced the defense to get in on goal. Nouhou had made a gut-busting run through the middle and was wide open if Smith had been able to see him. Just a few minutes later, it was Nouhou’s chance to go in on goal. He collected a wonderful pass from Ruidiaz and found himself 1-v-1 with former S2 teammate Tyler Miller. Nouhou struck it well, but Miller was able to make the kick save.
Tyler Miller picked a helluva time to make his best save of the game. pic.twitter.com/7ZZ3zIa230— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) November 1, 2019
These sorts of chances seem to be coming with increasing frequency. If there’s any justice, he’ll get one more chance next Sunday.