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Sounders and the art of the cutback pass

Brad Smith and Victor Rodriguez are proving to be quite the combination on the left-hand side.

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Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have heard about something the Seattle Sounders call the “optimal assist zone.” Sounder at Heart wrote about it a bit last year and Matt Pentz had a bit of a deeper look, too. Essentially, these are either cutback passes from the endline toward the penalty spot or early crosses that force defenders to play facing the goal.

The statisticians absolutely love these sort of passes as they lead to goal-scoring opportunities at a rate far higher than normal crossing, and there’s an intuitiveness that probably helps the players buy in to the idea of foregoing a far simpler move for something with a higher chance of payoff.

The Sounders made particularly good use of this passing on Saturday as they stormed out to a commanding lead behind the two fastest goals in franchise history. Although neither of the goals registered assists, both were aided by cutback passing. Almost as impressive as the quick strikes was that the Sounders were able to maintain that pressure through the first 35 minutes, by my count registering nine “optimal assist zone” passes.

The players who were best exemplifying this play were Brad Smith and Victor Rodriguez, who for a second straight game absolutely dominated their side of the pitch. Their play was probably best exemplified by the first goal.

What makes this play possible is Smith alertly continuing his run despite starting it from literally out of bounds and Rodriguez figuring out how to get him the ball despite being double-teamed. Smith then makes a quality move to get to the endline before putting in a cross that created a lot of havoc in the box.

I don’t think I’m giving away any sort of state secrets by pointing this out. I have to imagine that when teams are scouting the Sounders, they are putting “Don’t let them hit cutback passes in the box” in a bold underline on the whiteboard.

What’s remarkable is that the Sounders pulled off that play in the 5th minute. At that point, the Rapids had to know it was coming after undoubtedly watching film of the FC Cincinnati game or any number of the games the Sounders played last year.

The mark of a good offense isn’t just the ability to surprise opponents, but about being effective even when the element of surprise has been lost. The Sounders are managing to do this in a variety of ways. Sure, there’s the individual skill and speed of Rodriguez and Smith. But there are littler things, too, like Smith’s willingness to both overlap and underlap in tight spaces, or guys like Gustav Svensson and Nicolas Lodeiro hitting effective switches.

Eventually, though, you have to assume teams are going to get better at limiting the Rodriguez-Smith connection. What should be encouraging is that the Sounders are already showing some variety. The volume of chances dissipated noticeably after the first 35 minutes, but the Sounders still had plenty of opportunities to grab a third goal. The best chance, predictably, came on another cutback pass when Jordan Morris just missed Lodeiro streaking through the box. That pass still found a likely surprised Harry Shipp at the top of the goal box — and he promptly skied his shot — but the build-up was just absolutely gorgeous to watch.

Considering one of my criticisms of this team as recently as last summer was that they were simply boring — as well as bad — this all feels like quite the breath of fresh air.

Cristian’s World

One of the more interesting subplots of the Sounders season will be seeing how they manage the departure of Osvaldo Alonso — who, by the way, is looking like his old self in helping Minnesota United start the season 2-0-0 with a pair of road wins.

That’s going to be a two-person job, with neither Cristian Roldan nor Gustav Svensson completely filling Alonso’s shoes. This week we saw Svensson often dropping between the center backs and starting possession that way — something we rarely saw Alonso do — and doing most of his attacking by spraying long balls and switches — something we saw Alonso do a lot.

Roldan’s defensive actions.

Roldan, meanwhile, was the higher-energy player, roaming into the attack and patrolling the midfield for loose balls. Rarely has he looked better. He finished the match with a rather eye-popping 15 recoveries to go along with three tackles, a couple blocked shots and an interception. He did this while completing 66 of 70 passes, including 7 of 9 long balls.

If there was one frustration from Roldan, it was that the Sounders haven’t quite mastered the art of controlling the tempo, something Alonso was particularly good at.

“I want to dictate the tempo every game,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like we just go, go, go. That can be frustrating for us midfielders because we work so hard to get the ball back and then we’re doing it again.

“Other than Jordan, we’re not a fast break team. Obviously Nico and Victor find their spots, have the energy to go forward, but they’re not fast players. At times we have to slow it down. At times it was frustrating, because we were up 2-0 and we weren’t controlling the tempo of the game. That can get better. In the end, you’re not going to complain too much when you win 2-0.”

All things considered, that’s a pretty mild criticism.

Variety in the attack

It’s easy to forget now, but it wasn’t until July 15 that the 2018 Sounders had a second player with more than one goal, and it wasn’t until July 29 that they had three with that many. It took the Sounders just about 100 minutes to accomplish that in 2019.

That fullback Kelvin Leerdam was the second player with two goals was at least unexpected. Aside from 2013-14, when he bagged eight goals for Vitesse in the Eredivisie, he’s never scored more than two in a season, and his only previous goal with the Sounders came in 2017 in his debut.

Why this sudden goal-scoring streak? Leerdam didn’t think there was much to it aside from being in the right place at the right time, but there’s probably at least something to the fact that the Sounders are having a lot of success crossing balls from the left, and the right back seems to have correctly gambled that it’s a smart play to cheat up when that happens.

Leerdam isn’t going to maintain his spot among the Golden Boot leaders for long, but there is reason to think he’s not done scoring yet.

On fast starts

On the surface, getting excited by a 2-0-0 start after hosting two teams who are not among the league’s elites is probably a bit premature. Still, it’s a breath of fresh air. The Sounders have only won their first two games twice in their previo us 10 MLS seasons, most recently in 2012. Since 2016, the Sounders had only claimed five points in nine March contests, and that includes five home games where they went just 1-4-0.

This start has the Sounders sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings courtesy of their six goals scored and +5 goal difference. You need to go back to July 2015 to find the last time the Sounders were even tied for the Shield lead at any point.

The big caveat is that the Sounders played a pair of teams who are still of questionable quality, and both games were at home. The other teams who are 2-0-0 have either played both of their matches on the road — Minnesota United — or faced teams who are likely to contend for playoff spots — LAFC has beaten Sporting KC and the Portland Timbers.

“We’re satisfied with the two wins, but not content,” Roldan said. “We haven’t been tested on the road. Everybody can have their heads up high but we still have to work.”

Historically, there’s not a ton of correlation between the first few games of the season and where teams end up. But a strong performance on the road against the Chicago Fire should at least add a bit of credence to the idea that the early season struggles of previous years are a thing of the past.

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