Through the first couple games, there’s been an understandable desire to “pump the brakes” before getting to excited about the Seattle Sounders’ start. After a third straight game, though, it might be time to admit that the Sounders’ offense looks pretty fantastic.
Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire was far from perfect — and I’ll address to some of the valid criticisms later — but it was also a match where a sluggish performance would have been somewhat understandable. Despite playing on the road, in front of a nearly empty stadium at what was internally a 10 a.m. kick off, the Sounders came out absolutely flying.
Jordan Morris nearly opened the scoring in the 2nd minute, set up Victor Rodriguez for the opening score just a few minutes later and put the Sounders up 2-0 in the 15th minute off a wonderful feed from Nicolas Lodeiro (the finish was pretty great, too). It was the second straight game the Sounders jumped out to a 2-0 lead inside 15 minutes and the third straight game in which they scored multiple first-half goals.
There are a lot of ways to illustrate how the start of this season is massively different from last year, but the way they are starting games may be the most telling. It wasn’t until the Sounders’ 18th match that they scored seven first-half goals, the same number they have now. None of those goals came earlier than the 19th minute, and that one didn’t come until the 16th match.
Since Raul Ruidíaz’s debut — which came in the Sounders’ 19th match — the Sounders have made first-half scoring a bit of a calling card. Including the seven they have this year, they’ve now scored 22 first-half goals in 19 games. Seven of those goals have come inside the first 20 minutes.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer suggested this is all part of the plan.
“We are going to come out, we are going to try to impose our will on teams early and sometimes that makes a game go easier as it progresses,” he said. “At 2-0, we seem to get stuck, and other teams come back. It becomes a challenge. It becomes a grind.”
In this case, getting “stuck” consisted of scoring two more goals. Even discounting Nicolas Lodeiro’s penalty, the Sounders had two more goals disallowed for offside and then got the dagger in the 88th minute when Ruidiaz again showed off some impressive skill by nutmegging goalkeeper David Ousted with his first touch and finishing into an empty net.
As impressive as the Sounders’ fast starts have been, though, the way they finish off opponents has been nearly as impressive. In fact, they’re now averaging 2.73 goals per 90 in the second halves of games since Ruidiaz’s debut (including 12 in the final 20 minutes), slightly better than the 2.32 they’re averaging in the first half.
In other words, it’s not like the Sounders are scoring a bunch of early goals and then shutting it down. They’re maintaining that pressure throughout games, and even turning it up even higher late in matches. That’s a pretty good recipe for success.
The four-headed hydra
In case you didn’t already crunch the numbers yourself, the Sounders are averaging a rather robust 2.42 goals per game since Ruidiaz made his debut. If they were to maintain that pace over a 34 game season, they’d score about 82 goals. The only team in MLS history to score more than that was the 1998 LA Galaxy, who somehow scored 85 times in a 32-game schedule (and didn’t even make MLS Cup).
There were times when that felt like an unsustainable pace last year, there were a bunch of penalties and own-goals that were padding the stats. But this year’s attack has actually taken it up a notch and suggests something special may be in the offing.
The front four seems to offer a nearly perfect mix of speed, skill and tactical acumen.
Ruidiaz, Morris, Rodriguez and Lodeiro have already combined for eight goals and seven assists and it’s not at all hard to imagine each of them ending the season with 20 combined goals and assists. The only previous team to accomplish that was the 2017 Atlanta United squad that scored 70 goals and only a few teams have managed to have three players post these types of numbers in the same season. Even in the heady days of the original Sounders hydra, the only players they’ve had manage this in the same season were Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. We’re obviously a long way off from this squad getting there, but it definitely feels like a distinct possibility.
Don’t forget about the fullbacks
What makes the Sounders’ attack even harder to contain is that it has often included both fullbacks as well. Kelvin Leerdam has already scored twice and probably should have had a third but for a controversial offside ruling that disallowed one on Saturday. On the other side, Smith has been even more effective without the numbers to actually show for it.
Smith wasn’t getting forward quite as aggressively this week as he had in previous games, but he still managed to pick up two key passes, one of which was his first assist of the season (Smith now leads all defenders with six key passes). The final pass may have actually been the least impressive part of the play, too, as he won the ball in the defensive end, outraced two Fire players and then put the ball into space where Ruidiaz was able to work his magic.
More Brad Smith love: Obviously his pass to Ruidiaz was great, but watch the recovery he makes that starts the whole sequence. pic.twitter.com/AEZUkAe5VG— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) March 18, 2019
That Smith was even willing to chase down the ball from Lodeiro at that late moment in the game, knowing he probably wasn’t going to be first to it was impressive enough. But you really have to love how he wasn’t content just to take that ball into the corner and kill some time. It’s that sort of killer instinct that seems to be differentiating this team from previous iterations.
Pumping the brakes
As fun as this game was, it should be noted that the only thing standing between a momentum-continuing win and a frustrating tie was the play of Stefan Frei. The Sounders goalkeeper made 10 saves, a career high for him in a victory. More concerning than the volume of shots — the Fire had 25 in total — was that they weren’t just a bunch of potshots from outside the box.
The Fire took 14 shots from in or around the Sounders’ penalty area and generated an xG of 3.03. That was the highest xG for a team who lost last week and helps explain why so much of that game felt much more nerve-racking than the score suggested it should have been.
The situation only got more nervy when Roman Torres replaced Lodeiro in the 70th minute, apparently as a precaution due to Lodeiro suffering from a tight hamstring throughout the week. As this graphic shows, some of the Fire’s most sustained level of pressure came shortly after the Sounders moved into a three-back formation.
I’m a little reluctant to read too much into any of this, though. While this was arguably Chad Marshall’s worst performance in quite some time and the inclusion of Torres didn’t do anything to staunch the bleeding, it’s hard to ignore the gamestate. The Fire were playing from behind at home almost from the opening kick and the Sounders had the luxury of not needing to do much. The duels were relatively even and it’s not like the Sounders yielded tons of possession. As long as this doesn’t become a habit, I’m inclined to not read too much into it.