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Possession with a Purpose: How the Sounders have owned the ball and the score

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The Sounders don’t need to win possession to win games, but they probably will anyway.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In their first three matches of the season, the Seattle Sounders averaged 56.2% possessio — the third highest share in the league. Over that same stretch, they’ve also scored 3.33 goals per match — the highest rate in the league.

Together, those stats demonstrate something of a sea change for the Sounders, who have been good but not elite in both categories since Brian Schmetzer took over. Dating back to 2015, the team has won many of its most important matches without having the bulk of possession or creating the best scoring chances. Most notably, the Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup final without registering a single shot on goal, and in 2018, they beat a top Western Conference rival in Sporting KC while giving up 61% of possession and losing the shot battle, 19-9.

While calling the Schmetzer-era Sounders a bunker and counter team would be a step too far (they’ve finished top seven for possession in both full seasons of the manager’s charge), describing them as a possession-based team would probably miss the mark as well. That is especially true when considering some of the Sounders worst performances have come in matches where they had the lion’s share of the ball. Last year’s listless 0-0 home draw against a 10-man Columbus side was a low point on the season despite the team owning 65% possession for the match, and the year before that saw the Sounders go down 2-0 while maintaining 67% possession in the first half of a home match against then-MLS basement dwellers D.C. United before going on to win the second half 4-1 while keeping only 52% possession.

All of that is to say the Schmetzer-era Sounders enjoy having the ball (they pride themselves on build-out play as much as any team), but haven’t really needed the ball to win.

So has that changed this year? In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. On the one hand, the team has been at their most potent in phases of the match where they’ve dominated possession (i.e., the first halves against Cincinnati and Colorado). On the other hand, according to whoscored.com, they lead the league in counter attack goals with three, while only three other teams have managed to score even once on the counter this season.

In short, similar to years past, the team is neither truly counter-attacking nor possession-based. Still, they’re on pace to put up some of the best possession numbers in franchise history while also playing scintillating, goal-dangerous soccer. Here’s how they’re doing it, and when and where their possession still matters.

Build-out play

The Sounders are as committed to building from the back as any team in the league. The ways they build out vary, but their general aversion to lumping the ball long without a plan remains consistent. Fittingly, they average the fifth fewest clearances and the third most pass attempts in the league.

At the same time, the Sounders tend not to pass the ball around the back for long stretches of a match, even when their opponents sit back. With Gustav Svensson sitting between the centerbacks, and Cristian Roldan and Nico Lodeiro taking turns receiving the ball deep as well, the Sounders have a bevy of midfielders who are more than happy to hit a daring 30-40 yard ball when given time and space. Where other teams may recycle possession in their own half and rack up meaningless possession, the Sounders are more willing to hit Jordan Morris, or even fullbacks Kelvin Leerdam and Brad Smith, over the top. To that point, though Seattle ranks in the top five of nearly every passing/possession statistic, they only have the 9th highest short ball-to-long ball ratio in the league.

But where other teams’ long balls may stem from a lack of ideas in possession or composure on the ball, the Sounders’ long balls are usually a strategic play to utilize their speed down the flanks and stretch opposing defenses, as they did with particular success against Colorado. As such, when the Sounders play long, they have a much higher chance of creating a scoring opportunity than most teams.

That willingness to make long balls and quick counters a core part of their build-out strategy means that the team may not stay in the upper echelons of possession stats later into the year (long balls remain lower percentage passes even when done with purpose), but when they do have high possession, it will correlate with creating more scoring chances more than it would for a team that endlessly recycles the ball. As such, when matched up against slower building teams like the Chicago Fire, 40-45% possession should be more than enough to thoroughly dominate a match. However, when possession drops into the 30s, as it did for spells in the Chicago and Colorado matches, chances are the Sounders are having trouble with build out and/or getting generally outplayed.

The only time when high possession may not mean high scoring chances would be later in matches, when the team overloads the central midfield with a sub such as Harry Shipp, who will tuck in, play simple, and kill the clock.

Defending

Another way to rack up high possession is to consistently press high on defense — the rationale being that the quicker and higher you press, the faster you can win the ball back (or get scored on). **glances sideways at every opposition team who has dared to send too many numbers forward in pressing this year**

While the Sounders’ attacking pieces have the engines to counter-press immediately after a turnover, and sometimes do so to great effect, the team will generally slide back to defend in deeper banks of four when their opponents gain clear control of the ball. Having their wingers defend deeper, in line with their holding mids, prevents opponents from combining further into the Sounders’ half and usually forces attacks to build slowly down the wings and ultimately fizzle out in the form of low-percentage crosses against Seattle’s elite aerial defenders. That conservative defending also allows other teams to keep possession for long spells should they choose to patiently poke and prod at the Sounders’ defensive block rather than attempt to bypass it with a long ball.

Here again, the Sounders may give up points in their possession percentage. Still, as long as the team isn’t too slow to close down in the midfield, sitting deeper without the ball will play to their defensive strengths.

Moreover, while the Sounders’ defensive shape tends to allow possession in non-threatening areas, the team still creates dangerous chances off turnovers high up the field. This is largely thanks Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, who have license to press with more freedom than the rest of the team. With their nagging pressure, and vastly underrated work rate, Seattle can hurry their opponents while still playing a relatively conservative style of defense. The sequence leading to their fourth goal against Cincinnati exemplified this perfectly.

Quality of player

Because of their willingness to play long and/or quick in build-out and their penchant to defend in deepish banks of four, the Sounders are unlikely to put up gaudy possession numbers on the season. However, thanks to the quality of their players, they should remain in the upper tier of the league for possession despite the aforementioned hindrances.

A quick look at English Premier League stats will show you why. The power six teams (Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United) all rank in the top six for possession by at least 3%, despite placing vastly different values on controlling the ball. For example, Arsenal, who keep the ball less under Unai Emery than they did under Arsene Wenger, average 55% possession on the season, but only average 40% possession against more ball-dominant teams, such as Man City and Chelsea.

That disparity is largely caused by a gulf in quality (i.e., payroll) between Arsenal and any team not in the top six. While Emery’s style of play doesn’t require dominating possession to win matches (they’re ahead of a much more possession oriented Chelsea side in the table), they still tend to win the possession battle against lesser teams whose best chance to defend against their superior quality is to sit deep.

Due to massively different league salary structures, the EPL-to-MLS analogy only extends so far. Most of the top EPL teams (Tottenham excluded) enjoy a much wider payroll (i.e., quality) gap relative to their competition than any MLS team could dream of.

Still, the point remains that quality can determine possession as much as tactics. The more skilled your players are, the more passes they’ll complete; the more fit, athletic, and tactically astute they are, the better they’ll be at winning the back the ball quickly.

Thus far in the season, the Sounders have looked a cut above their competition in each of these areas. Later matches against better and/or more ball-oriented competition may see the team’s possession numbers drop a bit, but as long as their passing remains purposeful and incisive while their defensive work rate stays high, the team will be near the top of table for possession, and more importantly, goals and wins.