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Sounders are on historic run

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They’re now 20-2-3 since last July and have 71 points in their past 34 regular-season matches.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

If there has been one criticism of the Seattle Sounders’ blazing hot start it’s that they’ve yet to be truly tested. While FC Cincinnati is looking much better than we probably thought and the road win over the Chicago Fire was definitely nice, it’s entirely possible that none of their first five opponents will be playoff teams by the end of the year.

Toronto FC, on the other hand, looks much closer to the version of themselves that put together one of the best two-year runs in MLS history than the one that fell apart last year. And while there is still room for skepticism, I think we can all agree that the Sounders at least showed they were up to the task in Saturday’s 3-2 win.

Despite the possession percentage favoring their opponent for the first time this year — which was heavily skewed by the final 20 minutes — the Sounders were largely in control of this one even after surrendering an early goal. The Sounders’ chances were of a bit higher quality overall and they seemed to be doing a better job of pinning TFC in their own end than vice versa. I’d even argue that upon rewatch the Sounders weren’t in nearly as much trouble over the final 10 minutes than it probably seemed in real time.

There’s an even bigger test coming this weekend — when they visit Supporters’ Shield-leading LAFC — but for now, I think we can at least rest assured that the Sounders are genuinely playing some good soccer.

This isn’t new

If you’re a reader of this site, you probably realized the Sounders were on a blistering pace that dates back to last July. In fact, their 20-2-3 record over their last 25 games is the best 25-game record of any MLS team in the post-shootout era (2002-present).

That equates to nearly 86 points over a 34-game season. That would obliterate the current MLS record by 15 points and is, frankly, unsustainable. But what’s perhaps more interesting is that they have now posted 22-5-7 record with 71 points and a +28 goal-difference over their past 34 games. The New York Red Bulls just set the MLS record with 71 points and a +29 goal-difference last year.

That record is despite a 2-3-4 record over the first nine games of this stretch, suggesting there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll improve their 34-game record before it starts to level out.

It’s not all about Rui

I know there’s a popular narrative that suggests that this run of form is due in large part to Raúl Ruidíaz’s signing. And it’s true, the Sounders have been even better since his first start (they’re a rather unbelievable 18-2-1 since Ruidíaz made his first start against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 25, 2018). But like I argued last year, I think Ruidíaz gets a bit more credit than he deserves.

As good as he’s been, the Sounders are actually 6-0-2 in the last eight games they’ve played when Ruidiaz doesn’t start. Even if we throw out the one game he came on as a sub — in which the Sounders were already leading 2-0 when he entered the game — they’re still 5-0-2 in their last seven games without their most prolific goal-scorer.

I’m not ever going to try to convince anyone that Will Bruin is actually better than Ruidiaz or that the Sounders aren’t overall better when Ruidíaz is on the pitch, but it does bear reminding that the drop off is not nearly as big as some like to present it to be. Bruin has started as the lone striker in all eight of those games Ruidiaz didn’t start and has scored five goals in 613 minutes. That equates to a tidy goals per 90 of .73. Ruidíaz is at .80 in the regular season.

Bruin confirmed that he and head coach Brian Schmetzer have had some tough conversations this year. I’m sure it’s been frustrating for him to have played so little through no fault of his own. But I think we can all take a page from Schmetzer when he said “I’m not going to ever take Will Bruin for granted.”

Defending from the front

One thing I was especially impressed with from the Sounders this week was the way the defended in their offensive half. Perhaps because they knew their best chance at slowing down Alejandro Pozuelo was keeping him from getting on the ball high up the pitch, they were a bit more aggressive with their press than they had been. The result was a season-high tying 26 positive defensive actions in the offensive half. Toronto, meanwhile, had just 16 comparable actions which probably explains why the Sounders seemed to be playing on the front foot despite giving up nearly 60 percent of the possession.

Sounders defensive actions in offensive half vs. Toronto FC. (yellow: recoveries; blue: interceptions; green: won tackles; red: lost tackles).
MLSsoccer.com

This wasn’t just pressure for the sake of it, either. The Sounders were repeatedly able to generate scoring chances from these situations and even generated two of their goals from it.

As pretty as the ball-movement was on the second Bruin goal was, it was made possible because Cristian Roldan collected an errant clearance at the start of the sequence. Similarly, the game-winner came when the Sounders twice kept TFC from clearing their lines, first when Victor Rodriguez picked up a loose ball and finally when Gustav Svensson started the sequence with a recovery.

I don’t think the Sounders are now a “pressing” team in the way that the Red Bulls or Sporting KC have been in the past, but this is clearly a tactic they are starting to employ more often.

It will be especially interesting to see what kind of tact the Sounders take against LAFC, an even more offensively dangerous team.