We knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Some team — maybe even at home — was going to simply decide that falling into a defensive shell and looking to spring the counter was the only way they could slow down the Seattle Sounders.
I think we all hoped that it wouldn’t come quite this early in the season — nor that it would come on the road against one of their Cascadia rivals — but it happened on Saturday. The Vancouver Whitecaps played with nine or even 10 players in the box for much of the game and simply dared the Sounders to beat them that way. If not for a rather miraculous save by Stefan Frei, and an even bigger block by Kim Kee-hee it would have resulted in the Whitecaps’ first win of the season (more on that later). The Sounders were forced to settle for a 0-0 tie, just the third time they’d failed to score in their last 27 regular-season games.
Annoying as it was to watch, it’s hard to blame the Whitecaps for employing this tactic. They were pointless in three matches and still in the process of incorporating new players. The Sounders were resorting to similar tactics as recently as last summer, so we aren’t really in any position to judge in any case.
The Whitecaps did take this tactic to a pretty healthy extreme, though.
Look at this average position map:
The center backs are barely outside the penalty area and fully nine players are on the defensive side of the field with a 10th just barely creeping into the offensive half.
Contrast that with the Sounders’ map:
The Sounders have seven players firmly planted in the offensive end and all 10 outfield players are at least near midfield (you could almost argue they were playing in a 3-3-4 if you were so inclined to get into that sort of argument).
I thought the Sounders did a decent job of trying to break through. They pushed numbers into the attack, looked for opportunities to get out on the break and were trying to do do the same type of stuff they had done so successfully in their first three games. The first 20-30 minutes of the second half, particularly, the Sounders pressed the action and got a few decent looks. Unfortunately, they just lacked the kind of sharpness that had been there in previous weeks. That’s going to happen.
To the degree that opposing coaches now have a blueprint to stop the Sounders, I don’t think one game should give us too much pause. Over the course of the season, there are simply bound to be a few like this.
A rare shutout
If the Sounders have a few more games like this, I may change my tune, but it’s worth keeping in mind that their offense has been very good for quite some time. Even including this game, the Sounders are still averaging 2.3 goals per game since Raúl Ruidíaz made his debut (a span of 20 matches).
You can go even further back — to June 2, to be exact — and see that the offense has been rolling along at a pretty good clip for nearly a full season. In those 27 games, the Sounders are averaging 2.07 goals and have only failed to score in three of them. They’re 19-4-4 in those games, too, a tidy 2.26 points per game. That would equate to about 77 points and 70 goals scored over the course of an actual 34-match schedule.
All of which is to say, the offense seems fine and nothing that happened in this game gives me any particular cause for concern.
Let’s give some credit to the defense
Most of the talk this season has been about how great the offense has been, rightfully so. But when the defense needed a shutout, that’s exactly what they got.
No one was better, once again, than Stefan Frei who only had to make three saves but still had to earn them. The biggest was deep into stoppage time when Joaquin Ardaiz broke through for a clean look inside the penalty area. Frei held his ground and made a wonderful diving save, and Kim made it stand up by hustling through the box and perfectly timing his tackle.
Kim makes a WORLD CLASS stop here. Would be cruel to not overturn this. pic.twitter.com/kF2ISKP3Yw— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) March 31, 2019
This play was initially called a penalty, apparently because referee Robert Sibiga thought Kim came in from behind. That’s a little hard to understand considering where Kim was coming from, but at least Sibiga was willing to do the right thing and reverse the call.
That allowed the Sounders to secure their second shutout of the season, but just their fourth over their past 18 games.
The Sounders had their own penalty shout way back in the 7th minute when Ruidíaz put in a cross that Erik Godoy clearly handled with his trailing arm.
The ball hits the defenders had but no call. Probably would've been a harsh call. pic.twitter.com/KLnJQZhF73— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) March 31, 2019
This has never been a stone-cold penalty, but it is one that is often given as the defender is making themselves bigger and gaining advantage. In fact, that’s exactly why IFAB has recommended that plays exactly like this one be called penalties in their latest batch of rule updates.
Unfortunately, those rule changes aren’t necessarily expected to be implemented until next season. Still, it would have been well within Sibiga’s discretion to award the penalty if he thought it was deserved. More likely what happened is he saw the ball hit Godoy’s arm, just didn’t think it was enough to award the penalty. That would also explain why VAR never advised him to look at it on the monitor as nothing in the replay would have likely convinced him to change his on-field call.