SEATTLE — It seemed like it was just the other day that we were brimming with confidence. The Seattle Sounders had just knocked off previously unbeaten Toronto FC, looked good doing it and were set for a week of games that had the potential to leave them as the clear top team in MLS.
Funny how things change.
Less than a week later, the Sounders are now two-thirds of the way through that stretch and emotions around the team are quite different. After a blowout loss to LAFC and tie that required them to come back from two goals down at home to the San Jose Earthquakes, confidence is in short supply and healthy bodies are are running thin.
Where once our comments sections were brimming with “we’re going to win the league”, people are now openly wondering when the Sounders might manage to win another game.
Maybe more than the loss to LAFC, the come-from-behind tie against the Earthquakes is a bit more cause for concern. After a strong start in which the Sounders out shot the Quakes 9-0 in the first 17 minutes, they were looking dead in the water when Shea Salinas scored his second goal of the game in the 53rd minute.
It got worse. Nouhou, who was already off the field when the goal was scored, was subbed off with an ankle sprain. Gustav Svensson, who was limping badly on the goal-scoring play and immediately signaled for a sub, came off with a hamstring strain. The Sounders were then forced to use their third sub of the evening in the 63rd minute when Victor Rodriguez collided with Jackson Yueill.
Although the Sounders were able to come back — and had a golden chance to go ahead when Handwalla Bwana got a free header at the back post — the performance and injuries are both reasonable cause for concern. It’s entirely possible the Sounders will go into the LAFC rematch with their third-choice striker, two backup wide midfielders and a second-choice defensive midfielder, and that’s assuming no one else needs to be rotated due to the three-game week.
That hot start seems so long ago...
Jordan Morris: Lightning rod for debate
If the fanbase’s emotional state can be boiled down into its feels about one player, it’s almost certainly Jordan Morris. Coming into the season, I think it’s fair to say that most of us weren’t quite sure what to expect. As talented as he was, we knew Morris was coming back from more than a year off and there was sure to be some adjustment period.
After scoring a brace in the first game and adding a goal and assist in his third game, the expectations changed. At that point, he had already equaled his 2017 production, needing just 248 minutes to do what had previously taken him more than 1,800.
Instead of continuing that rocket-ship pace, Morris has come back to Earth. Over his past five games, he’s managed just three shots and has been kept off the scoresheet entirely. Where once we were wondering if he might be a Golden Boot contender, now there are voices questioning his spot in the starting lineup.
I tend to think that his current struggles are a bit overblown, but can at least understand why there are concerns. Much of the debate about his performance tends to come down his relative lack of willingness to drive at opponents and take difficult shots.
It should be noted that Morris has never been a high-volume shooter. The most he’s ever taken in a game is five, and he’s only done that twice. But he does tend to find ways to squeeze off at least one or two, and his previous career low for any five-start group of games was four shots. Part of his recent lack of shooting could be that he’s simply being asked to fill a different role — he’s mostly being asked to stretch the field and there seems to have been an emphasis on being a facilitator as well as a goal-scorer. I’ll also offer that most of the plays where he’s failed to shoot can be defended as smart decisions, even if collectively they do seem to suggest a certain reticence to shoot.
Take this play for example, where he gets into the open field only to pull it back, rather than try to run at a couple of backpedaling defenders. On one hand, Morris didn’t have numbers and likely would have been dribbling into a dead end. On the other, I can see why fans want to see him just take the chance.
At the same time, Morris has improved his passing. Only a strong Florian Jungwirth tackle denied him from connecting with Victor Rodriguez on an earlier cross, and later in the half he had this cross that nearly found Nicolas Lodeiro for the winner. Notably, he did a good job fighting off a defender and creating that chance with his hold-up play.
What I’m saying here is that I think there’s room to criticize Morris. He doesn’t look entirely back yet. But I also think some of the areas where he’s improved are under-appreciated and he’s actually getting pretty close to putting it all together.
The “other” homegrown winger
While not nearly as robust, there’s similar debate going on around Bwana’s performance against the Earthquakes. In his first start of the year, Bwana was at the very least aggressive. His six shots were twice as many as any other player in this game and his five dribbles were a season high among Sounders.
But Bwana also failed to finish off what was probably the game’s best scoring chance when his backpost header from about five yards out somehow hit Daniel Vega’s leg. There were also several instances of him being bodied off the ball a bit too easily.
Still, I think this was a generally encouraging performance, especially considering it was his first start of the year. Bwana is showcasing a skillset that offers potential for greatness. In some ways, he’s doing a lot of things we’d like to see Morris doing, especially when it comes to his aggressiveness around the penalty area. I don’t think he’s quite ready for a regular starting spot, but I am intrigued by the possibility of him seeing increased minutes while the Sounders are trying to get healthy.
Dropping points at home to one of the worst teams in the league will naturally open up a coach to plenty of second guessing, and I think there’s room to question the decision to deploy Lodeiro as a false nine in this one. But it should also be said that for the first 20 minutes or so, that strategy seemed to be working wonderfully. The Sounders were all over the Earthquakes, who didn’t seem to know quite how to deal with Lodeiro’s free role. Similarly, Kim Kee-hee repeatedly found himself far upfield and relatively unmarked in dangerous areas.
Nothing obviously came of this early domination, but I think it shows that the Sounders were at least prepared for what the Earthquakes were trying to do.
“We played Nico as a false nine and put Jordan out on the right in order to get Jungwirth out of position,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “So Nico would start there next to him, drop into midfield and Jordan was trying to get into that space that we created. It was also a space for Cristian Roldan to run into – we’d worked on that during the week. It worked OK. I’d say it wasn’t great. I don’t think Jordan got enough of the ball. I’ll have to look at the tape, but that was the intention.”
At full strength, I’d like to see the Sounders’ first try to impose their will on opponents. But in a game like this, I appreciate them trying something different.