SEATTLE — That was certainly exhilarating, wasn’t it? I know I found myself basically holding my breath for the better part of 70 minutes, only to exhale at the end and wonder what it was all about.
Actually, no, I’m not talking about the latest Game of Thrones episode, but it did seem like the Seattle Sounders were battling an endless stream of tireless attackers while they were holding on for dear life, just like our friends at Winterfell. In the end, a 1-1 tie against top-of-the-table Los Angeles FC did feel almost like a victory, but it also left an overwhelming sense that there is still much work to be done.
The Sounders went into this match significantly short-handed, missing four likely starters and six of their top 14 outfield players. Just 18 minutes in, they were down arguably their most steady midfielder. Losing Cristian Roldan not only dramatically rendered whatever gameplan the Sounders had moot, it also shifted expectations. Suddenly, a point seemed like a worthy goal, when coming into the game the Sounders were surely targeting all three.
There was a palpable sense of satisfaction among the Sounders in the postgame interviews.
“This is pro sports and there are no moral victories,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “But this is as close as it gets, I would say that.
“What I’m most proud of about the group is that they all came together. After the tough week — it’s their third game in eight days — they actually came together as a group and formed a strong bond that I know will help us down the road. Those types of matches are critical to have. It’s critical that you step up. It’s easy when you’re 5-0-1. You can play whatever. When the chips are down or you’re under some duress and the team makes a performance like that, that makes me proud to be a Sounder.”
The downside, even beyond the Sounders’ inability to close the five-point gap between themselves and LAFC, is that I still don’t think we know a ton about how these teams compare. I applauded Schmetzer for refusing to simply go into last week’s game looking for a point, and I think he’s speaking truth about the potential positives to come from a result like this — especially on the heels of a come-from-behind tie earlier in the week. But the best thing you can say about the Sounders’ prospects in potential future meetings with LAFC is that we have an incomplete picture.
While LAFC clearly was the better team on the whole, they never faced anything like a full-strength opponent. Even last week, the Sounders were missing their top offensive and defensive players. In addition to them, the rematch featured just one-fifth of the regular starting midfield playing most of the match at their normal position.
Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to see how these two teams match up at least one more time.
Whose fault is that?
Given the fact that the Sounders were only able to field a gameday 17 for arguably their biggest match of the year, there have been some understandable questions being asked about how the roster was constructed. I think those questions are important. I think it’s just as important to try to understand why this sort of thing happens.
What we know is this: The Sounders have just 24 players under contract and just 16 of them are on the senior roster, meaning they count against the salary cap. MLS rules allow as many as 31 players to be signed and for 20 of them to be on the senior roster. MLS rules dictate they must have at least 18 players on their senior roster, so they are technically taking the prorated cap hit on two $75,000 a year contracts until they fill those spots.
Why did the Sounders do this? It’s part of a purposeful roster-building effort to effectively stack their team with as many high-quality players at the cost of being a bit short in the middle. Essentially, Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey is gambling that by leaving spots open on the roster now, he’ll be able to sign better players in the summer.
I know there’s a sense that Lagerwey should be able to do both — sign relatively cheap veterans now while still having the flexibility to make impact signings later. If those veterans are someone like Jordan McCrary — a player they cut just before the start of the season that wasn’t going to count against the salary cap — that’s probably true. But would someone like McCrary have appreciably helped on Sunday? I think that’s a dubious claim.
It’s also worth noting that MLS roster rules make this sort of thing almost an inevitability. Sporting KC, for instance, has 28 players under contract and 19 on their senior roster, but still played with a 17-man roster last weekend against the San Jose Earthquakes.
The good news is that even after potentially losing two more players to suspension, the Sounders should be in better shape next Saturday when they visit Minnesota United as most of their injured players are apparently getting close to returning. Of course the ultimate success of this strategy won’t be measured until we see the kind of player the Sounders add in the summer, but Lagerwey’s track record suggests he deserves some benefit of the doubt.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky
Take nothing away from the Sounders’ defensive performance. They got a strong performance from Román Torres — especially in light of last week’s disaster — and steady defensive efforts from just about everyone else. But let’s also not shy away from the fact that LAFC had plenty of chances to win this one.
Of LAFC’s 21 shots, 11 were inside the penalty area. Just two of their shots from inside the penalty area were on frame and Frei was only forced into four saves all game.
Their finishing woes were probably best exemplified by Christian Ramirez, who had three shots inside the penalty area and none of them were on target. His point-blank miss in the 48th minute was particularly bad. That shot was given an 85 percent chance of going in, according to Opta’s xG model.
The Sounders can’t rely on that sort of finishing in any future meetings, but hopefully they won’t have to.
That’s what happens when you play down a man
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Sounders had played down a man in 11 matches for about 253 minutes during the Schmetzer era. Their goal-difference in those games was a seemingly respectable -2, which suggests that they have at least avoided getting blown out in those situations.
On the flip side, though, they’ve only scored in one of those games (you may remember Clint Dempsey scoring a last-second equalizer at Portland in 2017).
To get a better sense of how being a man down affects the Sounders, though, we should probably compare that to how they play when they’re even strength or better. During the Schmetzer era, they are +40 in those circumstances. Put another way, the Sounders outscore opponents by about .46 goals per 90 when they aren’t down a man and are outscored by about .71 goals per 90 when they are.
Given all this, it should probably be seen as a particularly good result to play a team as dangerous as LAFC to a draw, even if it was at home.