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Game State: Sixty Minutes of Success

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To understand how well the Sounders played, you must also appreciate game-state.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Imagine sitting down in your seat at CenturyLink at minute 6 (perhaps the beer line was long). Then imagine you leave at minute 15 (it’s good beer). You wouldn’t expect the 10 minutes you watched to be precisely representative of the full game, but it’s certainly long enough to get a read on how the game is progressing. Teams will have exchanged possession several times and established preferred patterns of attack and defense.

Now, imagine dividing a game into 16 10-minute segments (with the midpoint moving at 5 minute intervals) and count how often each Seattle Sounders player records a “touch” (a distinct action on the ball).

You’ve seen “heatmaps” of on-field actions that display where a player is acting on the ball. This heatmap shows you when the action is recorded, and how that changes over the course of the game. The chart shows you some predictable aspects of Saturday’s match with the Seattle Sounders hosting the Houston Dynamo - Nicolas Lodeiro dominates team touches, thanks to his role in ball distribution, followed by Cristian Roldan and the fullbacks. The average intensity of all players increases in the middle of the game, particularly in the first part of the second half. Now, take a look at the same chart for the Houston Dynamo...

Note the light colors from midpoints 40 through 75, particularly for the nominal attacking band of Elis, Martinez, Rodriguez, and Manotas.

Goals change games, and Roldan’s 5th minute volley put Seattle in a commanding position of earning exactly the result it sought from the match. The goal came from outside the box, on a low-percentage chance as would be measured by xG. As we’ve seen before, teams react to leads (both consciously and unconsciously) in a manner that changes accumulated statistics. We also know, intuitively, that all soccer games ask the competing teams to maximize good chances to score (and, therefore win), while appreciating that the cruel outcome of even a good scoring chance may be a miss. Let’s put the performance of Houston’s attack in simpler terms:

Seattle started out the game aggressive and relatively direct and earned the early goal. If we generously consider each of the Dynamo subs to be part of the attacking band, we still find that 4 of those 16 10-minute intervals involved 12 touches or fewer from the four primary attackers in a game-state for which Houston chased a result. While maintaining a lead, Seattle built a possession advantage out of an early deficit, dominating possession and restricting Houston’s attack from 30’-80’. Thereafter, Brian Schmetzer’s options for fresh legs in defense and possession were limited by Gustav Svensson and Chad Marshall’s absences due to injury, the start for Jordy Delem, and Harry Shipp’s early replacement of Victor Rodriguez. Combine these factors with Will Bruin’s struggles to relieve pressure on the defense, and one could justifiably claim that Seattle was lucky to avoid conceding the equalizer in the last 10 minutes. Houston was equally-if-not-more fortunate to find a draw within reach at that stage of the game.

We will never see Saturday’s game played in an even game-state. Starting with a 1-goal margin, two teams playing with a 1-goal advantage to a low tally of roughly equivalent xG should expect exactly the result they achieved. The better team on the night won.