In a broad sense, I think most people understand why the Seattle Sounders effectively “parked the bus” against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. The Sounders were, after all, traveling clear across the country on just three days’ rest and had only had time for a single training session between matches.
In addition to those vaguely obvious challenges, there were a few more things the Sounders had to worry about. The big one was that they were already somewhat short-handed. Gustav Svensson, Victor Rodriguez and Chad Marshall — all starters when healthy — were out with injuries. Handwalla Bwana and Nouhou were both in the midst of a Ramadan fast, meaning they weren’t taking on calories until the sun went down. There were also five players who had each played 90 minutes in the two previous games, meaning they were going to be looking at the very real possibility of logging 270 minutes in the span of eight days.
On top of all that, the manager needed to guard against further injuries as the Sounders are heading into a period in which they could be missing as many as 11 players to international call-up.
To a large degree, head coach Brian Schmetzer’s hands were simply tied. Even if he had wanted to press the Union and dictate play, he had to balance the very real likelihood that his players probably weren’t in any position to maintain that sort of play for 90 minutes.
So, he did what I think most coaches would do in his position. He rolled out a lineup and a game plan primarily designed to secure a shutout. Importantly, let’s not forget that it worked.
Sure, it was at times unsightly. Aside from the game against LAFC in which they played 75 minutes down a man, the Sounders have not taken fewer than the six shots they had against the Union. The only other time in which they were outshot by more than the 14 they were in this game was, ironically, the Chicago Fire game in which they were protecting a lead for nearly the entire match. The Sounders’ 32 percent possession was also a low-water mark for games in which they played with 11 men.
I could go on, but you get the point. The Sounders didn’t show much interest in possessing the ball or attacking. In other words, it was a far cry from the free-flowing ways of this team back in March.
They may not have earned any style points, but they did get one point in the standings and all things considered that’s not bad. The Sounders have now gone unbeaten in six matches — claiming 10 points in the process — all of which have been played without the services of multiple starters and includes three games against teams who were among the league leaders. It also includes four matches that were played on short rest, while two of those opponents were facing the Sounders on full rest.
I think it’s fair to say that LAFC have clearly established themselves as the Supporters’ Shield favorites, but the Sounders still have to be considered among the teams who at least look capable of challenging them.
Perhaps no player has seen his stock rise more over the past eight days than Román Torres. When the Sounders embarked on this stretch of games, it was looking like Torres was poised to see his role within the team diminish to the point of virtual irrelevance. The Sounders had just announced the signing of Xavier Arreaga and Torres looked like he might be as low as fourth on the depth chart, putting any minutes with the First Team in doubt. Even more than that, it was hard to imagine anyone willing to pay much for the services of a 33-year-old who hasn’t looked particularly good in well over a year.
Three consecutive starts later, it’s a bit scary to imagine where the Sounders might be without Torres. With Arreaga unlikely to make his debut until mid-July and Chad Marshall’s status very much in the air, Torres is likely to log at least a handful more starts before the transfer window even opens. It’s still possible that Torres might prefer a move elsewhere, but he’s at the very least proven that he’s still a very capable starter in the league.
While his stock is probably nearing its height, the Sounders also might be more inclined to keep him after a particularly impressive week in which he seemed to get better with each successive match. Torres hadn’t even made three consecutive starts since early last year and hadn’t made three starts in such close succession since 2016.
Deployed as the central defender in a three-centerback set against the Union, Torres had what might be his best performance since early 2017. Torres set season highs for interceptions (four) and offsides won (three); tied season bests for clearances (five) and aerials won (two); and completed a season best 95 percent of his passes. Throughout it all, Torres displayed a level of calm and leadership — we rarely saw him leave his feet or appear flustered — we simply hadn’t seen from him in ages. He’ll be missed while he’s with Panama at the Gold Cup.
Stability be gone
Remember back when the Sounders set a franchise record by starting the same lineup for five straight games to start the season? That seems oh so long ago. The Sounders have now gone seven straight games without fielding the same lineup in consecutive games and on Saturday were forced to make a season-high six changes from their previous match.
Among the new starters was Jonathan Campbell, who became the 20th player to start at least one match for the Sounders this year. That’s not an extraordinary amount by MLS standards — most have about that many — but only a handful have started a larger swath of players. It’s also a slightly less hectic pace than they were on last year, when they had started 22 different players through 13 league games.
More than some sort of “woe is us” narrative, I think this is just a reminder that it’s virtually impossible to make it through a MLS season without digging deep into your bench. That the Sounders have yet to start a rookie this year — and a fourth-year pro with 50 career MLS starts — was their 20th starter suggests they were reasonably well prepared for this possibility.
Campbell, it should be said, looked perfectly competent in his start. He had a few unfortunate turnovers in the first half and definitely looked gassed by the end, but very much stayed within himself and settled down as the match moved on.