Just twice in 14 matches, the Seattle Sounders have failed to claim any points. That translates to a 7-2-5 record and 26 points. Only LAFC have a clearly superior record and by most any metric, the Sounders are among the top 2-3 teams in the league.
But following Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Sporting KC, the Sounders’ status among the league’s elite feels a bit more precarious. I think that’s mostly due to the perceived quality of the opponent. Sporting KC is one of the few teams who can claim to be more short-handed than the Sounders, and they hadn’t won in nearly two months. Despite their playing with a short bench and seemingly without confidence, Sporting KC were clearly the better team for stretches of this game ... or at least that’s how the thinking seems to go.
After rewatching the game, though, I think some of this is misplaced. First off, the team Sporting KC put out had plenty of talent. Short-handed or not, there was quality across their midfield and in defense. Their recent struggles have also probably been a bit overblown, as their only really bad loss was against an Atlanta United team that seems to be rounding into form.
More relevantly to this game, I think the degree to which the Sounders were outplayed is probably not as large as the initial viewing may have suggested. The truth is that the Sounders got off to an awful start, and looked absolutely dreadful for about 20 minutes. For the final 70 minutes, they were at least decent in most phases of the game and actually controlled significant chunks of it. Some of that is surely due to game-state — Sporting KC led this match for more than 60 minutes — but I don’t think the run of play was nearly as bad as the common perception suggests.
Still, a loss is a loss and the best thing the Sounders can do is learn from it.
Playing their style, poorly
There’s a natural desire, I think, to draw comparisons between this game and the LAFC loss. Like the earlier match, the Sounders attempted to play their opponent straight up on the road. Like the earlier match, they made that decision despite being somewhat short-handed. And like the earlier match, they lost.
But I think the notable difference in this game is that the Sounders actually executed portions of “their” style pretty well. Unlike the LAFC match, the Sounders actually pressed Sporting KC somewhat efficiently and forced numerous turnovers in the offensive end. They also turned those turnovers into several quality scoring chances, and probably should have scored at least one of them. One other notable difference from the LAFC match was that the Sounders actually did an OK job handling Sporting KC’s press, to the degree they even tried one.
A look at the two teams’ defensive action maps illustrate my point:
Just looking at these two defensive action maps for SKC vs. Sounders, which team would you say was more successful at the high press? pic.twitter.com/HpfnHDucen— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) May 28, 2019
The Sounders are the team on the left, with Sporting KC on the right. Although both teams have the same number of defensive actions in their opponents’ end, the Sounders’ actions are actually farther up the field. For the most part, Sporting drew their line of confrontation at the edge of the middle third. On the occasion they pressed higher, the Sounders were able to break as often as they were stymied — which usually resulted in a turnover around midfield.
The Sounders’ problem, especially early, was an inability to hold possession in a meaningful way. Many of their early turnovers were simply poor passes, often by players who were not under any particular pressure.
What’s perhaps more frustrating about this game is that the Sounders actually weathered the early storm. By the time Sporting KC opened the scoring in the 28th minute, the Sounders had started creating some chances and were doing a better job of stringing together passes.
Johnny Russell’s first goal started not as a result of the high press creating a turnover, but from Nicolas Hasler simply outmuscling Handwalla Bwana on a ball in the Sounders’ offensive third. As you might expect on a turnover in that area, the Sounders were reasonably well positioned to defend it. But Román Torres whiffed on his attempted interception, Kim Kee-hee couldn’t beat Yohan Croizet to the ball and Russell was able to get off an uncontested shot despite having five Sounders defenders near him.
That turned out to be a theme, as all three goal were scored while the Sounders had the numerical advantage. Russell’s second featured him dribbling through three defenders and his final goal found him wide open despite both Nouhou and Smith being close enough to have at least increased the level of difficulty on the shot.
What did we learn?
Like the LAFC loss, the one positive to come from this was the potential to learn something from the result. In the case, I’m now wondering if Bwana is too much of a liability to start games against tough opponents on the road. It would be wholly unfair to blame the result on one of the team’s more inexperienced players, but it would be equally folly to fail to recognize he looked out of his depth.
No one is under any illusion that Bwana is on the field expected to be a plus-defender. But the presumed expectation is that he can provide enough defensive effort to justify keeping him on the field for his potential offense. In 60 minutes, however, he was more of a defensive liability — his only defensive actions were one tackle and two recoveries — while also failing to deliver any sort of offensive contribution — no shots, no attempted passes into the box and just two successful dribbles while being dispossessed four times.
It’s entirely possible that this was simply an off night for Bwana and I applaud Brian Schmetzer for gambling that he could provide an offensive spark in a challenging situation. But I also came away thinking that the more defensive-minded and reliable Alex Roldan may need to get some some serious consideration if the Sounders find themselves in a similar situation down the road. Next week, I think I’d rather see Cristian Roldan slide into Nicolas Lodeiro’s No. 10 spot, Victor Rodriguez replace Bwana and Gustav Svensson move into the second defensive midfielder spot.
More broadly, I think we also learned that the Sounders can generate offense even when everything isn’t going according to plan. Kelvin Leerdam had a mostly forgettable match, for instance, but still managed a slick assist and a goal. The Sounders were bad for a decent chunk but still probably should have equalized in the 73rd minute (Lodeiro surely rued his decision to chip Tim Melia rather than pass to a wide open Harry Shipp). Most importantly, the Sounders still find themselves with the second best record in MLS despite missing a significant portion of their preferred XI for much of the season.