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Postgame Pontifications: No excuses for slow starts

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Sounders can’t keep punting first halves and expect to compete.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For two straight weeks, the Seattle Sounders squared off against teams riding lengthy winless runs. For two straight weeks, the Sounders came out embarrassingly flat and found themselves trailing 2-0 before halftime. For two straight weeks, the Sounders failed to secure any points.

In these broad strokes, the loss to FC Dallas on Saturday was similar to the Sporting KC failure a week earlier. But how the Sounders went about stumbling to another loss was different enough and in ways even more frustrating, not just because they became only the fifth team in MLS history to score two own-goals in one game.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, though, I don’t think defense was the big problem in this game. Sure, the defense on the two plays that led to the own-goals was less than ideal, but even those chances weren’t the kind of thing that should have caused the trouble they did. It’s not that any defenders had strong individual performances, even. It’s just that Dallas only managed to take four shots from inside the penalty area and the only shot they put on frame was a speculative effort from about 25 yards. They completed a mere five passes into the penalty area and only one resulted in anything like a dangerous chance (the one that led to the second own-goal). If the Sounders can limit the opposition to those types of chances, especially on the road, they’re going to be just fine.

The area that’s concerning, rather, is on the offensive side and particularly the slow starts. This was a team that has prided itself on taking control of games from the opening whistle and starting strong. Through their first 13 matches, the Sounders had scored 13 first-half goals, which continued a trend of scoring early that dated back to last year’s turnaround. In the three games during this road trip, they’ve not only failed to score a first-half goal but they’ve only even attempted nine total shots and only two of those were on frame. Their “best” offensive performance in those games was a four-shot first-half against Sporting KC.

The Sounders are simply putting themselves at too much of a disadvantage early and then being forced to recover in the second half.

Like the Sporting KC match, the second half against FC Dallas was at least better. Unlike in Kansas City, I don’t think it was enough to be legitimately encouraging.

It was surely helped again by the game state, but the Sounders dominated possession in the half and ended up with nearly 53 percent of it for the match. They were only able to turn that into three shots, however, and weren’t even able to get off a shot on what turned to be their best chance to equalize. Despite those meager results, the Sounders still ended up with more shots on target — two — than Dallas did for the match.

Why is this happening?

As comforting as it would be to chalk all of this up to absences, I have not come away thinking the Sounders’ problems are so easily explained. Alex Roldan was actually perfectly fine in this one, and he was the deepest player off the bench who got the start. I’d venture to guess that he did exactly what was asked of him, completing 93 percent of his 28 passes and winning three of his game-high five attempted tackles.

Like the KC game, I think there was more than enough available talent to get the job done.

If I were to attempt to identify one thing that spoiled this game for the Sounders, I think it goes back to how they started the game. Looking at the defensive action maps of the first and second halves, it looks to me that the Sounders were maybe a bit too content to absorb pressure early on. Maybe there was some concern over the delayed start or maybe they were trying to draw out FC Dallas in order to catch them on the counter, but whatever the reason they got stuck defending way more than they should have.

These are the Sounders’ defensive action maps for the first (left) and second (right) halves.
MLSsoccer.com

This mentality shift is maybe best exemplified by Cristian Roldan. He was deployed as a No. 10 in the first half, presumably with instructions to help Raúl Ruidíaz press the FC Dallas centerbacks and disrupt their preferred possession style. Roldan finished the first half with just a single defensive action and 11 total passes — of which he completed just five. Despite dropping back a line to accommodate the Sounders’ shift to a 4-4-2 in the second half, Roldan was far more active in that half with five defensive actions and a robust 49 for 53 passing. Most of that activity was in the offensive half, as well.

We’ve learned this over and over again this year, but this team is not equipped to sit back and absorb pressure. The Sounders are at their best when they are the aggressor and forcing opponents to react to them. The only game where a defensive posture worked out well for them was against the Philadelphia Union, and that game was played with dramatically different personnel.

Going forward

The Sounders have been gifted another very winnable match on Wednesday. As short-handed as they’ll be — it looks like at least eight players will have joined their national teams — the Montreal Impact may be in even worse shape. In addition to Ignacio Piatti being out for the next couple months, several other niggling injuries and international call-ups have left Montreal short-handed enough that they were allowed to make an emergency “hardship” signing.

The Sounders, meanwhile, appear to have worked out agreements that will allow them to keep Joevin Jones and Jordy Delem through Wednesday’s match. Everyone who starts for them should have relatively extensive MLS experience, even if they aren’t all being played in their primary positions.

This will be Seattle’s fourth straight road game, and while it might not be realistic to expect them to dominate from the start, they should come into the match with the mentality that they want to do more than simply survive. A win here would give them four points from the road trip, allow them to head into the break no worse than second in the Western Conference, and give them a wonderful platform from which to build toward the playoffs.