SEATTLE — One of the things that has made this season difficult to assess is that two-thirds of the way through, it’s almost impossible to know what to make of the Seattle Sounders. We know they started well when they had a consistent lineup early in the season and we know they started to struggle once multiple key players were missing, but even those games came with caveats. The early part of the season coincided with a home-heavy schedule, while the more recent portion has been mostly played on the road.
Sunday’s match against Atlanta United, I think, gave us a better sense of just how good this team might be. United, to be fair, are not in the best form either — they came into this game 3-4-1 over their previous seven — and were playing their fourth match in two weeks. But Frank de Boer used as close to a first-choice lineup as he could muster, and with those players on five days of rest, they shouldn’t have been completely exhausted.
The Sounders, for their part, were as close to full strength as we’ve seen them since they started the season 5-0-1. This was a match many of us had been looking at for weeks, anticipating the return of the various internationals.
Taken together, this was a match the Sounders needed to win in order to show that they were anything like contenders.
For the most part, I think the Sounders answered any lingering concerns. While the scoreline was not particularly convincing — they won 2-1 and failed to score a first-half goal for the eighth straight game — they were clearly the better team. Most of the game’s best chances belonged to the Sounders and their xG was their best of the season.
It was by no means a perfect performance. Brian Schmetzer was reluctant to even call it a particularly outstanding display in his postgame press conference, pointing out that the Sounders struggled to control “tempo,” gave up a few more good chances than he would have liked, and weren’t as good in front of goal as they probably should be.
Still, given the way the Sounders have had to grind the last few months, seeing them generating chances early and often was a welcome change. That they promise to have even more talent at their disposal that doesn’t even require them to make a big summer signing suggests this team’s best days are still to come.
For all the Sounders’ positive play, it’s a little scary to think that without a bit of individual magic they may have been looking at dropped points. Luckily, Raúl Ruidíaz was around to provide exactly that.
His 58th minute goal immediately goes down as one of the greatest individual goals anyone in Rave Green has scored. The goal showcased some immense skill and also some intense desire, as his willingness to head a ball down while a defender was kicking up was nearly as impressive as his sombrero of Miles Robinson.
All the angles.— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) July 16, 2019
All the calls.
One jaw-dropping goal from @RaulRuidiazM. ✨ pic.twitter.com/0dTy5SQ2DJ
As good as that goal may have been, how it fits into the larger performance is probably more important. It was Ruidíaz’s 20th goal scored in just his 25th appearance for Seattle across all competitions. That’s a very robust .85 goals per 90. Among active players with at least 1,000 minutes played in the regular season and playoffs, only Josef Martinez (.93) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (.88) are better.
What makes that stat even more impressive is that he’s done it without taking penalties, which puts him in truly elite company in MLS history. Among MLS players with at least 1,000 career minutes, Ruidíaz appears to rank third in regular-season scoring rate from open play. Although MLS does not officially keep this statistic, FBRef.com does. In a somewhat exhaustive look through some of the best goal-scorers in MLS history, former Columbus Crew star Stern John (.87) and current LAFC forward Adama Diomande (.86) are the only two players with a better regular-season career scoring rate than Ruidíaz (.80) when adjusting for penalties.
Whether or not Ruidíaz can keep this up for the rest of the season is a major question, but it should be encouraging that he’s continuing to score at nearly the same rate this year (.78) as he did last year (.82).
Harry’s a wizard
Over the past six weeks, I’ve not talked much about the performance of Harry Shipp. That’s mostly because he hasn’t been getting on the scoresheet and his contributions are easy to overlook. But I’ve noticed, I’ve definitely noticed. On Sunday, he finally broke a nine-game streak without a goal or primary assist when he powered home a header that stood up as the game-winner.
Before the goal, though, he was having another very strong performance. Shipp ended up leading the Sounders with six shots, the second time in his past three starts that he’s managed that. The final product could have definitely been better — and he admitted he was frustrated with himself for not scoring in the first half — but he gets himself into dangerous spots about as well as anyone on the Sounders. He’s also starting to improve defensively, where he was once considered a bit of a liability.
It’s at the point now that Shipp may be the Sounders’ preferred starting left midfielder, even with the full health of the current squad. Dating back to last year, the Sounders are now 14-7-3 in Shipp’s 24 starts. That’s 1.875 points per game. In all other games, the Sounders are claiming about 1.63 points per match. There are clearly a lot of variables at play, but this does seem to line up with the anecdotal evidence that Shipp makes the Sounders better even if he’s not directly contributing to goals.
It was an easy thing to overlook with all the change in the Sounders’ lineups over the past few months, but Sunday marked the first time since April 24 that Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan lined up next to each other in the midfield. The Sounders are now 6-1-2 in matches they start together.
They picked up right where they left off. The duo combined for seven recoveries, four successful tackles, three clearances, two blocked shots and two interceptions. Roldan completed nearly 95 percent of his passes, while Svensson completed 80 percent and they were a combined 13 for 16 on long balls.
While Roldan was doing his normal box-to-box thing, Svensson was free to sit in front of the centerbacks and spray switches all over the field.
Gustav Svensson is good at soccer ball passing part 2 pic.twitter.com/k4RS0ECtVP— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) July 14, 2019
Jordy Delem is a fine stay-at-home defensive midfielder but is still pretty limited in his passing game. Danny Leyva is quickly developing and may eventually eclipse both Svensson and Roldan, but he’s not yet at their level. With Svensson and Roldan, the Sounders are simply more dangerous going forward and more secure in the back. Maybe even more than the headline stars, these two could be the key to the Sounders’ ability to make a deep run in the playoffs.