SEATTLE — There hasn’t been a ton to get excited about with the Seattle Sounders over the past six weeks or so, and maybe even longer than that. It’s sometimes hard to remember that this team started 5-1-1 and looked every bit the part of a Supporters’ Shield contender. A three-game losing streak to close out a 2-4-3 nine-game run will do that.
So you’ll excuse me if some of my observations come off as a bit hyperbolic...
Consider all the caveats you want after the Sounders’ 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, but damn that felt good. It wasn’t just that the Sounders registered their first win of any kind in six weeks on a last-minute Kelvin Leerdam strike, it was what they did over the preceding 45 minutes and who they did it with that made it so satisfying.
Feel free to ignore the first half in this one, a largely forgettable 45 minutes that saw both teams mostly showing a reluctance to do anything that might get them beat.
Once the second half started, the Sounders played like a team that knew they had to win. It took the Sounders less than 15 minutes to equal their first-half shot total and they really turned up the pressure during the last few minutes of regulation and stoppage time when they fired off nine shots in about 10 minutes, including six in a three-minutes stretch that culminated in Leerdam’s winner.
They did all this while missing players who added up to 66 percent of their First Team payroll. All three of their Designated Players were out, as were four of their TAM players. In their place, the Sounders had two players making their first career MLS starts — one of whom just turned 16 in May — and two more who were making their first starts of the season. Four of their starters were making the veteran minimum or pretty close to it, as were all three of the subs they used. Gustav Svensson was the only field player who was as old as 30 to even suit up for the game.
The best part? No one looked remotely out of place.
Say what you will about the Whitecaps basically abandoning the midfield for large chunks of the game, but the Sounders took what they were being offered and did a pretty damn good job with it. That they didn’t score more than the one goal was more a product of poor officiating and some unlucky finishing than anything the Sounders were failing to do in the buildup. And as I’m fond of saying, if we’re more concerned with process than end result this is exactly the kind of game we wanted to see the Sounders play.
Danny Leyva take a bow
He's still five years shy of even being eligible to win the Budweiser Man of the Match, but Leyva probably deserved it. Put aside that he’s barely 16 and was playing for the Sounders Academy as recently as last week, Leyva was simply outstanding by any metric.
Perhaps emboldened by Brian Schmetzer giving him the freedom to play as a true box-to-box midfielder — rather than trying to simplify his game by letting him sit back and defend — Leyva was an absolute presence on both sides of the field.
Leyva admitted to some nerves in the first five minutes or so, but after that he looked every bit the part of a midfielder many observers think could be anchoring the U.S. men’s national team for years to come. Leyva was spraying passes all over the field, spraying cross-field switches like it was nothing and disrupting the Whitecaps whenever they tried to play out of the back. Leyva ended up with a team-best four interceptions — including three in the Sounders’ offensive half — and was instrumental in keeping the Whitecaps pinned in their own half during most of stoppage time. It was his play that started the sequence that ultimately led to Leerdam’s winner.
This was the play Danny Leyva made immediately before the winning goal. Such a good read, even if it doesn't show up on the stat sheet. pic.twitter.com/NeMdliLolk— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) July 2, 2019
Granted it was just one game, but the Sounders may need to rethink their summer transfer strategy. If Leyva is really this close to being a starting caliber central midfielder, signing a Designated Player at that spot might not be such a hot idea.
The goal that never was
You’ll notice that I’ve yet to mention the “goal that never happened.” Leyva was so good in this game that you can actually ignore what may have been his best play and still make the case that he was the Sounders’ most effective player.
But let’s go ahead and talk about that now.
The play starts with Harry Shipp making an excellent play to steal the ball off Ali Adnan deep in the Whitecaps’ end. He then feeds a perfect pass to Justin Dhillon, who has his shot saved when MacMath aggressively comes off his line.
MacMath makes a great play to get the save, but he’s had to come out to the edge of the penalty box to do it and sends his rebound to the middle of the field. Seeing an open goal, Leyva cuts it off. On live viewing, it didn’t look like he quite knew what to do at that point. On a second viewing, though, you can see that he’s looking for a shooting angle and takes a few more dribbles just to get into a better position. He eventually lofts his shot from about 35 yards out, over the heads of six Whitecaps defenders. There wasn’t much room for error, but he still managed to hit his shot so well that it’s hard to imagine MacMath being able to save it even if he had decided not to stay down.
There is just no way there's a legit foul here. pic.twitter.com/c1gOMNDinq— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) June 30, 2019
It would have been a dream way to make his home debut and it’s a shame Alan Kelly made the regrettable decision to disallow the goal, claiming Dhillon was “careless” in leaving his foot in after the shot. Whether it counted or not, though, it was an example of what Leyva is capable of and that should have us all very excited.
The ‘other’ debutant
Dhillon, it should be said, was everything I think we expected he could be. Whatever the 23-year-old lacked in flash, he made up for with being able to effectively play a role he was assigned. His 17 touches suggest he wasn’t a huge part of the buildup, but his four shots — including two on target — show that he was getting himself into good positions. Throughout the night, he made good runs that either opened up space for teammates or provided opportunities for himself. The final touch was not quite there, but I’m of the mind that as long as a forward is getting into dangerous positions, he’s doing what is needed.
It’s entirely possible that Dhillon doesn’t improve on this performance, but based on what he showed I think the Sounders have at least found a capable backup who can reliably make a spot start or be relied upon to create some havoc as a late-game substitute. At the very least, it takes some pressure off Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, who himself looked like a player capable of helping the First Team.