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Approaching perfect: How to convert expected goals to real wins

The Sounders have dominated their last two opponents, but have lacked the efficiency needed to be great.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Sounders put up their two best expected goals totals of the season in their last two matches. They finished those two matches with one win, one loss, and a net-zero goal differential. That paradox between their stat-stuffing performances and lackluster results has created an analysis dilemma.

To better understand and correctly choose where to form your opinion on the content-with-chance-creation and dismayed-by-final-product spectrum, it’s important to understand the Sounders’ main tactical goal for these matches and for the season as a whole.

Here, head coach Brian Schmetzer has been consistent. After the Portland match, he reiterated the team’s tactical identity.

“Our game plan is always to try and wear teams down — possession in their half of the field,” he said. “Our objective for the game was to draw our opponent from one side of the field, change the point of attack quickly, use our outside back as weapons. That’s kind of who we are, and it just didn’t manifest itself on either side tonight.”

Reading between the lines, the Sounders are not only looking to win, but to dominate their opponents with the ball by flexing superior technical ability and creative movement. Whether or not that’s the best strategy in a salary-capped league is a question better suited for another article, but for the sake of understanding where the Sounders may be heading, it is worth exploring the possible reasons for why the front office has built the team this way.

  1. In a league that’s growing exponentially in quality year after year, the chances of winning an MLS Cup by playing primarily on the counter are thin. Of course, transitions are still massively important – Atlanta last year and LAFC this year are both excellent in this area – but without the quality to also possess the ball in an opponents’ half for sustained periods throughout a match, it’s hard to create the number of chances needed for a long winning streak or playoff run. Portland are doing their best to test this theory with excellent counter-attacking play, but so far they’ve yet to establish true superiority over the the league, both dropping points at home to inferior opponents this season and also getting outclassed by Atlanta in the final last season. Even the more bunker and counter 2016 Sounders had two of three attacking midfielders (Friberg and Lodeiro) who were possession-first players capable of controlling tempo.
  2. Even if it were possible to win an MLS Cup by playing almost completely on the counter (think France at the last World Cup), the Sounders aren’t set up to play that way. Their best player, Nicolas Lodeiro, is a No. 10 who motors side to side much better than he runs vertically at or behind a back line like Miguel Almiron or Diego Valeri can do. In order for the Sounders to play counter-first soccer, they’d likely need to rebuild their team.
  3. Historically, MLS has undervalued outside backs. In the days before overflowing TAM, teams often stuck good athletes with limited on-ball quality at that position. The Sounders were ahead of their time in investing in fullbacks who were difference-makers, and leaned on the relative quality of their outside backs heavily in breaking the MLS record for consecutive wins in a single season last year. Other teams have started to catch up in this area, as Portland’s Jorge Moreira showed last week, but the outside back pool is still an area of strength for Seattle.
  4. General Manager Garth Lagerwey has long expressed a desire for the Sounders to not only be a winning team, but a team that moves the needle in creating a higher quality of American soccer, which has traditionally been very direct. He’s done by this making moves for highly technical and positionally fluid players such as Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez as well as investing heavily in the Sounders’ youth academy meant to supercharge the quality of youth development in the region.

Phew! All that aside, the Sounders essentially need to do three things extremely well to make their utopian vision of ball-dominant soccer a winning reality: exquisite build-out play, excellent active defending, and ruthless finishing. In the last two weeks, they accomplished one out of three of those objectives.

Build-out play

The Sounders flexed some of their best build-out play ever over the last two weeks, as shown by their average of 58% possession and 2.81 expected goals in those matches.

While the team should dominate the ball at home (and in fact put up even better possession numbers early in the year against FC Cincinnati and Colorado), their season high expected goal totals against Portland and Atlanta showed they were more dangerous with the ball than ever in the last two weeks. They did this while playing playoff-caliber opponents and missing two key players from the beginning of the year (Chad Marshall and Victor Rodriguez). Moreover, Portland and Atlanta brought completely different defensive schemes and the Sounders were able to cut through both.

Atlanta, who fear no one, kept their wingers extremely high, attempting to pin the Sounders deep in their half and create turnovers high up the field. They left their holding mids to deal with the ever-moving Lodeiro, the central-drifting Harry Shipp, and the forward-roaming Cristian Roldan, and those three players used their numerical advantage to creating passing options out of the back and then combine around Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi to move up the field. Shipp and Lodeiro in particular made Remedi’s head spin.

Portland, who fear everyone, held their wingers deeper, in particular having Sebastian Blanco track back and harass Shipp wherever he went on the field. Blanco and Moreira, who teamed up to press Shipp into a very tight mid block that kept him from combining effectively with Brad Smith, combined for seven successful tackles, nearly as many as the rest of Portland’s entire team. That didn’t stop the Sounders as Gustav Svensson and Roldan used their excellent long ball/switching ability to stretch Portland’s tight middle block all over the field. This style of play allowed the speedy and direct Jordan Morris to attack in space, which nearly (and probably should have) led to at least one goal.

So that’s the good news. The Sounders used the same line-up in very different ways to knife through two very different defenses. Whether they can use their possession to create the same number of chances on the road remains a question mark, particularly since the healthy, dominant, early season version of the Sounders never played a playoff-caliber team on the road.

Active defending

One of the benefits of dominating possession is that a team can create defense through their offense. This has been a big strength of the Schmetzer-era Sounders. Even when the team hasn’t been efficient enough with the ball to put up gaudy possession numbers or chance creation, they’ve generally been safe enough with it to limit their opponents’ clear scoring opportunities. It didn’t hurt that prior to this year, they had one of the best centerbacks and one of the best keepers and one of the best holding mids in league history with Chad Marshall, Stefan Frei, and Osvaldo Alonso. (Though Alonso’s range faded with age, he was still able to put up unreal recovery numbers through smart positioning in his last year.)

Still, even factoring in the greatness of Marshall, Frei, and Alonso, Schmetzer’s style of soccer has made a significant impact on Seattle’s defense. Under Schmetzer, the team has never finished worse than tied for second in goals against per season (including the stretch of season Schmetzer coached in 2016). By contrast, The 2014 Supporters’ Shield winning Sounders, anchored by Alonso, Marshall and Frei, finished tied for 9th in the league in goals allowed. Moreover, before Schmetzer took the helm, the Sounders only finished top two in MLS for goals allowed twice in six-and-a-half seasons under Sigi Schmid, and never two seasons in a row. (Still not a bad record, to be fair.)

All that’s to say, even though the Sounders have played aggressively with their outside backs throughout the Schmetzer era, they’ve still been historically good on defense thanks in large part to keeping patient possession.

That’s largely fallen apart this season. The Sounders are 8th in the league in goals allowed per game. Their relative downtick in defensive stoutness has come from a combination of poor giveaways (Lodeiro was picked off cleanly to start possessions that led to a goal against both Atlanta and Portland while Shipp committed a careless turnover before fouling to stop the play on the possession proceeding Portland’s first goal) and undisciplined defending (the team let 5-foot-7 Josef Martinez score with his head on a corner, Smith dove in on Moreira needlessly for Portland’s first goal, and Roldan made a slightly reckless run forward off the ball and got caught out position on Portland’s second goal). It’s worth noting that Torres also lost his mark on the second Portland goal, but it’s hard to say how much of that was a lack of discipline and how much was a lack of pace.

That’s a lot to fix, but put succinctly, if the team want dominate possession and tempo and win, they can’t give the ball away as cheaply as they have and they can’t make so many mental errors on defense.

Ruthless in front of goal

The easiest way to find space going to goal is to attack quickly. The benefit of that strategy, as Portland showed, is that with a few well-executed passes, a team can score against the run of play. Since the Sounders prefer the alternative benefits of attacking with patience (higher volume of chances, more defensive stability), they often have to play through tighter spaces to find the back of the net.

Unfortunately, playing through tighter spaces makes the margin for error in attack smaller. In order to convert the myriad half-chances that are the natural result of possession-based soccer into actual goals, teams must not only be ruthless in their finishing, but also surgical in their passing and deadly on set-pieces. The Sounders were none of the above in their last two matches.

Though Ruidiaz and Shipp both notched goals (the former with stunning golazo), they both also left great chances on the table. Beyond the misfired shots, the team also mishit quite a few final passes, particularly against Portland. And last but not least, Torres failed to convert a handful of good looks off set pieces.

Each of those shortcomings raises long-term concerns.

In terms of finishing, Ruidiaz is almost sure to bag more clear cut chances than he’ll miss over the course of the season, but there’s a real question of whether Shipp is goal dangerous enough to fill in for Rodriguez if the latter can’t stay healthy. The Sounders could replace Shipp with Joevin Jones who offers more pace, better one v one dribbling, and likely better crossing, but then the team may miss Shipp’s ability to overload central channels in build out and play and create quick combinations down the wings.

In terms of playing the final ball, Smith, Lodeiro, and Morris all have proven they can get the job done, but with teams now keying in on the Sounders wings like Portland did, Seattle may need to find more offensive thrust down the middle to keep defenses honest. That could mean asking Lodeiro to run in behind more vertically, which may push him out of his comfort zone, or signing a defensive mid with the ability to play through defensive lines down the middle, which could mean sacrificing finding a replacement for the oft-injured Rodriguez until the offseason.

Finally, in terms of finishing set pieces, the Sounders lost a reliable threat when Chad Marshall retired. That’s particularly damaging for a team who wants to wear opponents down through possession in the attack, which naturally leads to a lot of corners (15 in the last two matches).

Approaching perfect

In order to win while dominating the ball and being patient with possession, the Sounders need to be nearly perfect. They must create consistently dangerous build out play, be excellent in active defending (avoiding cheap turnovers and mental lapses in positioning), and convert half-chances to goals with precision and ruthlessness.

After losing to a counter-based team like Portland, it’s easy to be jealous of a style of play that allows a team to win without necessarily dominating the stats (especially with stat-stuffers LAFC potentially looming in the playoffs). But the reality is that unless Portland’s attack becomes more diverse, their chances at winning the cup are very long.

Moreover, wanting to sustain possession in an opponent’s half doesn’t prevent the Sounders from winning on the road. Part of accomplishing sustained possession is having excellent build out play, and part of excellent build out play is being able to use speed to stretch teams who push too many numbers forward. As long as the Sounders have Morris or Jones in the attacking midfield, that’s more than possible.

Where the Sounders face their biggest challenge heading into the homestretch is in balancing the relative qualities of their players. In MLS, no team is truly perfect (even LAFC). Assuming the Sounders have cap space for only one, maybe two acquisitions this summer, they’ll have to figure out whether to add a top-class defensive mid who can provide equal parts defensive grit and passing quality or a multi-talented winger who can both combine inside the pocket and attack 1 v 1 out on the wing. There’s a backup striker issue to contend with as well.

No matter the decisions front office makes, Schmetzer will have to carefully arrange myriad egos and skillsets from a long list of talented role players with extensive professional experience including but not limited to Jones, Smith, Nouhou, Shipp, Rodriguez, Svensson, Roman Torres, and Xavier Arreaga. If Lagerwey and Schmetzer play all their right cards, the pot is still there for the taking, but with MLS boasting more talent than ever, one wrong move could end the game.

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