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Postgame Pontifications: Sounders navigated the period of maximum constraint

A pair of 96th-minute winners allowed the Sounders to go 2-2 while missing internationals.

Joseph Maiorana / Sounders FC Communications

We’re now a little bit past the midway point of the season — that was, technically, the Vancouver Whitecaps match — but the Seattle Sounders are now through the toughest part of their schedule, at least from a roster management perspective. From here on out, the players they have available should be determined by things like health, rather than international duty and that will hopefully lead to the sort of lineup stability they’ve lacked for the last couple months.

Given that, it seems like a good time to take stock of where the season stands.

Despite a pretty frustrating run of results over the past couple months, things aren’t so bad. Through 19 games, the Sounders are 9-5-5 and just two points shy of the second-place LA Galaxy, who have played one more home game. Through 19 games last year, the Sounders were stuck in 10th place and had 12 fewer points than they do now. They were also 10 points shy of the playoff line and 15 points out of second place spot they’d ultimately claim.

This is due almost entirely to the Sounders’ ability to claim full points at home, as their record through 10 road games last year — 2-5-3 — is the exact same as it is this year.

Even after the Sounders turned their season around, it was almost impossible to keep yourself from wondering “what if the Sounders were just a little less awful to start the year?” At the very least, they’ve done that. If the Sounders were to somehow replicate last season’s final 15-game push, they’d end up with about 73 points. Even if they can replicate their worst final 15 games under Brian Schmetzer (28 points in 2016), they’d finish with a 60 points. Right now, the best team in the East — the Philadelphia Union — is on pace to finish with about 58 points.

Given that they’re poised to get back Raúl Ruidíaz, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan next week, I think there’s plenty of reason to feel good about where the Sounders are.

The international (bend don’t) break

When the schedule first came out, this promised to be one of the tougher portions. The Sounders ended up playing four league matches without various internationals over the past six weeks. Even with three of those matches being on the road, the Sounders went 2-2-0.

That doesn’t sound particularly good, I realize, but it’s also well short of the complete disaster it could have been. It’s also better when you realize that in those four games, the Sounders started 23 different players. Among those players, were two teens and three players who had never before played in MLS (or any other top-flight league). In those four games, the Sounders made an average of seven changes to the starting lineup from the previous game.

All of which is to say, the Sounders’ depth was stretched about as much as it possibly could, especially when you consider they had one player suffer a season-ending injury and that three normal starters weren’t available for any of those games. That they didn’t completely break is notable in itself.

New faces emerge

If there was a positive to be taken from that period, it’s that the Sounders should feel good about the players who made their debuts. Danny Leyva followed up his standout debut with a much more uneven performance against the Crew, but he deserves credit for not allowing a somewhat questionable penalty from completely derailing him.

Leyva wasn’t nearly as attack-oriented as he was at home — which was likely by design — but he was still willing to spray switches and showed an impressive ability to jump passing lanes.

Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, who got his first career MLS start against the Crew, was solid as well. Ocampo-Chavez’s best moments came early, when he first set up Nicolás Lodeiro for an open shot at the top of the penalty area in the 5th minute and then tested Joe Bendik with a well-taken shot on a breakaway in the 10th minute. He struggled to find the game a bit after that, but never looked overwhelmed or lost.

Justin Dhillon, too, had some bright moments. He only played four minutes against the Crew, but it was his challenge of a header on Saad Abdul-Salaam’s 96th minute throw-in that created the space for Lodeiro to sneak into and ultimately score the game-winner.

And one not so new face...

Perhaps the breakout player of this period of maximum constraint, though, was the veteran Abdul-Salaam. A couple months ago, I think it was fair to wonder why the Sounders bothered making room for him on the roster. Now, he seems almost indispensable.

He and Kelvin Leerdam ended up being the only two outfield players to appear in all four matches during the international period. Abdul-Salaam made three starts during that time, and only one was at his normal right back position. In the one game he came off the bench, he set up the game-winner.

At the very least, he seems to have solidified himself as the fourth option at centerback and the backup right back, but it’s entirely possible he’s claimed an even bigger role down the stretch. All of this is especially impressive when you consider the five-year MLS veteran had never started a game at centerback before this season and was mostly known for his attacking prowess as a right back.

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