PORTLAND, Ore — The mood surrounding the Seattle Sounders has been pretty weird lately. It certainly didn’t start with their loss to the Portland Timbers about a month ago, but that game did short-circuit what seemed to be the start of another midseason turnaround.
Rather than build off a win over Atlanta United a week earlier, the Timbers loss started what became a 1-3-2 run. In between, the Sounders had found themselves embroiled in a fan protest, lost Román Torres to a positive PED test and seen their spot in an 11th straight postseason turn precarious.
To say they needed something positive to build on is a bit of an understatement. They got that and more on Friday when they beat the Timbers 2-1 to provide what is hopefully a poetic bookend to a month of misery.
“This win was good for a lot of different reasons,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “Cascadia Cup, my sanity, coaches’ sanity, players’ sanity, fans’ sanity. This was a big performance, a gutty performance, and that’s the Seattle Sounders.”
Perhaps no one in the organization has worn the frustrations of this past month more heavily than Schmetzer. The pain of each successive disappointing performance was etched on his face. You could see how deeply he was cut by insinuations that the club he’s devoted much of his life to didn’t share the value of the fans. More than anyone, Schmetzer wanted to shift the narrative.
Just how big of a win this was can’t be known for probably weeks, but it was the kind of performance a team can definitely build on. If nothing else, it gives us reason to believe this season might not be doomed.
The Sounders weren’t perfect by any stretch. The final 40 minutes were especially nervy. While the Timbers’ goal was a bit fluky, they created enough chances to get at least one more. Gustav Svensson and Xavier Arreaga, in particular, turned in the type of defensive performances this team has been sorely lacking in recent weeks.
The offense was hardly the best it has been, but they effectively switched things up a bit by looking for Jordan Morris in isolation — where he repeatedly exploited Zarek Valentin — and utilizing Raúl Ruidíaz more in possession. Morris helped set up both goals, while Ruidíaz had a goal and an assist.
It was a reminder that this team has enough talent to be competitive against anyone and are capable of grinding out results even when they aren’t at their best. How far that can take them is hard to say, but this win buys some time to find out.
The Goose gets loose
A week after being visibly frustrated at not being allowed to play 90 minutes against the LA Galaxy, Svensson turned in one of his best performances of the season. He was credited with a season-high seven tackles and was constantly breaking up plays before they could get started.
Svensson was not as active offensively — his 38 passes were a season-low in matches he’s played at least 60 minutes — which seemed to be by design. Rather than playing with their traditional double-pivot in which one of the two center mids is usually joining the attack, both Svensson and Jordy Delem were tasked with hanging back in an effort to keep the Timbers from getting chances in transition.
Svensson served almost as a third centerback while Delem had a slightly freer role that allowed him to track runners all over the field and crash passing lanes. He ended up with a season-high-tying five interceptions.
Svensson and Delem aren’t the most dynamic duo the Sounders have, but after allowing 11 goals in their past four games they needed a strong defensive performance and this pairing worked just about perfectly.
The defensive midfield pairing also seemed to have a knock-on effect on the centerbacks, as Kim Kee-hee and Arreaga had easily their best showing together.
I was critical of Cristian Roldan’s performance against the LA Galaxy, pointing out that for all his involvement, he wasn’t doing enough to drive the team forward. Not only did Roldan respond with his first goal in more than three months, but he was generally more aggressive.
Deployed as a right midfielder for just the second time this year, Roldan clearly had license to get forward. His passing map shows that he consistently found himself deep in the offensive third and even though he had just one key pass, was constantly forcing the ball into the box where Timbers defenders needed to react.
That kind of aggression is exactly how Roldan found himself in position to put away his goal, a sequence that started with him getting on the end of a Jordan Morris cross before tapping in Ruidíaz’ pass.
With Emmanuel Cecchini likely to be worked into the rotation more over the final seven matches, we could end up seeing Roldan out wide a lot more. That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
What a difference five days can make
The gap between where the Sounders sit today as opposed to this time a week ago could not be more stark. Instead of riding a four-game winless run and blowing a massive opportunity to gain three points on the road against the LA Galaxy, the Sounders can now sit back satisfied with a four-point week that includes matches at two of the toughest venues for them to get road results.
The Western Conference playoff race being what it is, the Sounders’ place in the standings is not all that improved. Just how big of a win this was will likely be determined by the results that follow.
The Sounders have a massive match that’s nearly as big as this one was on Sunday, hosting a Galaxy team that is neck and neck with them in the playoff race. This is obviously a familiar opponent at this point, and the Sounders will have hopefully learned a few lessons from the first meeting. The biggest is that the key to limiting Zlatan Ibrahimović’s chances is not necessarily what you do to him but how well you deny service. The Sounders simply can’t afford to allow uncontested crosses.
Offensively, they need to lean on Morris even harder than they did this week. The Galaxy have nothing like an answer for Morris’ speed and it could be a good opportunity to open the match with a diamond midfield, with Svensson at the base, Roldan and Harry Shipp as shuttlers and Lodeiro at the point. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it may also set up even better for Saad Abdul-Salaam, who will likely be starting in place of the suspended Kelvin Leerdam and thrives when given liscense to get forward.