It was only a week ago when it was feeling as though the Seattle Sounders’ season was circling the drain. Now, they’re in position to claim the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference by winning one more home game and could move up as high as No. 3 in the Supporters’ Shield standings if a couple other results go their way.
To say this season has been a remarkable ride is hardly doing it justice.
I don’t need to recap everything I’ve said previously about how frustrating certain performances have been or even how this team’s inability to put together a complete 90-minute performance is sometimes baffling. But through it all, they’ve managed to remain competitive and put themselves in position to pull out results like the one they did on Sunday.
I wouldn’t say they were roundly outplayed by the San Jose Earthquakes — a team that despite some poor results has consistently put out high-quality performances — but the Sounders were at least a little lucky to even be in a position to claim all three points when Magnus Ericksson misplayed a clearance that put Jordan Morris in on goal.
Up to that point, the Sounders had done a decent job creating chances despite having less than 40 percent of possession. Morris had twice found himself in on goal and was a poor first touch away from having a third chance. Brad Smith had another gilt-edge chance that was short-circuited by a poor first touch. But it was the Earthquakes and their 23 shots that had looked the more dangerous team for much of the afternoon. Twice they had hit the woodwork and they forced Stefan Frei into 10 other saves.
None of that mattered when Kim Kee-hee hit a nondescript clearance toward midfield that resulted in Morris’ game-winner.
As surprising as the result was, it also fits a pattern for this year’s Sounders. Since returning from the Gold Cup break, they’ve shown a remarkable ability to turn frustrating performances into satisfying results. While the Sounders haven’t managed to win comfortably, they have managed to win games like this one that seemed to be headed for draws. This was the fourth time, in fact, that the Sounders have scored a game winner after the 89th minute. Those eight added points are literally the difference between controlling their own destiny for the No. 2 spot in the West to needing help just to qualify for the playoffs.
I don’t think any of us would prefer to rely on those kinds of goals to push the Sounders deep into the postseason, but it is showing itself to be a repeatable skill.
Morris comes through
Coming off one of his most disappointing performances of the season, it was especially encouraging to see Morris return to the type of form that now has him in position to potentially lead all Americans in combined goals and assists. Morris now has 10 goals and seven assists, which puts him one behind Jozy Altidore’s 11 goals and seven assists.
Playing mostly on the left side of the attack, Morris was repeatedly able to get behind Tommy Thompson and was a key component in keeping the Earthquakes unbalanced. He was also a willing contributor on defense, where he had two tackles and seven recoveries, the last of which set up the game-winning goal.
The most remarkable part of that play was that Morris was a solid five yards behind Florian Jungwirth when Ericksson made contact with his header. He closed that gap almost instantly and had clear separation by the time he touched the ball forward to put himself in a 1-v-1 with goalkeeper Daniel Vega. As he’s done with remarkable regularity this year, Morris didn’t waste any touches by trying to dribble around the onrushing goalkeeper and instead hit a simple flick over him that nestled softly into the back of the net.
Jordan. Morris. Sounders. Goal. pic.twitter.com/gpIDhp7CIH— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) September 30, 2019
Morris has always had this sort of gamebreaking speed. What’s different now is how often he’s putting himself in position to use it — he read this play perfectly — and how his improved composure is leading to more predictable outcomes.
Raúl Ruidíaz has now gone scoreless in four consecutive games and his goal-less drought has stretched to 405 minutes, his longest since joining the Sounders. Like he’s been doing in recent weeks, Ruidíaz was again dropping into the midfield to help with possession. This time, however, it seemed to be more designed as a way to pull apart the Earthquakes man-marking defense than due to frustration with a lack of service.
Ruidíaz was repeatedly able to turn his possession into dangerous scoring chances for teammates, although he somehow didn’t get credited with so much as a key pass.
Of course, that’s mostly due to a mix of scoring error by Opta, who somehow failed to credit Ruidíaz with a key pass when he set up Morris for the first of his chances in the 13th minute.
This pass from Ruidiaz was so, so good. pic.twitter.com/wnrM1DGAqm— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) September 29, 2019
Ruidíaz had an even better pass to set up Smith in the 86th minute for what probably should have been a goal.
Ruidiaz didn't have a goal or an assist, but he set up at least two glorious chances. This pass to Smith was so good. pic.twitter.com/O4zjWQp5Q2— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) September 30, 2019
Ruidíaz also had some nice hold-up play and nearly released Morris for another chance that was wasted by a heavy touch.
Here's another chance Ruidiaz created that didn't actually result in a shot. pic.twitter.com/bNb071RCvU— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) September 30, 2019
Clearly, the Sounders are best served by Ruidíaz being higher up the pitch and ideally scoring goals. But plays like these show how he’s much more than just a “fox in the box.”
Over the last month or so, I’ve been pretty consistent in suggesting that the Sounders might be better served by deploying Cristian Roldan as a right-sided midfielder. While Roldan’s longterm future is almost certainly as a No. 8, the Sounders are best served in the short term with him coming off the wing and providing defensive cover on the wing.
But Sunday’s performance may have convinced me otherwise, not just because Víctor Rodríguez looks like he probably needs to be on the pitch, but also because we were reminded at how effective a Roldan-Gustav Svensson pairing can be in the middle.
Roldan turned in a game-high 12 recoveries while still contributing three key passes. His action map showed a player that was unrestrained by his position and suggests the Sounders won’t need to sacrifice his offensive ability while still retaining his ball-winning skills.
This performance aside, I’m coming around to thinking that the Sounders’ best chance of making a run is to focus more on scoring goals than preventing them. Deploying Roldan as a two-way midfielder with a more purely offensive player like Rodríguez on the wing puts the maximum number of offensively dangerous players on the field while still retaining enough balance to compete.