SEATTLE — These last couple months have been quite a ride, in some ways perfectly encapsulated by Sunday’s result. The Sounders didn’t look remotely dominant in building their 2-0 lead against the LA Galaxy, but did seem to have the game well under control as the game ticked past the 65-minute mark. Then the wheels sorta came off, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic contributing to a pair of goals to tie it, only for the Sounders to storm back ahead, give up another lead and then win with a dramatic 89th minute strike from Cristian Roldan.
It was not a match for the faint of heart, nor one you’d expect an admittedly defense-first coach like Brian Schmetzer to thoroughly enjoy. But you could hardly blame him for preferring to look at the positives in the immediate aftermath.
“I am living in this moment,” Schmetzer said when I asked if he had any mixed emotions about the way the Sounders achieved their 4-3 win. “It was an exciting game for TV, for the neutral fans, our fans went home happy. We’re happy that we got three points. We’re happy that we’re in second place. So I’m going to take this victory and enjoy this moment.”
Much of the same can be said for where the team stands heading into their final six games. The hot start and flat middle have been well documented by this point, but it does seem as though the Sounders are setting themselves up for another solid finish. Since returning from the Gold Cup break, the Sounders are a perfectly respectable 6-4-2. If they can simply maintain their current pace, they should finish in one of the top three playoff spots in the Western Conference.
Anyone who has watched how the Sounders got to this point knows it’s not quite that simple. Even a cursory look at their -2 goal-difference over this recent 12-game stretch, suggests that things haven’t exactly gone smoothly. The 20 goals scored in that time suggest this is a team perfectly capable of carrying the scoring load, but the 22 goals allowed show that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
As we head down the stretch, there’s still reason to believe this could be the league’s second best team and with a couple breaks, maybe even a MLS Cup contender. There’s also reason to worry that injuries and other absences will prove too much to overcome. Should be interesting.
Digging into the offense
If there’s one reason to be bullish about the Sounders’ chances this year, it’s the play of Raúl Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris. Neither has logged as many minutes as many of us had hoped, but both have produced when they’ve played.
Combined, they have 19 goals and seven primary assists in about 3,000 minutes. When you account for the fact that neither takes penalties, their production rate puts them both in the top 10 in the league.
They’ve been especially impressive over the past nine games, combining for nine goals and seven assists in about 1,300 minutes.
While they’ve not exactly worked as a two-man team for the most part, they’re starting to show signs that they can effectively work off one another. Morris set up Ruidíaz’s match-winner agains the Timbers last week, playing in a perfect cross. This week, they combined several times with the best one coming on Morris’ goal when they worked a perfectly executed 1-2.
Such slick work between Morris and Ruidiaz. pic.twitter.com/dQsEHwjAYx— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) September 2, 2019
If they can start pulling off that sort of thing on the regular, opposing defenses could be in trouble.
Roldan the key?
During much of the Sounders’ end-of-season run last year, Cristian Roldan was a fixture on the right side of the midfield. It’s probably too early to suggest his move there portends a similar level of success — the Sounders went 12-2-1 in matches he started at right midfield last year — but the returns so far have been encouraging.
Roldan bagged his second career brace on Sunday, including an 89th game-winner, and seems to have helped provide a level of balance to the offense that was sometimes missing. Roldan now has three goals in two games, while generally being far more active in an and around the penalty area.
His move up a line has also allowed Morris to move to the left, where he seems to be more comfortable and more likely to play higher up the pitch.
“It’s worked so far,” Roldan said when asked about his move. “Sometimes you shift the team around and it makes it more complex for teams to defend. Teams just aren’t used to me playing on the right. You have a guy who’s going to work his butt off and crash the post almost every single time? Well, you have to be prepared for that. That’s something I think we were lacking in the middle of the season.”
Arreaga appreciation time
The Sounders defense is still very much a work in progress, and it’s certainly concerning that they’ve now given up three goals in three straight home games and have now allowed 11 in their past four at CenturyLink Field. But we are seeing some progress in terms of how the defenders are integrating their skillsets into the larger gameplan.
In the last couple games, in particular, we’ve seen centerbacks Xavier Arreaga and Kim Kee-hee break lines with the dribble. We’ve also seen Arreaga display some very impressive passing. Both were on display on the play that set up the Sounders’ second goal.
- Arreaga is cold-blooded— Joseph Mondello (@JoeMondelloFC) September 3, 2019
- Morris has gotten really good at that underlapping run into the primary assist zone
- Roldan scored from the ensuing corner pic.twitter.com/QDVQhc20DR
Arreaga’s best pass came on the buildup to the Sounders’ third goal, an absolutely lethal outside-of-the-boot ball to Morris.
This outside-the-foot pass from Arreaga to start the sequence for Morris' goal is ridiculous and debatably rude pic.twitter.com/4nKhEH9VUQ— Joseph Mondello (@JoeMondelloFC) September 3, 2019
The jury is still out on how much of a lockdown defender Arreaga can be, but we’re now seeing why the Sounders were so excited about his potential.