Tempting as it may be to pile on the Seattle Sounders after Saturday’s 2-0 loss on the road against the Colorado Rapids, I feel like it serves little purpose. As bad as the Sounders were — and they were really quite bad — it’s hard to discount just how short-handed they were.
It wasn’t just the 10 internationals that they were missing, it’s those absences were combined with three other players who were out due to injury or suspension. Of those 13 players, six are practically automatic starters and nine had made at least nine starts. They were also missing 63 percent of their 2019 goal-scoring, as well as 56 percent of their assists. All three of their previous starters at left back were on international duty and the two players who started at defensive mid had combined for zero starts at the position this year.
Even with a perfect gameplan, the Sounders were always going to be fighting a severely uphill battle.
Still, it was a bit dispiriting to see the Sounders play as poorly as they did, and the 2-0 scoreline was probably a bit flattering. The Sounders were out shot 24-5, had one of their worst xG performances of the season and their only two shots on goal came more than 89 minutes apart. The only real highlight they had was a Save of the Year-worthy play by Stefan Frei that kept the score from being even worse.
I get that the Sounders were exceptionally short-handed, but nothing about their performance suggested they were put in the best possible position to succeed.
A hole on the right
Perhaps nothing illustrates the Sounders’ lack of attacking ideas better than this graphic showing their passing in what statisticians refer to as zones 14, 15, 17 and 18. In layman’s terms, these are the areas of the field in the center and right side of the attacking third.
It becomes even more dire when you look at what they did in that space during the first 73 minutes, at which point the Rapids led 2-0.
That’s two passes, both of which are incomplete. Notably, neither of them are by the players you’d normally be expecting to make passes in that area. Not a single pass from right back Kelvin Leerdam, right midfielder Harry Shipp or ostensible No. 10 Luis Silva.
The left side, in case you’re wondering, was a bit more active, although equally unproductive.
During those first 70-odd minutes, the Sounders generated just two shots, both of which came in the first eight minutes. One came on what was admittedly a nice throughball from Shipp to Justin Dhillon that Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin did well to close the angle on. The other was a speculative shot from Emmanuel Cecchini in the 4th minute.
Why did that happen? I can only speculate but my suspicion is that Kelvin Leerdam was asked to hang back and serve almost as a third defensive midfielder in an attempt to help out Cecchini and Nicolas Lodeiro, who were deployed as an odd-couple defensive midfielder duo. That was exasperated by Shipp being sucked into the center of the field in an attempt to help Silva with possession.
What did we learn? Hopefully, nothing that needs to be applicable again this year. But if we did learn something it’s probably that Silva — while not completely inexperienced as a No. 10 — shouldn’t be used there with the expectation of getting much out of him. In 90 minutes — 58 of which were spent as a No. 10 — Silva attempted just 18 passes. The only player with fewer passes was Handwalla Bwana, who had 14 before being removed at halftime. I understand why Brian Schmetzer was reluctant to deploy Danny Leyva and Cecchini next to each other, but in hindsight it probably couldn’t have been too much worse than it was and at least would have allowed the Sounders to have three active central midfielders.
The good news
If there’s something like good news to come out of any of this, it’s a reminder that when the Sounders are at anything like full strength they are still one of the best teams in MLS. This was, by my count, the seventh time the Sounders have deployed a starting lineup with less than half of their “preferred” starters (for the sake of this analysis I stopped counting Chad Marshall as a preferred starter after he announced his retirement). Predictably, they’ve gone just 1-5-1 with a -9 goal-difference in those games.
The good news is how they’ve played in matches where at least half of their preferred starters are available. The Sounders are 12-4-6 with a +10 goal-difference in those matches. That’s a rate of 1.91 points per game, which would be good enough for second place in MLS.
I did not run this sort of analysis for every team, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that there aren’t many teams who have been missing half of their preferred starters for nearly a quarter of the season. Even if they can’t get Victor Rodriguez reliably fit and even if Román Torres fails to come back at close to top form, the Sounders should still have enough quality to earn one of the top three seeds in the Western Conference and give themselves a chance at making a long postseason run.
Is Cecchini one of those preferred starters?
This was the first time we got to see Cecchini start after a full week of preparation. I came away still not quite sure what to think. On the positive side, this was the most active we’ve seen him on the defensive side. He won all four his tackles and finished with nine positive defensive actions. He also completed 45 of 50 passes, while spraying balls around the field.
I don’t think he’s going be the hard-tackling/line-breaking No. 6 that the Sounders have been missing since Osvaldo Alonso’s departure, but he might be a good enough partner with Gustav Svensson in the meantime to allow Cristian Roldan to remain in the attacking band.