Brian Schmetzer is often fond of saying that the talent gap between any two MLS teams is so small that little things can often swing the outcome. No many how many star players a team may have, no matter how well they’re playing, there is no such thing as an automatic win in MLS.
As good as the Sounders have been playing since returning from MLS is Back — they’re averaging 2.2 points per game and outscoring opponents by 1.7 goals per game, both of which would be MLS records over a full season — Schmetzer knows as well as anyone that there will be bumps along the road. In order to repeat as MLS Cup champs, and maybe even add a Supporters’ Shield for good measure, the Sounders are going to have to figure out how to win games when things aren’t quite going their way.
That’s what the Sounders did on Wednesday in their 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake.
RSL had come into the match missing several starters and deploying a heavily rotated 5-3-2 lineup. The Sounders were missing four potential starters of their own, but still had the obvious talent advantage.
In some ways, the match played out about as you’d expect. The Sounders dominated possession for large stretches, generated the bulk of the scoring chances and were clearly the better team.
But they also had to overcome some bumps. Jordan Morris had a 1st minute goal waved off for offside and even after taking a 1-0 lead in the 28th minute, struggled to put away RSL.
The chances were definitely there. Nicolas Lodeiro was in rare form, setting up high-quality chance after high-quality chance. His 1.2 expected assists were the second most he’s ever had in a game — records only go back to the start of 2018 — and don’t even include the pass he had to help set up Morris’ goal or the ball he gave Roldan at the end of the game, since neither directly resulted in shots.
The Sounders even added a second goal that should have put the game away at 2-0 with about 30 minutes remaining.
Instead an own-goal in the 68th minute turned the game on its head. Despite not putting a single shot on frame, RSL was the team with more possession and applying pressure. That the Sounders needed to grind out the win might not have been good for our nerves, but I think it was important that they had to.
“Even though RSL brought some reserves out on the field, I mean three points is three points,” Schmetzer said afterward. “No one is going to think about that at the end of the year when they are counting the points for the standings, playoff positioning.”
Not for nothing, this was the Sounders’ first one-goal victory since March 1. The Sounders had won seven times by two goals or more in the meantime. That speaks to how well they’ve been playing, but it’s also worth noting that MLS Cup finalists tend to win a lot of one-goal games. In fact, no MLS Cup finalist since 2012 has won fewer than 14% of their games by one goal. LAFC, who set all sorts of records last year, won less than 12% of their games by one goal, while Sounders won more than 35% of their games by one-goal. The Sounders are currently at 6.7%.
Painful as games like that might be, figuring out ways to win them could be a key indicator of how special this season turns out to be.