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Postgame Pontifications: Eerily normal

The most notable thing about Saturday’s game was how normal it all felt.

Raul Ruidiaz Jane Gershovich / Sounders FC Communications

SEATTLE — Before big games, I’ll sometimes make my way down from the pressbox and onto the field to take in the atmosphere. I don’t do this often, but I like to remind myself what it’s like to really feel the tension, to get a palpable sense of the anticipation, to soak in the energy that comes from an amped up crowd.

I did something similar before Saturday’s game, basically in anticipation of the exact opposite.

In the week or so building up to the match, Seattle had effectively become Ground Zero for a certain type of coronavirus coverage, with the Sounders match slowly becoming the proverbial canary in the coal mine for how sporting life was being impacted.

Earlier in the week, a NBC headline declared Seattle to be a “ghost town”, which drew mostly bemused reactions from those of us who actually live here. Slower than normal? Sure. But at least from my vantage point, life was going on pretty much as normal.

By the time Friday rolled around, however, things were feeling noticeably different. Outside my window, I usually can see a first-hand account of how the day’s traffic is looking. Most days, Highway 99 is backed up all the way to the Woodland Park Zoo by 8 AM. On Friday, it was rolling by at full speed. With most of downtown’s big employers advising anyone who could to work from home, it made sense.

That was also around the time when the chatter online seemed to be getting serious about potentially skipping the Sounders match. Although it had become clear by that point that the game wasn’t going to be postponed, the Sounders had made the unprecedented decision to allow ticket exchanges basically right up until gametime and it seemed like a lot of people were taking them up on the offer.

So I went down to the field expecting to see exactly what I saw: Large swaths of empty seats.

What I didn’t expect was the scene about 20 minutes later when the game actually kicked off: A stadium close enough to normal that it was barely noticeable. The announced crowd of 33,080 was the lowest since the inaugural MLS season of 2009 and may have been fluffed a bit, but there were enough actual butts in seats that it would probably have been considered an excellent day at the gate for any team not named Atlanta United or the Sounders.

The game itself played out predictably enough. The Sounders and Columbus Crew entertained the crowd with a high-paced game that had all the usual ebbs and flows. The 1-1 tie wasn’t the most satisfying result ever, but there was no sense of panic, hysteria or impending doom.

In the end, it was only remarkable for how normal it all was.

Behind the scenes, as you’d probably imagine, it was anything but. The Sounders front office spent the preceding week in communication with city, county and state officials trying to figure out the best way forward. They instituted added safety measures ranging from extra cleaning protocols in the concourse to having gloved workers serving food to the press in place of the normal buffet. Rather than granting access to the locker room as normal, MLS permitted teams to hold press conferences instead.

“It was anything but normal,” Sounders President of Business Operations Peter Tomozawa said during a postgame press conference. “We spent an incredible amount of time thinking through all the issues of hosting a game, the permutations and combinations of what might happen, with one thought: public safety. We recognize the responsibility that we have to the community. People are looking at us and how we behave here in Seattle.”

Sounders officials were justifiably satisfied with the work they did to make Saturday’s match as safe as possible and seemed very pleased with the crowd that turned out. They absolutely deserve credit for at least creating a sense of plausible normalcy, and Tomozawa spoke of interactions with numerous fans thanking them for providing a sort of respite from the daily news cycle.

At the same time, it should be noted that we still have no idea how history will look at Saturday’s game. I certainly hope that it stands out as a shining beacon of ... something. But it’s also entirely possible that we’ll find out we kicked off a new bout of panic when it’s revealed that someone working or attending the match had coronavirus and needlessly exposed themselves to thousands of people.

The overarching feeling I got from Saturday’s game is that I simply don’t know how to feel. Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, the team’s government affairs director, expressed some degree of relief that the Sounders won’t host another match for two weeks. By then, she hopes, there will be some clarity around the games. By then, I suspect, we’ll know how to feel, too.

But what about the game?

Not to be lost in all of this was the actual game the Sounders played. Overall, I think I found the gameplay more encouraging than the result itself. The Sounders didn’t create a ton of great chances, but Stats Bomb put their xG at 2.1. That’s obviously helped by a penalty that counts for about .75 xG, but it still suggests the Sounders created enough chances to get another goal out of the game.

Jordan Morris, for one, had another solid outing. He was again finding space on the wing, and I liked the adjustment the Sounders made to move him to the right wing to attack the halftime substitute who replaced Milton Valenzuela at left back, Chris Cadden, who is normally a right back.

Unfortunately, Morris’ best moment came on the pass that set up Miguel Ibarra’s equalizer, only for it to be disallowed by VAR.

On the play, Morris collects the ball near the right sideline, dribbles to the middle of the field, and then slips in Ibarra, effectively cutting out four defenders with a perfectly weighted pass.

Despite now having two assists disallowed by VAR and playing only 45 minutes in his first match, Morris still leads all of MLS in xG+xA (2.6).

More broadly, the Sounders lead the league with 6.6 xG and a 4.8 xGD. That’s respectively 2.1 and 1.8 better than anyone else in the league. The defense, again, had some lapses. It was especially frustrating to see the Crew get a goal on a play where the defense was reasonably settled. But the Crew only generated five shots and went long spells without posing any real threat.

Considering the Sounders have historically been much better with Nicolás Lodeiro, these numbers should all be encouraging.

Good to have you back, Goose

Maybe the single most encouraging thing to come out of Saturday’s game was the return of Gustav Svensson. Despite having only returned to full training earlier in the week after rehabbing for much of the previous month, Svensson still managed to play 69 minutes. In the postgame press conference, he looked physically spent and apparently joked that he might throw up on stage from exhaustion.

“Gustav was a beast,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “He wasn’t really supposed to play, but he did. It just shows his resilience and mental toughness. He was running out of steam and we wanted to make sure there was no injury risk coming from his first day back.”

While not quite as mobile as we’re used to seeing him, Svensson was still able to affect the game with his passing. Svensson completed 96 percent of his 49 passes. That includes going 7 of 8 on long passes, most of which were effective in switching the point of the attack.

Nouhou brings the energy

Throughout his Sounders tenure, Nouhou has shown glimpses of turning into the special player that his physical tools suggest he could be. Maybe more than he had ever done before, he showed what that might look like in his 31-minute performance off the bench.

No one stat stood out, but Nouhou seemed to be everywhere. He was flying up and down the sideline, defending hard and diving deep into the opposition half. While that’s broadly what he normally does, he was far more effective than we’re used to seeing him.

More than the cross that won the penalty, I was impressed with the hustle he showed to win the ball in the first place and keep the attack alive. When the ball was first cleared, Derrick Etienne Jr. had the better position and about five yards of space. But Nouhou closed that almost immediately and cleanly won the ball before settling it and putting in a potentially dangerous cross.

Oftentimes seemingly reluctant to shower Nouhou with too much praise, Schmetzer seemed very pleased.

“Nouhou’s been getting better, his final product is getting better,” Schmetzer said. “If he can get everything together, bring the whole package together, the kid is going to have a bright future.”

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