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Postgame Pontifications: When no one’s around to welcome you home

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Sounders were clearly enjoyed their first home match in nearly six months, but it wasn’t as satisfying as it should have een.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — One of my favorite routines when attending matches at CenturyLink Field is to enter through Occidental Square. Whether that means getting off on the light rail a couple stops early or riding my bike through, I like to take in the prematch atmosphere. In the fall, I especially appreciate seeing lights strung up on the trees and the glow it creates on the wet, cobble-stone streets.

Regardless of the season, I just love the atmosphere with people gathered for the official pre-funk. The scene feels alive and festive, even when the team isn’t playing particularly well.

It was this scene that I missed most when I attended my first Seattle Sounders match since March on Sunday. I had briefly considered forcing myself to walk the path of the customary March to the Match from Occidental Square to the stadium. Not only did new stadium-entry protocols mean that I’d have to enter through the parking garage anyway, but emotionally I wasn’t quite ready for what I’m sure would have been an extreme contrast from my last visit there about six months ago.

As it was, the contrast in the stadium was plenty to make the point. While the action on the field felt normal — and even exciting at times — the event itself was only a hollow shell, lacking the element that drew so many of us to the team in the first place: the fans.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. To their credit, I think, the Sounders made an honest effort to recreate the matchday atmosphere.

The Sounders did their customary walk-out with “Boom-Boom-Clap” playing over the PA system. There was a moment of silence acknowledging Black lives and COVID-19 victims. A consistent din of crowd noise filled the stadium, every now and then punctuated by cheers or a normally supporter-led song. After each of the three Sounders goals, there was even the announcer did the traditional first-name, last-name chant. Heeding Brian Schmetzer’s pleas, ECS filled the Brougham End with about 40 signs. After the win, the players lined up and did their salute to the supporters’ section.

From a media perspective, I can say that the Sounders did a reasonably job of creating an environment that felt safe for those of us who were there. We were assigned separate times to enter; submitted to temperature checks; filled out a questionnaire about symptoms and potential exposure; were seated at least 10 feet apart from each other; were given pre-packaged meals; were required to wear masks whenever we weren’t eating; and never needed to come into close contact with anyone. To the degree you can feel safe indoors with a bunch of people outside your household these days, I think the Sounders accomplished that.

I can’t say for certain that I’ll be at every game in person, but it’s won’t be because it felt unsafe.

Rather, I’m not entirely sure that attending in person feels especially worthwhile. As nice as it is to see the whole field, I choose to sit in the pressbox at least in part because I want to feel the crowd explode after a goal, soak in the atmosphere that comes with 90 minutes of non-stop cheering and have the in-person interactions with coaches and players. Without all that, I’m merely reminded of what we’re missing as our country’s gross-mishandling of the pandemic continues to rob us of normalcy.

New tactics

None of that should take away from what was a very impressive performance on the field. Facing an opponent who was largely the same as the one who delivered a 4-1 beat down about a month ago, the Sounders turned in a very different performance.

In the previous meeting, the Sounders never seemed to figure out LAFC’s press. They insisted on playing through the pressure — often with their centerbacks — and could not sustain any sort of attack despite having nearly 60 percent of the possession.

This time, the Sounders seemed more happy to cede possession and were more likely to try to play over the pressure than through it. The Sounders were pinned in their own end for a good deal of the first 10 minutes or so, but then scored on one of their first forays into the LAFC end and were never seriously troubled again.

Although Schmetzer insisted the plan was still to “play out of the back”, the Sounders at the very least added a few wrinkles. One was dropping João Paulo all the way into the penalty area to receive passes from Stefan Frei. The first example of this was shortly before the early goal and it was repeated at least five times in the first half. That also had the effect of allowing Gustav Svensson to concentrate his activity higher up the pitch where he was more able to clog passing lanes.

More generally, the Sounders were less interested in starting their buildup with the centerbacks. In the first meeting, Xavier Arreaga and Shane O’Neill accounted for 18% of all the Sounders passing. This time, O’Neill and Yeimar Gómez Andrade accounted for just 11.5%, collectively attempting 46 fewer passes.

The difference is also illustrated by Frei’s passing. In the earlier meeting, he attempted just 12 passes of 40 yards or more. On Sunday, he made 30 such pass attempts. Notably, Frei also completed a much higher percentage of his long passes (53.3-33.3) in the second meeting, suggesting they were more often deliberate.

Whatever the Sounders sacrificed in possession, they were able to more than make up with in chances created. Especially in the second half, the Sounders were constantly out on the break and forcing LAFC to defend running toward their goal.

None of this suggests the Sounders are suddenly a Route 1 team. As recently as last week, they employed very different methods to unlock a Portland Timbers defense that was more inclined to sit in and look for counters. What it shows is a tactical flexibility that should be seen as a very exciting evolution to Schmetzer’s approach to winning soccer games.

Speaking of JP...

The single biggest difference between the two meetings has to be the presence of João Paulo. While he was helpful in possession by dropping deep, he still managed to serve his role of midfield defensive disruptor and even got involved in the offense when the opportunity presented itself.

João Paulo led the Sounders with five successful tackles and added three interceptions while leading the team with two key passes and an assist. It was all summed up perfectly on the Sounders’ third goal where he intercepts a pass, works a nice give-and-go and then delivers an inch-perfect ball to Jordan Morris.

This was João Paulo at his absolute best. The Sounders are now 3-0-1 in the four MLS matches he’s started, with João Paulo contributing two assists and a ton of defensive activity. If the Sounders can get that kind of production out of their defensive midfield, good things lie ahead.