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Postgame Pontifications: Perfection is not enough

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Brian Schmetzer was more focused on making Thursday’s performance a habit.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

It’s not entirely abnormal for a coach to keep the press waiting for the postgame press conference. The reasons can vary. Sometimes, the coach needs some extra time to cool off after a frustrating performance. Other times, he might be soaking in the moment of a big win.

By the time Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer entered the press conference room following Thursday’s 7-1 dismantling of the San Jose Earthquakes, the game had been over for about 45 minutes. That’s about twice as long as I can ever remember waiting.

The reason for the long wait? Schmetzer said he and his coaches were trying to figure out how to bring out that kind of performance from players like Joevin Jones on a more regular basis, how to keep Jordan Morris playing at this level, identifying what worked, what didn’t, and generally wanting to make every effort to learn from what will go down as one of the most dominant performances in club history.

“It wasn’t just chugging beers and laughing and joking,” Schmetzer said. “We were actually doing our jobs and making sure the next time we go against a hard opponent we’ll be ready.”

Schmetzer seemed to acknowledge that there’s only so much that can be taken away from a game like that. The Sounders had clearly identified a weakness in Matias Almeyda’s man-marking system and exploited it — repeatedly and with focused precision. The Sounders used dribbling and off-the-ball movement to such extreme advantages that it seemed as though there was always someone running free. Of the seven goals, all but maybe one or two were considered high-probability chances, and even the others were unmarked shots from no more than 18 yards out.

Before the match was even 35 minutes old, the Sounders were already leading 5-0. That’s more goals than they scored in any game last year and as many as they’d scored in any full match since 2012.

The chances continued to come, even if the finishing wasn’t quite as clinical. By the time the dust had settled, the Sounders set a new franchise record for goals scored (7) and, according to American Soccer Analysis, posted the third best single-game Expected Goals total (4.20) since records began being kept in 2013. StatsBomb valued their xG even higher, 4.8, which would be the highest ever recorded in its two seasons of tracking.

As clinical a display of finishing and chance creation as that was, the reality is that no team can expect to get into those types of scoring positions with that sort of regularity. In other words, the game will likely do wonders for players’ confidence, but it’s not exactly a blueprint of how to play moving forward.

It should also be said that the Earthquakes haven’t exactly been playing stout defense against anyone of late. Matias Almeyda’s side played well during the MLS is Back Tournament, but have now given up 16 goals in the four games since (prior to Sunday’s 0-0 tie with the LA Galaxy).

Still, this was a team that played the Sounders to a scoreless draw just a couple months ago and is largely the same one that gave the Sounders all sorts of trouble last year.

In a season in which Schmetzer has shown some remarkable tactical flexibility — finding new ways to beat wildly different types of opponents — this game showed how the coaching staff continues to grow and, more importantly, refuses to get too comfortable.

“When you take a bad result, coaches want to see a response. We saw a response,” Schmetzer said, alluding to the previous game’s loss to the Timbers. “We’re not going to be perfect, we’ll lose some games we should win, win some games we shouldn’t by such a large score, but that team is full of proud guys. The first 30 minutes was some of the best soccer I’d seen in a long time.”

Nearly perfect

One questionable penalty aside, this is about as close to a perfect performance as you’re going to get in MLS. That’s wonderfully illustrated by WhoScored.com’s player ratings, which handed out three perfect 10s (their ratings are automatically generated based on a number of inputs).

Best I can tell, that’s an unprecedented occurrence in MLS and there hasn’t been even a single other 10.0 given out this year (Diego Rossi’s four-goal performance got 9.79).

Morris (season average of 7.66) and Ruidíaz (7.60) have been among the Sounders’ most consistent players all year and both rank among the league’s Top 7. Both players also rank among the league leaders in scoring — Morris is tied for the league lead with 11 combined goals and assists, while Ruidíaz’s 10 are tied for third most — so this was more a continuation of exemplary play.

The only shame in this game was that Ruidíaz didn’t get a chance to finish off his first Sounders hat trick after getting pulled in the 57th minute.

“Goal-scorers never want to come out of the game,” Schmetzer admitted. “We thought about keeping him in the game to get his hat trick, but it’s a team game and he’s a team player.

“What people don’t talk about, and I hope you write about, is that Raúl has been a good team guy since Day 1. Yes, he’s scored goals — he’s scored some really important goals for this club — but he defends really well. If you look at that effort in the first 30 minutes, it was great. It started with Raúl on the top and Nico, they defended with good energy and pressed high up the field. That’s why we scored some of those goals.”

Jones breaks out

The other “perfect” player was Joevin Jones, whose performance was considerably more of a revelation. In addition to his two goals and two assists — he had never before scored and assisted in the same game — Jones also was 24-for-25 passing with four successful dribbles.

The best example of his day was on the fourth goal. During the 28-pass buildup to the goal, Jones had a team-high five passes. Among those was a header to keep possession, a back-heel to start the final attacking sequence and the touch that put him into the box. His movement on that sequence also helps unbalance the defense and he coolly finishes it off with a simple goal.

That Jones is capable of this sort of varied contribution should not be surprising to anyone who has watched him. Jones is obviously a player with immense skill. What’s frustrating is that he so rarely puts it all together like he did in this game. If Schmetzer can figure out how to get this sort of performance out of Jones more regularly, the Sounders may have their answer to the winger opposite Morris.

Solid bounce back

As much as the Sounders needed a bounce-back performance after the Timbers, Xavier Arreaga was perhaps the player who most needed to show up. The aforementioned penalty aside, which came with the Sounders leading 7-0, Arreaga barely put a foot wrong. Against the Earthquakes, whose man-marking system often leaves a centerback unaccounted for, Arreaga had as big of a positive influence on the game as he’s ever had.

Arreaga finished with more than 100 touches and a jaw-dropping 96 pass attempts. He completed 92 of those, with nearly half of them coming in the middle third of the field (only Nicolás Lodeiro had more). He also led the Sounders with 91 received passes, carrying the ball a team-high 471 yards. Arreaga was only credited with one assist, but he had several passes that helped start sequences that led to goals.

Defensively, he was also very good, with two successful tackles, four successful pressures and two interceptions. This is the player the Sounders were hoping to get when they transferred him in on a Designated Player contract last year.