Everything about this season is weird. From the two-game start to the short tournament to resumption being rolled out in small chunks, nothing has been remotely normal.
One thing that is starting to feel reliable — at least to the degree it’s possible — is the Seattle Sounders looking like one of the best teams in the league on a game-to-game basis. The latest piece of evidence came in their convincing 3-0 win over Los Angeles FC on Friday.
While possibly not quite as dominant as the scoreline suggests, it was a match that showcased so much of what the Sounders have been doing right since returning from MLS is Back. The defense allowed LAFC to have a ton of possession — especially in the second half after Eduard Atuesta entered the match — but did a good job of clogging the box and contesting shots. Despite LAFC attempting about 32% of their passes in their offensive third, they only completed a handful of them into the penalty area, and the Sounders’ six blocks helped limit Stefan Frei to only needing to make two saves.
It all added up to another defensive performance in which the opponent accumulated less than 1.0 xG. It was the third time in six matches since returning from MLS is Back the Sounders have managed that feat.
Offensively, the Sounders were equally effective. Both penalties they drew were properly called and Raúl Ruidíaz worked a bit of his trademark magic to make it 3-0. The Sounders didn’t create a ton of chances, but the ones they did were mostly of high quality and produced somewhere between 2.4-2.6 xG, depending the chosen model.
This is sort of how it has been going, at least since teams started playing in their home stadiums again. In addition to leading the Western Conference with 21 points, the Sounders are now co-leaders in MLS with +16 goal difference, having scored the most goals and allowed third fewest. They also lead MLS with a Expected Goal-Difference of 1.35 per game, have the best xGF by all models and are no worse than second-best in xGA.
Whether you’re using the eye test, the traditional data or the more advanced metrics, all agree that the Sounders should be considered a real contender this year no matter how strange everything else around them may appear.
Power of limited rotation
One thing that seems to have been working in the Sounders’ favor so far this year has been the schedule. They and the LA Galaxy are the only teams who have not yet made up the game they had postponed a few weeks ago, which has helped loosen up what has been a hectic schedule. The Sounders have so far only needed to play one match on fewer than four days’ rest and three of their six matches have been played with at least a full week off. As a result, the Sounders have averaged just 2.2 changes to the starting lineup each game and have really only needed to use a real rotated lineup once, the midweek 2-2 tie against Real Salt Lake in which they made five changes from the weekend.
Unlike some teams that have opted for wild rotations that have featured full lineup swaps, the Sounders have only given as many as two starts to 14 different players. None of those 14 would have been considered outside the Sounders’ expected rotation of starters at the beginning of the year, with Jordy Delem probably being the biggest stretch.
Still, Brian Schmetzer and the staff deserve some credit for managing their players’ minutes well. The 11 players who have appeared in all six matches are averaging about 75 minutes per game. Those same players averaged about 82 minutes per game last season. I think it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the roughly seven-minute per game difference is largely responsible for keeping the players fresh, but I do think it contributes. Cristian Roldan, Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro, for instance, have historically finished virtually every game they start. Lodeiro has twice been pulled with at least five minutes remaining and Roldan and Ruidiaz got pulled as early as the 57th minute in one game.
Presumably, the schedule will get more congested and Schmetzer will invariably need to use more of his bench. But he’s also due to have Gustav Svensson back soon and Brad Smith should be available by the time the next slate of games are announced. Deeper reserves like Will Bruin, Alex Roldan and Handwalla Bwana have also performed admirably in limited minutes, and could likely handle increased work loads.
Stranger things have happened, but this all looks like a very sustainable run.
Attacking defensive midfielders
Whether or not this is the most talented Sounders roster ever will be something people will likely continue to debate. What differentiates this year’s version is a degree of flexibility in the central midfield they’ve never really had in the past.
By that, I mean the Schmetzer has the ability to deploy a variety of skill sets depending on the opponent. He can go uber defensive with Svensson and Delem, find more balance by inserting João Paulo or Roldan into one of those spots or, as he did in the last two games, deploy two more attack-minded options together. As we saw against the Earthquakes and LAFC, João Paulo and Roldan make an impressive pairing.
I don’t think either of them look entirely comfortable dropping between the centerbacks like Svensson often does. Instead, they do their defensive work in passing lanes and interrupting dribbles higher up the pitch. Once they get the ball, they’re in position to spring attacks.
Roldan’s best moment on Friday came in the 79th minute, at a time in the match when the Sounders seemed to be stuck in their own end. He created a turnover, somehow managed to keep the ball inbounds along the sideline and then cut out five defenders with a pass that put Morris into space.
Pretty quiet day for Jordan Morris, but I really liked him on this play. Came shortly before Ruidíaz's goal. pic.twitter.com/WC97J4HCD3— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) September 19, 2020
A few minutes later, Roldan and João Paulo helped create the goal that effectively sealed the game. Roldan first won the ball in the LAFC end and then João Paulo worked a nifty give-and-go with Lodeiro before unleashing a perfect pass to Ruidíaz, who then did the rest.
Wanted to share two more replays of this goal. The first shows the effort the Sounders were putting in to win this ball and keep possession. pic.twitter.com/hAKO4D8Iml— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) September 19, 2020
There aren’t many teams in MLS who can afford to put two defensive midfielders on the field capable of those kinds of passes. I suspect we’ll get a chance to see a lot more of that.