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Postgame Pontifications: Breaking the bunker

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Sounders have struggled this year when their offense is forced to rely on crosses.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

For a solid 45 minutes, the Seattle Sounders looked about as good as they have against the Portland Timbers this year. The goals weren’t there, granted, but the chances were. Jordan Morris was finding himself in space on both wings, Raúl Ruidíaz was getting into the box and the Timbers were reduced to looking for chances against the run of play. With the type of finishing they’ve shown most of this season, the Sounders could have easily scored two goals.

In a sense, the Timbers’ 1-0 lead — which came from absolutely nothing — felt precarious and bound not to hold up.

At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if the Sounders were to pull out a result, they needed to get into halftime no worse than tied. Giovani Savarese was bound to change things up, I figured, and all that space the Sounders were finding in the first half would disappear.

As we know, that’s effectively what happened.

The even limited interest the Timbers showed in building up their attack effectively vanished in the second half. From minutes 46-89, the Timbers managed just a single shot, attempted just six passes into the penalty area, effectively dropped into two blocks of four and only vaguely showed interest in possessing the ball in their offensive third.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played a team — aside from maybe Vancouver — who sat that deep at home,” Cristian Roldan said on Friday.

Any momentum the Sounders built in the first half was gone after halftime as their offense was largely reduced to crosses into the box. By the end of the game, the Sounders had put in 24 open-play crosses — excluding corners — easily the most of any game this season. Even more frustrating was that 15 of those crosses came after Joevin Jones — probably their best crosser — left in the 53rd minute.

If there’s one weakness the Sounders have shown this year, it’s in breaking down bunkers like the one the Timbers went into. This was the third time this year the Sounders had made at least 19 open-play crosses, and they’ve only scored two goals in those games. In their other eight regular-season matches, the Sounders have averaged 3.0 goals per game and never made more than 14 open-play crosses.

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer confirmed on Friday that the gameplan is never to cross the ball as often as they did against the Timbers. But he acknowledged the Sounders didn’t do a good enough job of playing to their strengths once it became obvious the Timbers were in a shell.

“We seem to not be able to break teams down,” Schmetzer said after the game. “Sometimes we get a little impatient. We end up with four guys in a line and our spacing just isn’t right. As we’re moving the ball from side to side, we need to just sit in those pockets. We’re a high-motor team and sometimes that’s a tough thing to do.”

I don’t think an inability to break down a bunker is necessarily a huge red flag. Teams around the world have similar struggles. The obvious way to combat that is to score early and force opponents to play, something the Sounders have been pretty good at doing most of the time. Plus, they actually created good chances, albeit mostly in the first half.

What’s a little strange is that this was a team that excelled in winning one-goal games last year, to the point they managed to keep piling up points despite going nearly six months between multi-goal victories. They finished 12-6-8 in matches decided by one goal or less in 2019. This year, they’ve gone just as long between one-goal victories, and have gone 1-2-2 in such matches.

Goals aren’t always going to come easy, and remembering how to grind out results would do the Sounders well, especially as rosters get thin and the schedule gets even more crowded.