Toward the end of last season, the Seattle Sounders found themselves in a bit of a frustration position. On one hand, they had just beaten FC Dallas to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. On the other, they had blown leads of 2-0 and 3-1 before winning in overtime.
It wasn’t just blowing a couple of two-goal leads that was concerning, it was that it seemed to be part of a pattern. Although they had come back go win each time, that marked the third time in seven games that the Sounders had allowed a two-goal lead to slip away. Going back a few more games, they had also blown leads in two other games — a 3-3 tie against the New England Revolution in which they led 1-0 and 3-2 and a 2-2 tie against the LA Galaxy in which they led 1-0 with a man advantage before needing an own-goal to salvage a point.
After surrendering leads in 5 of 12 matches, there was a growing sense that the Sounders weren’t quite sure how to play from ahead.
Fast forward another month or so, and that feeling seemed well in their past. Over the next three playoff games, the Sounders built leads, added to them and finished it off by hoisting their second MLS Cup in four years. Stumbles aside, this was a team that showed it knew how to win games.
One match with two blown leads is probably far too early to start sounding alarm bells, but I suspect that string of results was on head coach Brian Schmetzer’s mind when he was voicing some obvious frustration following Wednesday’s tie at Real Salt Lake.
“Championship teams figure out ways to close out games like that,” Schmetzer said. “It’s very important that they understand they worked too hard to have control of the game, in a challenging place to play, that they have to have the mental strength to close the game out and come home with three points.”
Whether tied to those previous results or not, Schmetzer’s frustrations were understandable. Playing in a stadium where they’d lost eight straight times, with a new formation and a lineup with five changes from the weekend, the Sounders jumped out to a 1-0 lead and were leading 2-1 deep into the match with most of their normal starters now on the field. They had seemingly put it away when second-half sub Jordan Morris found Raúl Ruidíaz on a perfectly placed cross, but the goal was ruled offside. Just three minutes later, the Sounders found themselves tied after a Pablo Ruiz blast from 30 yards took a slight deflection off the head of Yeimar Gomez Andrade.
“It’s two points dropped,” Schmetzer said.
Still plenty of bright spots
The final result aside, Schmetzer was quick to point out that he was pleased with much of what he saw. The 5-4-1 formation worked about as well as it ever had under Schmetzer and the rotated lineup had more than held its own.
Despite giving up the bulk of the possession, the Sounders were easily the better team from open play and finished with a decided xG advantage (1.28-.86). Alex Roldan looked particularly good as a right wing back, contributing an assist and leading in a few defensive categories; Xavier Arreaga seemed to recovery nicely from a rough performance in his last outing; and Jordy Delem continues to prove his value as a third defensive midfielder.
Compare this to the last few times the Sounders had visited RSL — they’d been outscored 7-0 in their three tips there under Schmetzer — and this was an unqualified improvement.
More tactical flexibility
One of the most encouraging things we’ve seen from the Sounders during their post-MLS is Back performances is that each game has presented a different tactical approach. In the first, the Timbers were willing to sit back and look for the counter, forcing the Sounders to break them down. LAFC was willing to press the action, forcing the Sounders to try to stretch the defense with balls over the top. This time, the Sounders were set up to absorb pressure and look for counter opportunities.
RSL had a ton of the all, but only managed to take five shots from open play and very rarely put the Sounders under any sort of sustained pressure. RSL was limited to just 62 passes in their offensive third, less than half as many as they completed in their previous game against the Timbers.
Unlike some of their previous attempts at playing a five-man backline, the Sounders looked energetic and aggressive when the opportunities presented themselves. Their 22 pressures in the RSL defensive third were about 50 percent more than the Sounders had attempted against LAFC.
This was not a perfect performance by any stretch, but there was a lot to like here.