SEATTLE — There is a tendency, especially in a condensed season like this, to overreact to small samples. One week the Sounders are taking apart the defending MLS is Back and Supporters’ Shield winners in back-to-back games, leaving us feeling like the defending MLS Cup champs we are. The next week, the Sounders drop points on the road and lose at home, leading many to question if there are systemic problems with the roster.
Given that we’ve still only seen this team play four games with anything approaching a full-strength roster, I still don’t think we have enough information to definitively say how good they are.
Unfortunately, what we do know is that Sunday’s loss to the Portland Timbers was not much fun. It started badly, got a bit better, but ended the way far too many home matches against the Timbers have in recent years: with a loss. This was the third straight regular-season game the Sounders have lost to the Timbers at CenturyLink Field and it was the fourth straight time they’ve failed to win. Assuming the Sounders don’t play the Timbers again this year, the gap between home wins over their biggest rival is going to be close to four years. Even in a pre-COVID accounting of time, that’s a virtual eternity.
So I can definitely appreciate how losing this game feels like a pretty big deal. The mood in the postgame press-conference suggested Sounders players and coaches felt it, too. Cristian Roldan was especially hard on the way the Sounders failed to execute their re-press in the second half. Kelvin Leerdam admitted that the ball movement on offense was simply too slow.
Those types of things are fixable, of course, and I think it’s worth keeping in mind that as recently as a week earlier the Sounders looked like possibly the best team in the league. The defense gave up far too many quality chances and the offense didn’t create nearly enough against the Timbers, but the talent to be an elite team is still here and we shouldn’t let one really bad result muddy the waters too much.
Even after the loss to the Timbers, the Sounders still rank as the second best team in the league by xG difference. The consensus around the various models is that the Sounders have both a top-5 defense and a top-5 offense, which is something only Toronto FC can also claim. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t put much weight on xG, the Sounders also rank in the top 5 of actual goals (fifth most) and goals allowed (fourth fewest), while boasting the second best goal-difference in the league (+7).
The struggles against the Timbers also shouldn’t overshadow that the Sounders have been particularly good at home. This game ended a 12-game all-competition unbeaten streak that stretched back to Aug. 4, 2019. The Sounders had gone 8-0-4 in those matches.
Even more impressive is that the Sounders have now compiled a 26-4-7 record over their last 37 games at CenturyLink Field. Two of those five losses have somehow come against the Timbers. Considering the Sounders have proved just as difficult to beat at Providence Park, I don’t think we can say the Timbers have their number as much as “sometimes weird stuff happens.”
Should we be worried about Roldan?
If there’s one area that seems to have gotten the most consistent attention, it’s right mid, where Cristian Roldan has been mostly deployed this season.
While I don’t think anyone is going to argue that attacking midfield is Roldan’s best position, there was some solid evidence that he was perfectly capable of playing there from previous seasons, even if there were some reasons to temper expectations.
So far, however, I think it’s fair to say that Roldan’s production has been a bit underwhelming. The 25-year-old has yet to score and really hasn’t looked particularly goal-dangerous all year. He does have two assists — and set up arguably the Sounders’ best chance on Sunday — but hasn’t been setting up a ton of chances, either. By StatsBomb’s metrics, Roldan is only averaging .17 xG+xA per 90 minutes, which ranks 12th on the Sounders. Those aren’t exactly the chance creation numbers you want from a starter, particularly one in an attacking role.
Still, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Roldan belongs on the field when the Sounders are at full fitness. Even when Roldan isn’t producing big numbers, he’s mainly there to provide balance. Having Roldan on the field essentially gives the Sounders three defensive-minded midfielders, which not only allows Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris to play a little less “honest” but also allows Kelvin Leerdam to push forward into the attack with more frequency.
Still, there might be some room for a bit of tinkering.
The option that I believe makes the sense involves Roldan swapping positions with João Paulo. The Brazilian looked very good in more advanced positions when he was playing there earlier in the season and I think it’s probably at least worth a shot to try it again now. Roldan is still free to join the attack and maybe he’d benefit from taking a bit of that pressure off of him.