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Postgame Pontifications: In face of adversity, Sounders only gaining momentum

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Win over Earthquakes was possibly Sounders’ most dominant performance of season.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at San Jose Earthquakes Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the first 25 games of the Seattle Sounders’ season, they’ve shown a lot of positive attributes. They’ve showcased their depth, an ability to win ugly and the capacity to beat tough opponents. One thing they’ve often struggled to do, however, is to make winning look relatively easy.

Even when they’ve been at their best — say their last game at Sporting KC or the 6-2 throttling of the Portland Timbers — there have been significant stretches of the match where the result was very much in doubt. That they’ve only scored in both halves five times and outscored their opponent in both halves twice may actually overstate how many times they’ve clearly looked like the better team from whistle to whistle this year.

The degree to which that’s an actual problem is debatable. Rightfully, a coach like Brian Schmetzer is far more concerned about stacking up results than with impressing the style-point judges. It’s all worked well enough to put the Sounders on pace for their highest-ever point total and in position to finish atop the Western Conference regular-season standings for the second time ever.

We may have finally seen what the Sounders look like when they’re able to put it all together on Wednesday. Despite playing their sixth match in 19 days and rotating several starters for a road game against one of the league’s hottest teams, the Sounders easily handled the San Jose Earthquakes. If anything, the 3-1 scoreline may have actually understated how well the Sounders played. By Expected Goals, this was the Sounders most dominant win of the season (+1.58).

Continuing the momentum they built by beating Sporting KC a few days earlier was especially gratifying for Schmetzer.

“Tonight the expectation was to not waste what happened in Kansas City,” Schmetzer said. “Let’s play up to our level. I’m going to say the same thing against Colorado (Sunday’s opponent) and against Vancouver (next week’s opponent). That’s a talented team in the locker room and we’re going to win more games than we lose if we play up to our level.”

The Sounders looked especially good in the first half. Even before Raúl Ruidíaz opened the scoring in the 25th minute off a well-worked goal that featured six different players touching the ball in quick succession, the Sounders had been creating chances and dominating play.

They followed that up by continuing to pressure the Earthquakes, culminating with Cristian Roldan drawing a penalty after taking a slick pass from Ruidíaz that put him in on goal. Ruidíaz converted the penalty for his 16th goal of the season.

The Sounders would finish the half with an xG advantage of .97-.08.

Despite Ruidíaz being forced to sub out at halftime due to a muscle injury, the Sounders came out firing. Less than four minutes into the second half, the Sounders had their third goal. Leó Chú, who Schmetzer had been holding off on playing much as the Brazilian learned the Sounders’ system, made a good read on a switching ball, intercepted it near midfield and pushed it forward to Fredy Montero. A few seconds later, Cristian Roldan slammed home Jimmy Medranda’s cross. It marked the first time the Sounders had scored the game’s first three goals since May 2.

Although the Sounders would give up an own-goal a few minutes later and ended up spending the next 10 minutes or so sort of just holding on, they eventually were able to wrest back control of the match for the final 30 minutes. Over that final stretch, the Earthquakes only managed three shots, all of which had an xG value below .1.

The Sounders, meanwhile, were able to bounce between creating dangerous opportunities on the counter that forced the Earthquakes to defend and stringing together long bouts of possession that drained the clock.

Perhaps the most telling sequence was one that spanned most of the 87th and 88th minutes, started with Danny Leyva making an interception near midfield, featured all 11 Sounders touching the ball, and included about 25 completed passes. It ended with Leó Chú working a nice 1-2 with Fredy Montero that nearly resulted in the Brazilian getting a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

While it might be tempting to write off a win like this as coming against a bad opponent, it’s notable that the Earthquakes had been just about as good as anyone over the past few months. Dating back to their previous meeting with the Sounders — a 1-0 win at Lumen Field — the Earthquakes had gone 5-2-4 over their past 11 matches. Only a handful of teams claimed more points over the same stretch.

One of those teams, though, is the Sounders. With one game left to go in this potentially season-defining stretch of 7 games in 23 days, the Sounders are 4-2-0 with the last two wins coming on the road. They’ve rotated their lineup, dealt with injuries and overcome the emotions of losing in a cup final. Rather than limping back home, they seem to be hitting their stride.

Asked if this was the Sounders’ most complete performance of the season, Schmetzer wasn’t ready to commit until rewatching the film. But he did note that just about every player who saw the field had a positive performance, not the least of which was the teenaged central midfield of Leyva and Josh Atencio. Chú’s MLS debut was filled with promise; Nouhou turned in a pre-injury quality performance while moving to left back late in the match; Yeimar Gomez Andrade was nearly perfect in the back; Montero was spraying balls and dribbling past defenders. There was a lot to like.

The Sounders probably won’t be able to make up the 14-point gap between them and the Supporters’ Shield-leading New England Revolution, but Schmetzer is also well aware that’s not the ultimate goal. He has the Sounders playing as well as they have all year and there’s no reason to assume they’re slowing down.

“If we conduct ourselves by our standard and we win a bunch more games, I don’t care what happens elsewhere,” Schmetzer said. “I’m going to message that if the Sounders continue to win, we control our own destiny. We don’t need anyone else’s help. We’re the Seattle Sounders.”