Throughout any given season, a team is presented with multiple problems it must learn to solve. The best coaches don’t come up with one-size-fits-all solutions, they teach their players how to figure them out on the fly.
The challenge on Sunday was overcoming an uncharacteristically lackluster first half. How lackluster? Well, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told the national TV audience that “One of the teams looks like they played midweek at altitude and it’s not the Timbers.”
In the locker room, Schmetzer’s words were even more pointed, going so far as questioning his players’ efforts. It seemed to work.
The Sounders came out of the locker room playing much better. Almost immediately, they created a good scoring chance when Alex Roldan found Raúl Ruidíaz for a shot at the penalty spot, and the midfield was looking far less overwhelmed than they had as the first half was winding down. After a wild sequence that saw the Timbers fail to convert two penalties, the Sounders dominated the bulk of the second half. From the 60th minute until late in stoppage, the Sounders outshot the Timbers 6-1, scored two goals and had a third disallowed on a tight offside call.
The only blemish of the second half ended up being a well-taken Bill Tuiloma free kick in the 94th minute that made the final score 2-1. The win left the Sounders 3-0-1 and sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, tying their best-ever start through four games despite opening against three playoff teams from a year ago and a fourth opponent who has beaten the three teams they’ve played other than the Sounders.
“My words were very firm and they responded,” Schmetzer said during the postgame press conference.
Of course, that’s probably an oversimplification. The Sounders did struggle for the game’s first 50-odd minutes, but the Timbers’ game plan was a big reason why. After finding much joy in wide channels in the first three games of the season, Alex Roldan and Brad Smith found chances to get forward fewer and farther between. The midfield wasn’t as dominant as they’d been in the first three games and the Sounders were probably caught a bit off-guard by the normally mid-block heavy Timbers pressing higher up the field with added frequency.
But one of the things the Sounders have been preaching is adaptability. It’s why, in the words of Stefan Frei, they’ve been more willing to play over a pressing defense than through it, even if playing out of the back is their preferred method. It’s why having midfielders who cover a ton of ground is something they’ve built into their style of play, not just something that looks good on a pedometer.
It’s in the unexpected challenges when the Sounders’ tactical familiarity — built through years of training together — is able to shine.
The season is obviously still just four games old and it would be silly to read too much into this small of a sample size. But the Sounders have faced two teams looking to avenge being knocked out of the playoffs last year, another team that’s off to a hot start, and their biggest rivals on the road. The Sounders have yet to dominate a match from start-to-finish, but they’ve yet to allow a goal from open play, have been able to find goals whenever they’ve needed them and compiled a league-best +8 goal-difference all while missing their MVP for all but 30 minutes of the season.
“There’s been quite a few challenges we’ve already faced and this was another one,” Frei said. “Especially if you can overcome these challenges, this is where you grow the most as a team and you gain the most confidence. This spell will be huge when we are in a dark hole and we can look back at this. We’re going to try to keep this going.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game. It wasn’t as much possession as we’d want in an ideal situation. But again, this is a difficult place to play and sometimes it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be effective. We’ll take the three points.”