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Postgame Pontifications: Sounders can improve on blazing start

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The most encouraging thing about Sounders’ 5-0-1 start is that they can still get better.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

When the 2021 MLS schedule was released, the deck seemed to be somewhat stacked against the Seattle Sounders. In the first month, the Sounders would play six games. Of those six games, four were against 2020 playoff teams — two of them against perennial favorites LAFC — another against the retooled LA Galaxy, and the other against the highly unpredictable San Jose Earthquakes.

Just to add a level of difficulty, the Sounders were going to be learning a new formation without the benefit of a full preseason schedule after the pandemic limited them to just one 75-minute match against a MLS opponent and one full 90-minute affair against a USL Championship squad. A couple weeks before the season started, they found out Nicolás Lodeiro would miss at least a couple of weeks, compounding the already expected absence of Jordan Morris.

Given all that, the Sounders probably would have been thrilled with something like 10 points from those six games.

In the end — despite Lodeiro playing only about 30 minutes and losing Stefan Frei before their second game against LAFC — the Sounders nearly ran the table, claiming 16 points and tying a franchise-record for their best-ever start. That includes three wins in the span of eight days, two of which came on the road, and one that featured a heavily rotated lineup and new formation.

The Sounders sit atop the Supporters’ Shield standings — four points clear of the field — lead the league in goals (13), are tied for the fewest allowed (2) and and it’s not hard to see them actually getting better. There’s every reason to think that Lodeiro’s eventual return will raise their overall level and considering their next two games are at home against teams with 14 points combined — Atlanta United on May 23 and Austin FC on May 30 — the goal should be heading into the June Nations League break 7-0-1.

Sunday’s win over LAFC played out in a similar way to many of their previous wins: A slow start followed by a strong finish, despite being on short rest and facing a fully rested opponent. The Sounders have now outscored opponents 10-1 after the halftime whistle, while holding a pedestrian 3-1 advantage in first halves this year.

“It’s a little bit of a trend where we’re not looking as good in the first half and we open up in second half,” Sounders left wing back Brad Smith said. “We seem a lot fitter in the second half and it opens up for us.”

The Sounders spent much of the first half struggling to break LAFC’s press — a tactic seemingly everyone is intent on using against them — but doing well to limit their exposure on the defensive end. LAFC’s only decent first-half look came on a Mark Anthony Kaye pass over the top to Corey Baird that Yeimar Gomez Andrade did well to disrupt and Stefan Cleveland was able to easily handle.

Around the 20-minute mark, the Sounders seemed to realize that playing through the LAFC press was more trouble than it was worth and starting hitting more long balls. The Sounders weren’t necessarily creating a ton of chances, but the adjustment did lead to one big one toward the end of the half when Cristian Roldan found some space on the right wing and set up Brad Smith for a glorious look that he sent just wide.

That ended up being a bit more of a preview of the second half, as the Sounders found more room on the wings and were able to stretch the LAFC defense. The opener was effectively set up by the Sounders’ own counter-press when they turned over LAFC deep in their end, drew a foul and then won a corner off the ensuing free kick. Xavier Arreaga deserves credit for scoring his first career Sounders goal, but Will Bruin’s pressure a minute or so earlier is essentially what allowed it to happen.

The Sounders’ second goal was also effectively created by the defense. On that one, Danny Leyva got the counter-attack started by picking up a loose ball near the top of LAFC’s box and pushed ahead to Cristian Roldan. Alex Roldan made a nice double-move to open it up and then eventually found fellow wingback Smith at the back post with an excellent cross.

The Sounders ended up finishing with the best Expected Goals Allowed of the season — .5 according to FBRef.com — and have had one of the best statistical defenses in the league all year, but Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer was quick to note that it’s not just the defenders who are responsible for that stat.

“I’d say we have an effective defense,” he said. “In my postgame commentary, Will and I have this back and forth about the dirty work he does that people don’t appreciate. Raúl does his part. These are all important, subtle things. The defending has been a complete team effort. It’s not one guy. ... Defense wins championships. If we continue to get everyone to commit to that and you have the quality of Nico and Cristian and Fredy and Raúl, we’re going to win games.”

The scary thing is that the Sounders only seem to be scratching the surface of their potential. No one player seems to be playing at an unsustainable level. Almost everyone is playing in a new position or at least a significantly tweaked position from the ones they had played before. As good as Kelyn Rowe has been, for instance, he’s been moving all over the field. Lodeiro will, at the very least, allow a few different players to slot into more comfortable roles, to speak nothing of the offense he can bring. The Sounders have yet to put together a comprehensive performance in which they dominated both halves and should only grow more comfortable in this formation as the season wears on.

“Our team is good enough to change little things within our structure and get results,” Schmetzer said. “That’s what I’m most proud of. The coaches did a good job of getting the team ready to play in a new system and you guys are seeing the fruits of their labor. It’s been a great run and we’re going to try to continue it.”