SEATTLE — Expectations are funny things. They can get us excited and build anticipation. But they can also set us up for disappointment.
For the Seattle Sounders, we’re getting to see both sides and I’m not sure we’ve ever seen the double-edged nature quite as clearly as over the past couple of weeks.
Make no mistake, dropping four points at home to Atlanta United and, even more egregiously, expansion Austin FC is a disappointment. Put those two results in the middle of any stretch of games or season the Sounders have ever experienced during their MLS era and I think there would have always been a palpable sense of missed opportunity. The Sounders faced two beatable opponents at home, on full rest, and failed to get maximum points both times.
“Frustrated is definitely a word we’d use,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said on Sunday. “We felt going into this stretch, we thought we needed nine points to put us in a good spot. You have to take advantage of these stretches. We just weren’t sharp enough.”
As frustrated as the players might be, there was a wider frustration that seemed out of step with the results. To understand that, I think we need to take a broader look at the context. For one, the Sounders had come into this stretch of matches having dropped just two points over their previous 12 MLS home games, including three playoff games, a stretch in which they went 11-0-1 and outscored opponents 36-8. Not only that, but the Sounders were enjoying their best-ever start to a MLS season, sitting at 5-0-1, +11 GD and four points clear of the next best team in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
To add to the expectations, math-based prognosticators were making it pretty clear that the Shield was now the Sounders’ to lose. It wasn’t that the Sounders were anything like guaranteed to win, but there was becoming a feeling that anything less would be seen as a letdown.
I point all this out because I was honestly taken aback at just how much frustration seemed to be circulating around following Sunday’s scoreless draw. The most extreme example may have been one person telling me on Twitter, “I think that may have been the most disappointing result I’ve seen in our MLS history and yes that includes MLS Cup finals.” Even now with the dust settling, there’s a sense of almost panic among certain segments of the fanbase.
I don’t want to give too much oxygen to these obvious examples of overreaction, but I do think they fairly illustrate what I’m talking about: Expectations for the Sounders have risen a ton.
We should, however, take a second to look at how we got here.
I’d wager that if we had been told at the start of the season that the Sounders would head into this international break 5-0-3 and leading the Supporters’ Shield race, we’d have all taken it no questions asked. That the Sounders pulled this off despite Nicolas Lodeiro only playing 24 minutes and Stefan Frei missing the last three games is nothing short of astounding.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Sounders have mostly played really good soccer along the way. I’m not sure any player has underperformed individual expectations, while several have far exceeded theirs.
The defense has been nothing short of elite, and still hasn’t been scored upon in open play. The three-man backline of Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga and Nouhou is something close to a perfect blend of athleticism and soccer smarts with a healthy ability to break lines with passes or dribbles thrown in. The Sounders only rank ninth-best in expected goals-against, but that includes two penalties. Once those are accounted for, the Sounders have the third-best xGA per 90 minutes.
The offense has a bit more room for improvement, especially after the last two games. While the Sounders have scored the second-most goals in the league (14), their expected goals rank fifth and their xG per 90 is only 11th. The Sounders fall all the way to 17th when discounting penalties.
The Austin game illustrated both stats well. Austin had virtually nothing in the attack, save for one shot that Nouhou blocked and another where Stefan Cleveland came off his line well to cut down the angle on a breakaway chance. Otherwise, they were stuck firing off speculative shots from outside the penalty area.
Although the Sounders did win the possession battle for the first time this season, they again struggled to consistently generate dangerous chances. That isn't to say they were completely feckless in the attack.
Aside from the goal that was correctly disallowed for offside, the Sounders had at least two other very good chances, neither of which resulted in shots.
In the first half, Fredy Montero put Brad Smith in behind the defense and he had Raúl Ruidíaz streaking toward goal, but Smith put his cross too far behind.
This deserved better. pic.twitter.com/Yd64rABK9u— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) May 31, 2021
In the second half, the Sounders had another good counter that culminated with Montero putting in a perfect ball to Ruidíaz that was whiffed.
This whole sequence ... gosh. pic.twitter.com/poMqiURZc5— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) May 31, 2021
As good as those looks were, the Sounders need to create more of them. Having Lodeiro would obviously help in that regard, but that’s also something the Sounders probably shouldn’t be counting on in the near future. To make matters worse, they probably won’t have Ruidíaz for the next six games or so.
I’m sure those two things have also contributed to the collective frustration some are clearly feeling around the Sounders’ relative position. Still, I’m inclined to view this first quarter-or-so of the season mostly in a positive light. The Sounders find themselves in an admirable spot — if not entirely a position of strength — and probably wouldn’t swap it with anyone. That’s probably a good perspective to keep in mind.