The Sounders are nearly a quarter of the way through their season and by pretty much all metrics are totally killing it. They are first in the league in points, points per game, and goal differential, the last of which they have nearly double the tally (11 to 6) of the team with the next best mark, New York City FC. They also lead the league in goals allowed (3), none of which have been conceded through the run of play. Oh, and they’re undefeated.
Tactically, the team’s been pretty consistent, opting for a 3-5-2 in all their games but against San Jose, where they went with the formation’s metaphorical cousin, the 3-4-3. More importantly, the core elements of their lineups have remained consistently productive:
- Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade are dominating the box with their strength and the channels with their quickness;
- João Paolo is breaking up attacks and initiating counters with equal parts bite and flair;
- Alex Roldan and Brad Smith are proving to be the most offensively potent fullback/wingback combo in the league;
- Raúl Ruidíaz is bagging goals at his usual scorching clip while both Will Bruin and Fredy Montero are dropping deep to create overloads in transition;
- And last, but certainly not least, Cristian Roldan has provided a convincing facsimile for Nicolas Lodeiro (tireless backtracking, creative off-ball movement, and stunning moments of quality), which is not bad for replacing MLS’s best player of the last five years.
All that’s to say, yeah, the Sounders have been pretty damn good. The question is not how well the 3-5-2 has worked, but how well it can keep working. For that, we’ll turn back to my mostly arbitrary “sustainability ratings”. The last time I rolled out this system, it
predicted preceded an MLS Cup-winning season for the Sounders. Am I entirely responsible for that championship run? Who’s to say?
Sustainability rating: Bet on it
The 3-5-2 has been a good fit for the whole squad, but nowhere on the field has the marriage between formation and personnel worked better than on the backline. In fact, if there are two players who unlock the potential of the formation to its fullest, it’s Nouhou and Gomez Andrade.
That’s because one of the most defensively vulnerable areas in the 3-5-2 is the wide channel behind the wingbacks if the wingbacks get caught up field in transition. Most centerbacks don’t have the speed, foot quickness and/or dexterity to defend fleet-footed wingers down the channels, but Nouhou and Gomez Andrade have all three, and as such, can defend on an island when need be. Moreover, both players still have the strength and athleticism to win the types of aerial duels more traditionally expected of centerbacks.
Combine that game-breaking talent with a third centerback, two hardworking wingbacks who have also played well as straight up fullbacks in the past, two holding mids who can run for days, and a typically well-organized Brian Schmetzer defensive scheme, and you get a team that’s extremely hard to break down.
Realistically, the only two things that could derail this defense are a Nouhou injury or a continuing string of poor offensive performances. A Nouhou injury could be catastrophic because as a left-footed do-it-all defender, he’s the hardest man in the lineup to replace outside of possibly Ruidíaz. Poor offensive performances could throw things out of whack simply because a string of them could force the Sounders to overcompensate and send too many numbers into the attack, in turn leaving themselves exposed at the back.
Overall though, the talent, depth, and structure of the backline should be enough to keep the Sounders atop the goals allowed standings from wire to wire this year.
Wingback stat stuffers
Sustainability rating: Probable (depending on how you measure it)
Moving forward half a line or so brings us to Smith and Alex Roldan, who have combined for three goals and three assists through eight games, the most of any fullback or wingback pairing in the league. Although those two — plus the depth pieces when they invariably rotate — will probably not average .75 goals or assists per match for the rest of the year, they should still finish the season as the most offensively potent fullback/wingback crew in the league.
Of course, Smith and Roldan have a natural advantage over out-and-out fullbacks, who have less license going forward than wingbacks. Even so, the pair are comfortably outpacing wingback duos from other teams with similar setups such as NYCFC, Cincinnati, and Montreal, and, to be clear, wingbacks are much closer to fullbacks than wingers. (If your wingers end up in the same defensive line as your centerbacks, which the Sounders wingbacks do all the time, something has gone terribly wrong.)
The point is, Smith and Roldan have been undeniably great going forward this season, so much so that they have room to cool off and still be the most offensively productive duo for their position in the league. That’s because Defending 101 dictates that it’s best to defend from inside-out, so any effort from opponents to send extra numbers to defend the wide areas would be reckless at best, particularly given the Sounders' strength through the spine.
Teams can look to pin the Sounders wingbacks deep through extended possession in Seattle’s half, which drastically reduces Smith and Roldan’s ability to contribute to build out play, but even then, the Sounders can knock it long to their two strikers, which in turn frees the duo to get up field and join the attack. Smith in particular can use his incredible pace to punish any opposing fullback who falls asleep for even a moment in transition. Conversely, if teams sit deep and take away the Sounders’ transition game, they run the risk of granting Roldan too much time and space to deliver his lethal crosses from deep.
Sustainability rating: 11/11 (yes, this amp goes to 11)
The Sounders midfield hasn’t put up gaudy possession numbers or passing percentages (in fact the team as a whole is bottom six in both), but they have disrupted play masterfully and showed up on the stat sheet where it counts (goals and assists).
Defensively, between Cristian Roldan, João Paulo, Kelyn Rowe, Danny Leyva, and Josh Atencio, the Sounders are five deep for midfielders who will put in an honest shift and get stuck in, and that’s not even counting Lodeiro or the injured-too-soon Jordy Delem. That unit’s effort shows up most succinctly in the team’s overall duels won percentage (53.3%), which is No. 1 in the league.
In attack, the Sounders midfield trio has combined for two goals and four assists — not a bad clip considering their most dynamic attacking piece (Lodeiro) has yet to log a single start. Their success without the team captain also shows why they’ll continue to produce at a similar or higher level for the rest of the season: depth.
Arguably the biggest question mark heading into this season would be if the young players could step up and fill the gap during the usual injury- and international absence-riddled summer months. If early returns are any indication, the answer to that question, at least in the midfield, is a resounding “yes.”
In his first and only two starts for the Sounders, second-year homegrown player Atencio put in two monster performances where he averaged 5.5 tackles per game, which is (small sample size noted) the highest mark of any player in the entire league. Meanwhile, Leyva has continued to grow in confidence with each appearance and is currently credited with the second most successful pressures per 90 (16.9) on the team and contributing 3.8 key passes per 90 — the most of any player with at least 100 minutes on the team (even smaller sample size also noted). Factor in the return of should’ve-been-league-MVP Lodeiro, and the central midfield clearly becomes the position group most likely to sustain, if not improve, their current form.
Sustainability rating: Wait, Ruidiaz is staying?!
So I may have written those last three sections earlier in the week under the assumption that Ruidíaz would be gone for Copa America and the “forwards” portion of this article would be where I pumped the hype breaks just a little. But, lo and behold, Peru coach Ricardo Gareca has left Ruidíaz off of his Copa America roster, meaning the Sounders get to keep the man who’s scored 43% of the team’s total goals this year (and 75% of their goals scored by forwards).
Peru’s loss is unquestionably the Sounders' gain. Not only will the team get to keep their most prolific goal scorer through the dog days of summer, but now they can also maintain a system that largely relies on that forward’s ability to draw multiple defenders in transition.
One of the key movements in the Sounders’ lethal counterattack this season has been Bruin (or Montero) dropping deep to collect the ball between the opposing team’s defense and midfield lines. Though credit must be given to Bruin and Montero, who’ve played fantastic in between the lines this year, there’s no question that having one of the league’s most dangerous strikers to occupy opposing centerbacks’ attention helps create space for both players.
Should Ruidíaz miss games, the Sounders would likely play Bruin higher up the field with Montero acting as the strike partner who drops deeper, or the team could play some variant of a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 with both Montero and Lodeiro or Cristian Roldan roaming free underneath. On paper that system could work. But, there’s also a solid chance that losing Ruidíaz would become the break in the chain that grinds the whole system to a halt.
That’s because if Bruin and Montero lack the dynamism to give the team a direct outlet in transition, then the Sounders become one-dimensional and very easy to press. As is, the team has already struggled through long stretches of getting pinned in their own half at various points this year. So far, that lack of possession has been fine because eventually, the centerbacks find a dropping striker early, and then the wingbacks are freed up to go and punish the press. However, without the talent up top to complete that first step, things could get ugly.
Luckily, Ruidíaz is staying in Seattle this summer, so who knows; maybe this Sounders team can become MLS’s first “invincibles” (only mostly joking). Either way, the team may want to find a TAM-level striker this summer (ideally a pure finisher type who can command defensive attention on limited touches). That way, the Sounders could add another attacking spark to their bench, and, if for whatever reason Ruidiaz does miss extended time, they can plug that player into the starting lineup and keep their same style of play.
Is it a little over the top to ask for a TAM super-sub striker? Probably. But, after a pretty frugal offseason, the Sounders are already outpacing expectations so much that throwing a little a bit of house money at a luxury piece feels like a well-earned gamble. This is the Seattle freakin’ Sounders after all. Might as well stay hella greedy.