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Postgame Pontifications: What we’ve learned about Sounders halfway through 2021

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They aren’t invincible but they are contenders.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Soccer has a funny way of upending expectations. The Seattle Sounders did a lot of that through the first half of the season, illustrated perfectly by the 1-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday.

The Sounders came into the game having not lost to the Earthquakes since 2015, an unbeaten streak that had grown to 14 games. The Earthquakes hadn’t beaten anyone in their last 11, a streak that stretched back to May.

The first 45 minutes of the match was dominated by the Sounders, but it was the Earthquakes who opened the scoring with a goal just before the halftime whistle.

Despite the disappointing final push, the Sounders find themselves at the season’s halfway point in an enviable position. They’re sitting on 32 points, four behind Supporters’ Shield-leading New England, leading the Western Conference and on pace for their second-highest total ever. They’ve managed all this while dealing with an unprecedented injury crisis, getting only 24 minutes from Nicolas Lodeiro and starting three different goalkeepers, all of whom have registered at least one shutout.

Here’s some of what we learned during those first 17 games:

The squad is deeper, younger

Even before the season started, the Sounders lost Jordan Morris to injury. That was a preview of what was to come. Of the 22 players who returned from last year’s roster, 16 have been unavailable for at least three games due to injury, suspension, international duty or loan. Among the 10 returning players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last year, they’ve missed an average of 5.8 games this year.

In other words, the Sounders have missed a lot of players for a lot of minutes. This has forced Brian Schmetzer to use 14 different lineups and give 24 different players at least one start. That’s already two more starters and one more starting lineup than Schmetzer used all of last year, including the playoffs.

The quality of depth is maybe best illustrated by the defense, where the Sounders have been forced to use 15 different starters, which includes seven different centerbacks and three goalkeepers. A year ago, only seven different players got starts on the defense and Stefan Frei started every game. Despite all that change, the Sounders have improved their goals against average from 1.05 to .76.

Almost across the board, those new starters were younger than the players they replaced. Schmetzer has given 15 starts to five different teenagers. In Schmetzer’s first 4.5 seasons, he’d given 8 starts to three different teens. The two new starting goalkeepers are both at least six years younger than Frei and the four new starting centerbacks are an average of three years younger than last year’s starters. This year’s starting lineups are, on average, about three years younger than last year’s.

I’ve been most impressed by Josh Atencio, who has looked far more mature than his 19 years while turning in highly competent shifts at both defensive midfielder and centerback. Reed Baker-Whiting, though, may have the highest upside of the bunch. He missed a golden opportunity to get his first professional goal against the Earthquakes, but I love the runs he makes out of midfield and the way he looks to spring teammates with aggressive passing.

This should all pay dividends not just later this year as these players start showing more improvement and competition for minutes turns fierce, but in seasons to come.

Need to be better at home

If there’s been one area where the Sounders have been frustrating, it’s at home, where they’ve been downright dominant during the Schmetzer era. Their first-half schedule featured 10 games at Lumen Field, but they’ve only claimed an underwhelming 18 points or 1.8 points per game.

Consider that coming into this year the Sounders had been averaging 2.29 points per game, including playoffs, at home under Schmetzer.

Having to listen to the away team’s celebrations is not something the Sounders are accustomed to.

“That’s the second week I’ve heard teams chanting in here and honestly, it’s kind of pissing me off,” Sounders forward Will Bruin said after the Earthquakes loss. “I think we need to get back to basics of just being hard to play against.”

Remarkably, the Sounders are actually securing a higher percentage of available points on the road, where they are averaging 2.0 points per game.

Almost as frustrating as the home total is who they’ve been dropping points to. Just one of the five opponents against whom they’ve failed to secure all three points are currently in a playoff position. On the flipside, 4 of 5 wins have come against teams currently in a playoff spot and the fifth win was against a team that was tied for a playoff spot when the Sounders played them.

The Sounders have shown themselves capable of beating anyone in the league, both at home and away. I suppose that bodes well for their potential in the playoffs, but they’re raising the bar for difficulty unnecessarily high by leaving points on the board.

Raúl’s elite, but he needs help

I wouldn’t say scoring has been a problem for the Sounders, but that’s mostly due to Raúl Ruidíaz contending for the Golden Boot. His 11 goals are 44% of the Sounders’ total, which would be by far the biggest share one player has accounted for in the team’s MLS history (no one else has ever scored as much as 35% of the team’s total).

Although nine other players have scored at least one goal, no one else has more than three and only three of them have scored at least two. All of which is to say that when Ruidíaz has an off-day — like Saturday, when he missed two very good chances — the Sounders need to do a better job of finding other goal-scorers.

Early in the season, a lot of that scoring load was supported by the wingbacks, who combined for 5 goals and 7 assists through the 13-game unbeaten run to start the season as the Sounders averaged 1.77 goals per game. In the four games since, the wingbacks have not contributed directly to a goal and the scoring has dropped to just .5 goals per game.

It’s possible that someone on the current roster develops into that reliable secondary scorer. Maybe Nicolas Lodeiro comes back and hits the ground running. Maybe Cristian Roldan channels his Gold Cup play into more productivity here. Maybe those wingbacks rediscover their scoring form. Maybe Fredy Montero can get on a good run or Will Bruin can start banging in goals.

But this is someplace I think the Sounders might need some outside help. They’ve done amazing work to get themselves into this position, frankly against all reasonable expectations. I understand the challenges of signing players right now, but they have about five days to get something finalized and the resources to make it happen. This seems to be a special group, they deserve to be given any boost they can get.