SEATTLE — To say the Seattle Sounders were in any sort of crisis over their home form would definitely be overstating things. Despite having claimed just one point from their last four league games at home — most recently losing 2-0 to the Portland Timbers — the Sounders had still won 4 of their last 5 games overall and were leading the Western Conference.
Still, there was a very real understanding that in order for this season to end up the way everyone wants it to, Lumen Field will need to become something close to the fortress it has been in recent years.
Beating Minnesota United 1-0 at home on Saturday doesn’t suddenly mean all those concerns are gone, but it did serve as a good reminder that this team still understands how to see out a result.
“It’s important,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei about the win, which came in his first appearance since May 12. “I was trying to make this point to the squad before the game that, for me, it’s been pure joy and pride to watch how well we’ve done while I’ve been gone. Really, finding ourselves in a good position on the table.
“The only reason why we do this is to get good seeding in the playoffs, so we can play more games at home. For that to really count and matter, we have to make this a fortress again. We have a few opportunities left to do so. Today wasn’t pretty, but we won.”
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the Sounders’ play over the period of home futility was the relative lack of scoring. They had scored just two goals in those four winless games, they’d only even led for a grand total of 19 minutes during that time, and they had not scored a single first-half goal. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to June 26 to find the last time they’d scored in the first half.
João Paulo at least made sure that ignominious streak came to an end when he slickly finished off a well-worked goal in the 22nd minute that looked about as good as any as the Sounders have scored all year. Nicolás Lodeiro’s movement first unsettled the defense, he then found Nicolas Benezet with a quick pass to open up the field and then Benezet cut it back to João Paulo at the top of the penalty area all alone. João Paulo’s strike was low and hard and beat Tyler Miller to the far post.
That little sequence was probably Lodeiro’s best of the match, and maybe the best since he came back from injury about a month ago. Like he did in the loss to the Portland Timbers, Lodeiro led all players in ground covered, this time logging about 12.1 kilometers. But he also had his best passing game with season-highs in completion rate (81.7%), successful passes into the final third (9) and progressive passes (6). It wasn’t quite vintage Lodeiro, but he at least seems to be moving in that direction.
Maybe even more encouraging was how effectively the Sounders managed the game. I know the Sounders offense wasn’t nearly as exciting as we’d all have liked in the second half, but the lead never really felt to be in too much danger. The defense did a good job of not requiring Frei to really do much aside from controlling his box by claiming loose balls and crosses. The backline was especially stout, winning almost all their individual battles and limiting them to just a handful of shots from inside the penalty area with only two of them on frame.
In many ways, it was the type of performance the Sounders have become accustomed to this season. They put together one strong half and did enough to keep it together in the other. This was their league-leading ninth shutout of the season, four of which have come in Frei’s six starts.
In addition to having Frei back, they also were able to get 90 minutes out of Nouhou. Although the Cameroonian didn’t quite look himself — and was badly beaten at least once — some rust is to be expected after basically not playing for three months. But he was playing with the joy we’ve come to expect and he even made a couple interceptions far up the field that started promising attacks.
Add it all up and this has to be considered a positive step forward. The Sounders extended their lead atop the Western Conference, kept alive their slim hopes in the Supporters’ Shield race, and are suddenly looking as healthy as they have all year heading into the stretch run. This next stretch of games is probably going to tell us a lot about how good this team is, but right now I like the Sounders’ chances.