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Postgame Pontifications: Big-picture assessment of Sounders season

There’s plenty to be optimistic about as the Sounders get a much-needed break.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Ever since the Seattle Sounders played their earliest-ever competitive match on Feb. 17, this season has progressed at seemingly breakneck speed. As we close the books on May, the Sounders have already played 21 matches, with 12 of them on four days’ or less of rest.

That’s almost three months ahead of last year’s schedule and almost two months ahead of 2019 — the last “normal” year.

As head coach Brian Schmetzer said during his press conference following the Sounders’ 2-1 win over Charlotte FC on Sunday, “It feels like we’re already two-thirds of the way through the season.”

Now also feels like a good time to take a step back and provide a bigger-picture view of what we’ve seen and where the season seems to be heading.

Already a success, but not satisfactory

At the risk of stating the obvious, when you become the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League, you get to call the season a success no matter what else happens. But the Sounders haven’t gotten to this point by resting our their laurels and they’ve made it very clear that they aren’t satisfied with simply making history.

If this is really the most talented team the Sounders have ever assembled — and on paper, I’d say that’s true — there’s no reason they shouldn’t have their sights set on winning MLS Cup. While winning the Supporters’ Shield feels a bit outside their grasp right now, they know that finishing as high in the table as possible will be key to setting up a good playoff run.

Overcoming the CCL hangover

For the early part of the season, the CCL campaign seemed to overshadow the regular season in terms of importance and quality of play. While the Sounders went 4-0-4 in CCL play, they found themselves sitting at the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings. But the Sounders have won 3 of 4 league games since hitting that low-water mark and now find themselves just two points out of a playoff spot with at least two games-in-hand on every team ahead of them in the standings.

When Schmetzer mused “maybe we write a story about how we’re finally over the Champions League hangover?” it sounded more like a question he was asking himself, rather than taking aim at anyone who had suggested otherwise.

Trending better, but still not hitting their stride

While the results are no doubt improved, Sunday was just another example of how the Sounders still don’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. Playing an expansion team that had never before won a road game and featuring a coach who was apparently already on the verge of being fired, the Sounders went into halftime trailing and needed an absolute golazo from Raúl Ruidíaz to secure the three points. The win before that was a pretty “grind-y” affair against the Houston Dynamo, and the other post-CCL win was another come-from-behind effort at home against Minnesota United which also required a golazo to get them over the hump.

Using Expected Goals to illustrate the point, the Sounders have only a slight 6.13-5.42 advantage over their last four games. Their actual goal-difference in that period is 6-3. That’s not really a statistically relevant sample size, but it does show how the Sounders might be getting slightly better results than their play would otherwise suggest they should be.

Solid pace with games in hand

Despite all those struggles, the Sounders are actually back in playoff position by points per game. They could probably muddle along at this pace and still make the playoffs. But the good news is that there’s every reason to think results will continue to improve.

While it’s always a somewhat questionable thing to assume a team will win their games in hand, I think it’s fair to expect the Sounders to do that in this case, since those two games are both at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps (June 14) and FC Cincinnati (Sept. 27). Add six points to the Sounders’ tally and they’re just two points out of fourth place in the Western Conference.

To actually overtake Austin FC — currently the fourth-place team in the West — the Sounders will probably need about 42 points over their final 22 games, a pace of 1.91 points per game.

Making Lumen Field a fortress

Much was said last year about how Lumen Field didn’t feel like the fortress it once was, and it’s true that last year the Sounders’ were pretty middling at home by their own standards. But they’ve actually been really good at Lumen this year, going 7-2-0 and outscoring opponents 22-7 across all competitions. It would be pretty tough to carry that pace for the final 12 regular-season home games of the season, but if they could that’s 28 more points. That would leave the Sounders needing a pretty manageable 14 points over their final 10 road games to get to 58 for the season. The Sounders are currently averaging 1.0 PPG on the road, but have averaged a 1.37 road PPG during Schmetzer’s previous six seasons.

More reasons for optimism

Digging into individual performances, I think there’s even more reason to be bullish on how the Sounders will finish out the year. The biggest standout, I’d say, is Stefan Frei who has now allowed 8.61 fewer goals across all competitions than xG would suggest he “should have.” On a per-game basis, that’s better than anyone else in MLS this year and would put him on pace for one of the best seasons in MLS history by that metric. Beyond him, I think we can be happy with the play of centerbacks Xavier Arreaga, Yeimar Gomez Andrade and Jackson Ragen, all of whom have mixed steady defending with an ability to progress the ball forward.

Offensively, I think we’re seeing Nicolás Lodeiro look more and more like his pre-injury self. He’s currently averaging .40 goals and .60 assists per 90 minutes in MLS play, which would both be career bests for him. Even if you take penalties out of the equation, his .80 goals+assists per 90 would be better than any season he’s had with the Sounders. Perhaps even more encouraging is that he’s averaging 77.4 attempted passes per 90 minutes, which puts him right in line with his career average prior to last year (when he dropped to 63.9). Basically across the board, all of his numbers suggest he’s playing like the guy who was regularly in the conversation for MVP.

Jordan Morris, the other key player who’s coming back from long-term injury, is showing similar progress. Although he’ll be the first to admit that he’s not been as clinical as he’d like in terms of final actions, he’s still managed to score six goals in 1,348 minutes across all competitions. Perhaps more encouraging is that he’s consistently getting himself into dangerous positions, racking up 4.1 xG in MLS play. His rate of .53 xG per 90 would not only be a career high, but it’s sixth-best in MLS and the highest among wingers.

I’ve been similarly encouraged by Cristian Roldan, who has three goals and 10 assists across all competitions while building a sleeper campaign for MLS MVP, and Raul Ruidíaz, who after a slow start now has six goals and two assists in less than 1,000 minutes.

One big question

While I’ll stand by my overall sense of optimism, I do think there’s at least one part of the roster that leaves room for pause. When João Paulo went down with a season-ending ACL tear, the Sounders didn’t just lose a player in the middle of the park, they lost arguably their best player over the past two years. That it also came just as he and Albert Rusnák were starting to create a genuinely impressive partnership only makes it more frustrating.

Rusnák, who spent most of his career in attacking roles, has grown admirably into his spot as half of a double-pivot. American Soccer Analysis rates him as the league’s second-best passer by their “xPass” metric and he’s consistently helping the Sounders in their buildup, even if it’s not always the final ball. A perfect example came on Sunday when he released Cristian Roldan into space, who then found Morris for what probably should have been a goal.

The bigger question that the Sounders need to answer if they are to make an MLS Cup run is about Rusnák’s partner. Obed Vargas has received the bulk of the playing time and has shown plenty of promise, but he’s just 16 years old and rates pretty average in comparison to other defensive midfielders. There’s plenty of reason to think he’ll improve, but it’s asking a lot of him right now. Josh Atencio and Kelyn Rowe appear to be the other top options, and both have shown flashes that suggest they could offer slight improvements. But Atencio is again struggling to remain healthy and Rowe’s upside still feels pretty limited. The Sounders probably aren’t going to use whatever roster flexibility they have on a temporary solution, though, so they probably need one of these guys to grab hold of the opportunity. Whether they do so could be what determines the heights this team can reach.