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Postgame Pontifications: Depth tested

The Sounders showed they can win even without most of their first-choice players.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Through their first few months of the season, the Seattle Sounders have convincingly shown that they are as good as just about anyone when they’ve got something like a full-strength squad. In 16 games across competitions with at least nine first-choice starters, the Sounders have gone 9-3-5 — a pace that would put them in contention for the Supporters’ Shield.

The main problem, so far, has been with the games where they’ve had six or fewer of those ideal starters. In their first five such games, the Sounders had gone 0-3-2 — a pace that would virtually ensure them last place in the standings.

With only five ideal starters available for Tuesday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Sounders finally turned in the type of depth-flexing performance we’d long believed they were capable of. Yes, first-choice players like Raúl Ruidíaz (two goals), Nicolás Lodeiro (one goal) and Alex Roldán (one goal) supplied the scoring punch, but there was tons to like from the guys who aren’t automatic starters, too.

It wasn’t just the personnel that were shuffled due to injuries and international duty, it was the way they were deployed. Most notable among the shifts was sliding Lodeiro back a line to play alongside Obed Vargas in the double-pivot.

Lodeiro responded with a boxscore-filling 101 touches that included completing 77 of 87 passes and five chances created while floating all over the field. He even added nine recoveries, as if just to show that he wasn’t completely abandoning his defensive responsibilities. Lodeiro was granted such freedom because Vargas once again showed maturity well beyond his years and was able to handle the defensive midfield duties mostly by himself.

“I think it worked fine,” Vargas dead-panned in the postgame locker room. “We won 4-0.”

While that may be inarguable, it’s still noteworthy that head coach Brian Schmetzer has the confidence to deploy Vargas like this. The double-pivot relies heavily on the two players having an understanding of one another, and each of the partners Vargas has lined up next to this year has different tendencies and desires.

But Schmetzer once again didn’t hesitate to pair Vargas with a partner whose natural tendencies would likely leave the 16-year-old on a midfield island. It also speaks to the shockingly rapid rate at which Vargas takes in and processes information. Vargas has now been paired with five different partners and has started a team-high 12 times in the double-pivot.

“I mean, [Schmetzer] put me in the Concacaf final when JP went down,” Vargas said about his 60-minute performance against Pumas in place of the injured João Paulo. “That was all the confidence I needed. Choosing me in this game was just another expression of his trust in me.”

Against the Whitecaps, Vargas mostly hung back and focused on keeping possession. He completed 40 of 44 passes, won 7 of 13 duels and was fouled four times.

“There were lots of conversations about how to set up the team,” Schmetzer said about the decision to pair Lodeiro and Vargas. “We also know that Nico likes to touch the ball, get as many touches as he can in games, and that fits his personality. It’s also good for me because when Nico plays a little deeper, our play from back to front is a little better. He’s not afraid to get the ball in tight spots, he’s able to turn out, he’s able to connect passes to the next line.”

Lodeiro’s freedom was particularly evident on the Sounders’ second goal. Fredy Montero had dropped to midfield line to hold up a long ball from Stefan Frei. Lodeiro immediately moved into that space and ultimately made the pass that unlocked the attacking sequence, putting Kelyn Rowe into space before he rifled a pass to Jimmy Medranda in the box. Medranda’s first touch was a bit loose, but it fell right to Ruidíaz, whose first touch put the ball in the net.

“When we put Fredy in Nico’s position and Nico back a line, I thought that worked very well,” Schmetzer said. “[Assistant coach] Freddy Juarez hit out of the park with the tactics. We played our back four more narrow and shallow — because they had wingbacks — and that opened up space and that helped Nico.”

All of this bodes well for a team that now seems to be hitting its stride. Coming directly on the heels of a three-game league losing streak, the Sounders have won 4 of 5 while outscoring opponents 10-3, are in a playoff position for the first time this year, and are positioned to climb even higher with their next three games all at home. They’ll also be getting several starters back from international duty.

The Sounders seem to be heating up just in time for summer.

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