Editor's note: This was a FanPost that we found to be an interesting piece of discussion.
A quick glance at the standings reveals something surprising. For all of Seattle's struggles, they have a positive goal differential. This indicates that wins have been disproportionately emphatic on the scoreboard, while losses have been close. If you've been following the discourse around the club, you are likely aware that the Sounders are performing historically poorly by their standards in games decided by one goal or fewer. Why?
In this sport, the better team doesn't always win. Sometimes, a team creates the better chances and fails to win. More often, the team that creates the better chances does win. However, it's sometimes not quite clear who created the "better" chances. Plenty of games are close like this, and are as such decided at the margins, or "xDawg" if you'd rather. On thinking about this, one thing that has often defined the Sounders, at least in our minds, is their ability to win at the margins. Do all of the little things just a little bit better than everyone else. Don't step on rakes and give up soft goals. Solid if usually unspectacular goalkeeping. More moments of magic in the final third than other teams can muster. "In our minds" is doing a lot of work here though. Is the above actually true about the Sounders, or is it something we tell ourselves as delusional sports fans in order to expain a noisy, random, and chaotic reality? Do we excel in the margins, and has that changed this season?
Using single-game xG data from FBRef, we can attempt to get an answer. For the purposes of this, er, article/report, a "close" game is one where the Sounders xGD is between -0.5 and 0.5, the Sounders were the "better" team with an xGD of greater than 0.5, and the Sounders were the "worse" team in games with an xGD of less than -0.5. Year-by-year, these are the results:
Better: 2.10ppg (28% of games)
Close: 1.83ppg (50% of games)
Worse: 1.00ppg (22% of games)
Better: 2.46ppg (34%)
Close: 1.79ppg (37%)
Worse: 1.00ppg (29%)
Better: 2.38ppg (50%)
Close: 1.55ppg (42%)
Worse: 0.00ppg (8%)
Better: 2.18ppg (49%)
Close: 1.38ppg (37%)
Worse: 0.80ppg (14%)
Better: 3.00ppg (20%)
Close: 1.21ppg (56%)
Worse: 0.00ppg (24%)
In 2018 and 2019, the Sounders excelled in close games and in 2019, they were also ruthless in games where they were the better side. Since they were getting outplayed about as often as they were outplaying their opponents, it was winning in these "close" games that allowed them to be successful. However, their 2020 and 2021 regular seasons were actually quite a bit better than their 2018 and 2019 seasons, and while this could be attributed to mostly staying healthy in 2020, the team was pretty badly injury stricken in 2021 and still managed to perform as well as they did in 2020. The team also performed worse in all three categories of game in 2020 and 2021 compared to 2019, yet was still better overall. This is why I included the percentages of games which fell into each category for each year. Even though the Sounders were less ruthless when dominant, less successful in the margins in close games, and less capable of scrapping points out while getting outplayed in 2020-21 compared to 2019, they simply outplayed their opponents in more games in 2020-21 than in 2019 and almost never got outplayed.
This has not continued into 2022. While the Sounders still don't get outplayed much, they do get outplayed more than they have in the last two years. And unfortunately, they almost never outplay their opponents. In 2020-21, the Sounders were the better side every other game. In 2022, the Sounders have only been clearly the better side once every 5 games. This is a stunning drop off.
And what *has* continued is the downward trend of results in games where the Sounders aren't the better side. Seattle has gotten worse every single year since 2018 in close games. We would expect a team to get about 1.35-1.40 ppg in close games. The Sounders were better than average in close games through 2020, average in close games in 2021, and have been below average in close games in 2022.
So it seems it is true that historically, the Sounders have been very good in the margins of the game, allowing them to win in games even when they aren't clearly the "better" side in terms of game flow. However, that hasn't suddenly nosedived this season, it has been trending in the wrong direction since 2020. What has actually sent Seattle into a nosedive this season has been their inability to outplay their opponents with any sort of regularity, *combined* with the continued decline in results in close games. When you don't dominate games, and you are subpar at turning close games into positive results, you get a team that is outside of the playoff positions with 9 games to play.
If the Sounders were average in close games like they were in 2021, they would have 2 more points. If the Sounders were above average in close games like they were in 2020, they would have 4-5 more points. If the Sounders excelled in close games like they did in 2018, they would have 8-9 more points, which would have them in third place. If the Sounders were as capable of outplaying their opponents as they were in 2019, even if they weren't as ruthless as they've been in those situations in 2022 and continued to be poor in close games, they would have ~6 more points. If the Sounders outplayed their opponents as often as they did in 2020, even if their ppg in those situations declined to 2020 levels, they would have 15 more points and be right on Austin's tail.
The problem is that while it appears that failing to dominate games often enough is actually a bigger problem than performing poorly in close games, the Sounders may not have the personnel and chemistry to regularly outplay their opponents like they did in 2020-21. However, they may be able to improve this to 2018-19 levels (it may be as simple as having games against the bottom 4 sides in the west remaining). It's probably more important for them to quickly reverse this trend of getting worse at the margins and get better in close games. Increase that xDawg/90! In my opinion, the way to go about this is to simplify things as much as possible. The team is under a lot of pressure right now. Pressure can lead to panic and overthinking, both of which result in defensive lapses and poor decisions in front of goal. This is exacerbated by players playing in unfamilliar positions with an ever rotating cast of partners, which leads to more overthinking and less intuitive play. I think it will be best if we do the following:
1. Stop trying to force Nouhou to carry progression burdens as a LB. He cannot do this at an MLS average level in 2022.
2. Stop trying to force Morris to be a winger. All of his positive plays come closer to the middle of the pitch where he can make goal dangerous runs and be an option for Ruidiaz/Bruin/Lodeiro/Roldan. His inability to be a regular outlet is part of why Nouhou is struggling so much, if we're willing to be completely honest. This means playing two forwards.
3. Let Rusnak occupy an attacking role. Rusnak as an 8 has not worked for the team when Joao Paulo has not been available. End the experiment until JP comes back in 2023.
4. Let Cristian and/or Leyva occupy DM roles. Cristian can play almost anywhere at a decent level, but he and Leyva are the only healthy players who are familiar with ball-winning roles. We have more players who can play in attacking roles on the right (we don't necessariliy have to use wingers at all, we don't really have any except for Chu).
The above means that if we're keeping 4 at the back, Nouhou cannot be a regular starter. If we go to 5 at the back, one of Alex Roldan or Leyva moves to the bench. Schmetzer's current 4-2-3-1 does not allow us to keep things simple unless either Lodeiro or Rusnak moves to the bench. I think the best we can do in the 4-2-3-1 while keeping both on the field would be to switch them. Play Rusnak as the 10 and Lodeiro deeper. However, I would have this behind switching to a 4-2-2-2 (I'd call it a 4-2-hydra tho) or a 3-5-2.
However, how to simplify is ultimately the decision of the coaching staff. I'm not completely confident that the above actually simplifies things. It just seems like it to me. However, I do feel very confident is that the solution is to make things simpler for as many players as possible, so that they can handle the pressure without additional factors overwhelming them.