As good as the Sounders had looked at various times during their first six games, the reality is that they had only looked great when facing bad teams. Coming into Saturday’s game against first-place St. Louis City, the Sounders’ four wins and all 12 of their goals had come against the Western Conference’s four worst teams.
In that sense, the 3-0 win over St. Louis in which they fully dominated the second half was a pretty clear statement that the Sounders are more than flat-track bullies. To St. Louis’ credit, they threw the Sounders a curveball that flummoxed them for a half. Rather than their standard 4-4-2 high press, St. Louis dropped into more of a 3-4-3 that tried to push the ball out to the wings.
At halftime, though, Freddy Juarez recommended some shifts that gave Josh Atencio and Albert Rusnák a bit more freedom to find the ball. The Sounders found increased success dribbling through pressure to break lines and generated twice as many shots in the second half as the first. Here’s some of what I saw in the game:
Josh Atencio is the real deal
I’ve been a big fan of Atencio’s ever since he first broke into the starting lineup at the start of 2021. He’s got a big body, but moves very well. He’s not afraid to carry the ball or hit long diagonals. He’s an aggressive defender, but mostly stays on his feet. Turns out, he can hit a pretty good shot, too (a sequence that was set up by his 50-yard diaganol, by the way).
Atencio was all over my notebook even before his goal, but I’ve seen enough of this stuff in training to know his goal wasn’t a fluke. I suspect that as soon as João Paulo is fully fit, Atencio will slide back to the bench. But Brian Schmetzer is going to have to find a way to keep getting Atencio minutes. That’s probably going to mean that João Paulo, Albert Rusnák, Nicolás Lodeiro and even Cristian Roldan will probably all take turns getting rest. That’s ultimately a good thing.
Adapting to strengths
Something you’ll often hear coaches talk about is how they want to make opponents adjust to them, not other way around. But the best teams in the world don’t really do that. Teams with truly deep rosters don’t just set their lineup and forget it. The best coaches don’t necessarily try to do the same stuff against every opponent. They put out the best team and deploy the best tactics that give them a chance to win.
We might finally be seeing something similar from the Sounders. Brian Schmetzer is still going to stick with certain players almost no matter what, but I suspect we’re going to see more fluidity than in years past in part because players like Jackson Léo Chú and Atencio keep showing him what they do with more opportunities.
At the end of the game, we saw a formation that featured Jordan Morris, Ruidíaz and Héber. It was pretty fluid so it’s hard to say what exactly it was, but Schmetzer seemed to love whatever it was.
Hard to beat
Maybe the most frustrating thing about last season was the degree to which the Sounders seemed to have lost their edge at Lumen Field. With their playoff lives hanging in the balance, the Sounders won just 2 of their final 5 home games. They only had one shutout in those games.
The Sounders have now tied a franchise record with four straight shutouts at home and seem to have re-established Lumen Field as someplace opponents don’t want to play.
Coming off two of their worst home campaigns in their MLS history, this is an obviously welcome change.
It’s easy to forget now, but when Stefan Frei joined the Sounders ahead of the 2014 season his career was in a very different place. He was coming off two seasons in which he’d battled various injuries and started just one MLS game.
Now in his 10th season with the Sounders, Frei is considered one of the league’s top goalkeepers. He also just surpassed Osvaldo Alonso for the club record for starts.
When someone has been around as long as Frei, it becomes easy to take them for granted. What’s remarkable about Frei is that it seems like he’s constantly tweaking his game to find new ways to improve. The latest wrinkle is the way he’s passing.
Frei has always been a reasonably good passer by goalkeeper standards, but this year he’s opting to hit about 71% of his passes long compared to a career average of about 54%. Those kicks are traveling about 12% farther than his career average. He’s also completing about 46.2% of those long passes, third best in MLS.
Against teams intent on pressing as much as St. Louis City, the Sounders are basically choosing to play over them rather than through them and as a result are often gaining possession farther up the field.
He’s doing this while also ranking fifth in MLS in terms of post-shot xG, allowing .36 fewer goals per 90 minutes than you’d expect based on the types of shots he’s facing.
Competition for minutes
It seems funny now, but at the start of the season there seemed to be some genuine concern that the Sounders lacked the necessary depth to compete over a long season. Seven weeks in, the problem now seems to be how to keep all the deserving players happy. There’s a solid group of at least 17 players who can reasonably be expected to compete for starts in any given week.
The latest player to make a bid for more playing time is Atencio, who not only has jumped fellow youngsters Danny Leyva and Obed Vargas on the depth chart but is going to also force players like João Paulo, Albert Rusnák, Cristian Roldan and Nicolás Lodeiro to earn their starts every week.
This is an undeniably great problem to have. It will not only sharpen the players’ training habits, but having genuine competition should also do wonders for team morale as the team hopefully won’t stratisfy into starters and reserves as so often happens.
Everything else you need to know
- The Sounders will go back on the road to play the Portland Timbers on Saturday. The last time the Sounders beat the Timbers was in 2021 in that epic 6-2 win at Providence Park. As good as the Sounders have been this season, the Timbers have been nearly as bad. The Timbers are 1-4-2 and have been outscored 12-6, including a 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.
- Lodeiro is due to be a free agent at the end of this season and it has long been assumed that he wanted to go back to his native Uruguay, where he has spent most of his offseasons. But recent comments to MLS Español and to reporters suggest that he might prefer to play at least couple more years here and maybe even stick around beyond that. If he continues to play at his current level and he’s not deadset on being a Designated Player, the Sounders would be well-advised to try to make something work.
- The Defiance suffered their first loss of the season on Friday, falling 2-1 to Austin FC II on a very late goal. They had taken a first-half lead on a penalty and were holding their own until a second yellow card to Travian Sousa in the 66th minute. From that point forward, they were basically holding on for dear life. They gave up a penalty equalizer, but still looked like they might pull out a point until Andrew Thomas spilled a rebound and Christo Vela put in the winner.