Through the first five games of this season, the Seattle Sounders have established a pretty firm tactical identity. Early on, me and my Sounder at Heart colleague Tim Foss were calling it “Highlife Soccer.” I think it would be described basically like this: The Sounders were willing to make life difficult on opponents by pressing opportunistically while being comfortable attacking either through long bouts of possession or on quick counters.
Even when it wasn’t working perfectly, the DNA of that mindset was easy enough to spot.
Against the LA Galaxy, they switched things up. For all their struggles, the Galaxy are a very good possession team whose strength is in the central midfield. Especially on the road, the Sounders reasonably concluded that they were better off sitting in a lower block and looking for chances to counter.
It worked pretty well in the first half, as they built a 2-0 lead and mostly limited the Galaxy to crossing into the box.
A halftime change into a 3-5-2 by Greg Vanney, though, changed the complexion of the match. After getting a few decent looks in the first five minutes or so, the Sounders were mostly stuck on their heels and were ultimately a bit lucky to come away with a 2-1 win.
I tend to think we learn more about a team when things don’t go exactly according to plan. Here are some of my main observations:
Playing time is earned
Based on what I saw in training and reading between the lines of comments Brian Schmetzer has made over the past six months, I correctly guessed Saturday’s lineup would be more of a reflection of players earning their playing time than it being granted based on their reputation or the size of their paycheck. That’s how Jackson Ragen has worked his way into the lineup every week. After both Léo Chú and Josh Atencio played very well in the win over Sporting KC, I think they showed they also deserved another chance.
After another standout performance by Chú, I think it’s going to be equally hard to take him off the pitch for this weekend’s game against St. Louis City. He does provide an attacking element the Sounders have sometimes missed, ie someone other than Jordan Morris who can stretch the field. That he’s consistently delivering pinpoint crosses and uncorking dangerous shots from distance have given the Sounders a level of dynamism that is sometimes missing.
Before he got his chance to start, though, Chú got coaches’ attention through consistent work in training. It can only be a good thing if players believe no one’s spot is guaranteed and that any chances they get are earned.
The playing time balancing act
At the same time, Schmetzer had to know it was a gamble to leave so much quality on the bench. I’m not sure we’ve seen many benches with as much talent and experience as the Sounders had on Saturday between Raúl Ruidíaz, Héber, Fredy Montero and Nouhou, to speak nothing of the younger players they had waiting in the wings as well. Getting Nouhou back onto the pitch feels like a pretty straightforward proposition, but finding a way to balance the playing time for those three veteran strikers could be a challenge especially while Morris is banging in goals like he is.
But this is the exact kind of problem the Sounders should want My suspicion is that Morris will eventually move back to the wing, which solves the conundrum for some minutes. There’s also a decent chance that both Morris and Cristian Roldán get called up for the USA-Mexico friendly on April 19, which would make it pretty easy to put them on the bench for the April 22 match. Longterm, though, keeping Chú on the pitch will require some creative rotation.
This is where the Sounders’ versatility will come in handy. Cristian Roldan and Albert Rusnák can potentially play anywhere in the midfield, which should allow veterans like Lodeiro and João Paulo to get some rest, too.
There’s a valid question to ask about finding the ideal XI, but that’s a problem the Sounders don’t need a definitive answer to right now and I hope there’s a lot of experimenting to find it.
What to do about left back?
If there was one thing that surprised most people about Saturday’s lineup was the decision to start Alex Roldán at left back, a position at which he’s only been used sparingly later in games. At first glance, it appears at least a bit counter-intuitive. But like I said in the last newsletter, I think it says more about how the Sounders see the position being used.
The primary reason left backs are mostly left-footed is because their offensive contributions are primarily sending in crosses. That’s the way it has been ever since they’ve been viewed as more two-way players. One of the big changes this year is in how the Sounders are using Nouhou. Rather than bombing forward to send in crosses, the Sounders are asking him drop back into more of a third centerback. When he does join the attack, it’s mostly through dribbling and interchanging, often through the middle of the park.
Roldán did not look particularly comfortable in that role, but the right-footed Kelyn Rowe did just fine. I suspect we’ll see other right-footed players get looks there as well. That could be Josh Atencio or Xavier Arreaga or maybe even Reed Baker-Whiting. What I don’t think they’ll do is go outside the organization to bring in a more traditional left back.
Frei’s supposed struggles
The Galaxy’s one goal came off a rebound spilled by Stefan Frei. It wasn’t so different than the goal they gave up a week earlier to Sporting KC. You can also somewhat pin the goal the Sounders gave up to FC Cincinnati on Frei, who got enough of his hands on Brenner’s shot that you’d normally expect him to save that. Three goals allowed, all at least theoretically avoidable through better goalkeeping. I’ve seen more than a few people use this as evidence of a potentially significant problem, if not downright claiming that Frei has lost a step.
Allow me to retort.
While you can certainly argue that Frei could have done better on all three of these goals, I think that’s a bit overstated. Two of them were hard shots through traffic that Frei just had to react to. Sure, you’d prefer he push those aside rather than leave them in front, but that stuff happens to literally every goalkeeper in the world. Similarly, the goal against FCC was a saveable shot, but goalkeepers all over the world give up a few of those every year. What people seem to be expecting is something approaching perfection.
Let’s also look at the bigger picture. It’s human nature to focus on the mistakes, but simply going through the highlights of every game will reveal Frei has stopped at least as many likely goals as he’s allowed “soft” goals.
Digging into the numbers a bit makes an even more compelling case. Opta keeps a stat called post-shot Expected Goals that basically measures the location of shots and how likely a goalkeeper is to save it. By that metric, the Sounders have been expected to allow 5.2 goals. In reality, the Sounders have allowed 3.0. That’s a difference of 2.2 goals, the third best mark in MLS. Frei drops all the way to fourth best in MLS when you check the per 90 stats, but even that puts him on pace for his best season since 2018, the year he was one of the best statistical goalkeepers in MLS history.
If you prefer more traditional stats, Frei is second in goals against average (.5), fourth in save percentage (84.2%) and fourth in shutouts (three).
I’ll also add that criticisms of his distribution also seem a bit overblown as he leads the league in completion percentage on “launched” goal kicks (48.4%) while sending them the fourth longest distance on average (42.1 yards). If there’s a valid concern about him, it’s that he’s still not particularly aggressive or effective at stopping crosses or coming out of his box, but that also speaks to work his defenders are doing.
At 36, Frei may be showing his age in some specific ways, but it does not seem to be making him any worse of a goalkeeper.
Everything else you need to know
- The Sounders’ next game is on Saturday at home against St. Louis City at 7:30 PM. It’s available for FREE on AppleTV. It should be a good game, even if the Sounders won’t get a chance to deliver City their first-ever loss. The expansion team started 5-0-0, besting the Sounders’ for best-ever start by an expansion team but fell to Minnesota United last week. Still, the Sounders can take over first place in the Western Conference with a win.
- Both Sounders Academy teams won their groups at GA Cup. The U15s opened with an impressive 3-0 win over Arsenal and finished 2-0-1. The U17s also went 2-0-1 in their group.
- Tacoma Defiance won their home opener 5-0 over Real Monarchs on Sunday. Paul Rothrock had three assists and contributed to all five goals.
- OL Reign got their first win of the season, bouncing back from an opening day loss to the Washington Spirit to beat Gotham 2-0.