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Postgame Pontifications: Many questions must be answered in second half

There are some significant questions the Sounders must answer in the second half of the season.

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6 min read

SEATTLE — The last couple of months have been a bit of a slog. The Seattle Sounders’ play on the field has been mostly uninspiring and the mood around the team has been increasingly negative.

At kickoff on Saturday, it all seemed to melt away. The biggest crowd of the season roared to life for a match against their biggest rivals on a beautiful spring day, the first half of a much-anticipated doubleheader.

Unfortunately, they had very little to scream about after that. The Sounders and Portland Timbers played to a 0-0 tie that was every bit as uninspiring as the scoreline suggested. The two teams combined for 15 shots which equated to just .60 expected goals, one of the lowest totals of the entire MLS season. Neither team looked especially likely to score as both seemed unwilling to throw numbers forward and expose themselves on the counter. It was like two boxers circling each other and just yelling insults for 90 minutes.

While it’s hardly a disastrous result for the Sounders — yes, they’re still third in the Western Conference by points per game — it still felt like a massive missed opportunity. Not only has the home winless streak against the Timbers now stretched to eight regular-season games, this was a chance to reignite a season that has lost virtually all its momentum. A massive crowd was sent home not just disappointed, but completely uninspired. The mood surrounding the fanbase feels every bit as in the mud as it did toward the end of last year. After another disappointing performance against the Timbers, I can hardly blame anyone.

Given all that, it was a little surreal to hear Brian Schmetzer speak about the game in more sanguine terms.

“If you look at the season as a whole, 27 points, 54 probably gets you into the playoffs,” he said. “We’ve been hovering around first and second all season. Overall, I would say that the team has done well. We’re in a stretch here where the results could have been better ... But overall, I can’t be horribly upset.”

Schmetzer’s comments as well as those from the players seemed to reflect a certain tiredness or even exhaustion. This was the Sounders’ eighth game in four weeks and even though the last three had all been played at home, the strain of travel and the lack of regular training days have taken their toll both mentally and physically. I don’t know that I’d call it a valid excuse, but it was the impression I got.

Rather than digging into some of the mostly ugly particulars of this game, however, it seems worthwhile to take a cue from Schmetzer and take this opportunity at the midway point of the season to take stock of the bigger picture. Here are the main questions I think will need to be answered over the final 17 games in order to keep this from being a wasted season:

Can Sounders get their best team on the field?

Let’s just start with the most obvious concern, and that’s the health and availability of their best players. At this point, it’s probably not realistic to pin all the Sounders’ hopes on perfect health, but we have seen a close enough approximation to know that this team can be very good when reasonably close to that. It hardly seems a coincidence at this point that the Sounders’ record when Cristian Roldan available is 5-1-2 — including the most recent result — while they’re just 3-5-1 without him. Assuming Roldan’s concussion situation is really behind him, the other big concern is the Gold Cup. I would think he’s not that likely to be called in after missing the last two months, but it would be a huge blow to the Sounders if they were to lose him for another month after only getting him back for two games.

I’m a bit more worried about losing Jordan Morris for the Gold Cup. My understanding is that he’s a bit ahead of schedule and might even be able to feature against Charlotte FC this weekend, and he seems more likely to get called into the Gold Cup. That would potentially cause him to miss six more Sounders games, as the tournament wraps up exactly as MLS breaks for Leagues Cup.

The situation surrounding Raúl Ruidíaz is more tied directly to his health. Ruidíaz has only managed to start 2 of 17 games and has been limited to just 315 regular-season minutes this year. I have to assume the Sounders will get more out of him in the second half. Even if that’s “only” 1,000 minutes — which averages out to less than 60 per game — that should lead to about 4-6 more goals than he scored in the first half of the season. Given the small margins, that’s a significant boost.

If Ruidíaz can’t play, that likely means a heavier dose of Héber. I know Héber has struggled with finishing this year, but I’m reasonably confident that if he continues to generate chances the way he has through the first half of the season he’ll score plenty of goals.

Will Sounders pick up the tempo?

Among the hallmarks of the Sounders’ early-season success was how effective they were at creating high turnovers, their ability to turn long passing sequences into goal-scoring opportunities and still finding ways to spring direct attacks. Through the first seven games, the Sounders ranked at or near the top of the league in all of these metrics.

While the Sounders have continued to create scoring opportunities at a decent clip, they are converting them at a significantly lower rate and I suspect that’s at least tangentially related to their inability to get those chances on “fastbreak” opportunities. For the first seven games, they led MLS with .24 xG per match in those types of situations. Since then, they rank last in MLS at .01 xG per match.

My suspicion is that Cristian Roldan plays an outsized role in this specific aspect of the Sounders’ attack. Although he’s not necessarily fast, Roldan does offer a rare combination of the ability to both stretch the field and help in possession while not leaving the Sounders exposed on the counter.

Does an elite defense require a low-risk offense?

For all the Sounders’ offensive struggles this year, it’s worth acknowledging that they’ve at least achieved the goal of being “hard to beat.” Only Nashville SC allows less than the Sounders’ .82 goals per game and no one has posted more than the Sounders’ nine shutouts. In fact, Stefan Frei is on pace to break Tony Meola’s 23-year-old record for shutouts in a season (16).

The tradeoff has been pretty brutal, though. The Sounders have failed to score in 6 of 17 games and haven’t scored multiple goals in a game in any of their past 10. That they’ve still managed to get a point in half of those is impressive in its own way, but has also led to a lot of frustrating games. My suspicion is that the Sounders’ inability to finish chances is at least partially to blame for these conservative approaches.

The trick over the final 17 games will be figuring out how to play more expansive soccer without giving up a ton more chances. The Sounders basically did that through the first seven games of the season when they gave up just three goals, so it’s obviously not impossible.

Are there any changes that need to happen?

This is the biggest question, admittedly, and honestly I’m not entirely sure I have the answer. On one hand, I think it’s silly to completely disregard the first seven games of the season when the Sounders were mostly pretty healthy and focus entirely on the last 10 games. At the same time, those last 10 games are not just not more recent, but a bigger sample as well.

Given something close to full strength, I think the Sounders are actually pretty solid across their starters and have even seen some of their young depth step up when asked — Cody Baker and Reed Baker-Whiting being the two prime examples. If the Sounders are going to make one significant signing, my hope is that it’s someone who can provide a change of pace on the right wing not at fullback like we assumed when the season began.

The one area where there’s a bigger question is at the No. 10 spot. During that blazing start, Nicolás Lodeiro was playing like an MVP candidate. To say he has fallen off is probably a bit of an understatement. Lodeiro has produced a total of just 1.2 xG+xA over his last six games and less than .5 in each of those games. In three of those games, he’s completed fewer than 40 passes, something he only did twice in his first 11 games.

Two of Lodeiro’s worst performances came at the end of three-game weeks in which he started all three games. Against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Timbers, Lodeiro completed a combined 84 of 118 passes that created just seven shot-creating actions and .3 xG+xA.

At his best, Lodeiro is still a difference-maker in MLS, but he does not appear to be capable of maintaining that level without full rest. I don’t think the Sounders are going to be able to bring anyone in from outside the organization to replace Lodeiro this season, but they absolutely need to explore other options from within the roster, especially when the schedule gets congested. The obvious solution seems to be trying Albert Rusnák there, but I’d be open to seeing how Cristian Roldan or even Obed Vargas performs in that spot.