With four games left in the MLS regular season, the Seattle Sounders find themselves sitting all alone in second place with a not-entirely-unrealistic path toward winning the Western Conference.
This is a somewhat remarkable thing to say, especially given how the season has unfolded. For most of the past five months, the Sounders have listed somewhere between competence and despair. Rarely have they approached anything close to the inspiring start that had us talking about “Highlife Soccer.”
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I don’t think Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the last-place Colorado Rapids is some kind of cure-all for the Sounders’ general malaise, but it was a definite step in the right direction, especially when you look at it as part of a wider pattern of improved play.
Since losing 2-0 at home to Atlanta United on Aug. 20, the Sounders have quietly put together their longest unbeaten stretch since their record-breaking start to the 2021 season. During these last five games, the Sounders have claimed a rather pedestrian nine points, but that’s as many as they had claimed in the 10 games that immediately preceded this run. They’ve also scored eight goals; again, not exactly eye-popping, but that comes directly on the heels of scoring just eight goals in their previous 10 league games. That includes three matches where they’ve scored multiple goals, something they had only managed to do twice in their previous 18 league matches.
Against the Rapids, the Sounders scored in both halves – like I said, something hardly extraordinary – a feat they'd only managed once in their previous 20 league matches. Taken all together, though, and these are obvious signs of progress.
"You’re never going to have a season where you’re just cruising," Sounders midfielder Albert Rusnák said after scoring the game-winning goal. "We have bumped through it.
"It’s great to build some momentum. We’re not there yet, but we’re in a good way. It’s performances like this you can build upon."
Somewhat counter-intuitively, this improved run of form has come at a time when the lineup has been as unstable as ever. In each of the last four games, the Sounders have averaged 3.75 changes to the starting lineup per match and made at least two in each of them. Jackson Ragen, João Paulo and Jordan Morris are the only outfield players who have started all five matches and 18 players have started at least once.
One of the criticisms of the Sounders during their previous struggles was an insistence on sticking with the same core group of starters. Whether their hand was forced or not, Wednesday's lineup was exactly what many of us had been dying to see. With Josh Atencio pressing higher up the pitch, Cristian Roldan pinching in and Albert Rusnák often floating around in the center of the pitch, the Sounders were able to play in a sort of 3-1-3-3 formation in the attack as they were able to consistently throw numbers into the box.
That kind of multi-fanged thrust was particularly apparent on the second goal when Cristian Roldan dribbled a ball toward the byline and floated a cross into the box where three attackers were in dangerous positions. Rusnák ended up scoring the goal on a header while making a late run into the box. Even before that, the Sounders were consistently creating danger through a variety of attacking patterns featuring any one of the front seven players, including the mostly deep-lying João Paulo, who contributed key plays on both goals.
Sure, some of that was made possible by a Rapids defense that was mostly timid. But over the past five months, the Sounders have faced plenty of struggling opponents and not been able to exploit them nearly as consistently as they did on Wednesday.
It hardly seems like a coincidence that Cristian Roldan was also making his first start in nearly two months. The Sounders have averaged 2.1 goals in his starts, as opposed to .8 in their other matches. They're also 6-1-3 (2.1 PPG) in Roldan's starts.
Notably, the Sounders' level dropped shortly after Roldan came off the field in the 65th minute. After outshooting the Rapids 11-2 over the first 75 minutes, the match turned. Over the final 15 minutes, the Rapids had a 9-0 shot advantage and made for some nervy closing moments after Cole Bassett scored in the 80th from a spot Roldan likely would have been defending.
If they're to really push St. Louis for the top spot in the West, the Sounders probably need to go undefeated but can potentially afford to drop some points against Nashville SC in their next match on Sept. 30. A push for first in the West seems far more achievable if Roldan is available.
"He has a little bit of everything," Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said about Roldan. "He’s a bit of a dog, he has some fight. We need players like that to feed off him."