As the Seattle Sounders have stumbled their way through the last five months of the season, they've done just barely enough to provide some hope that they might be able to pull it together in time for a decent playoff run. Along the way, they've picked up just enough results to maintain their position in the upper portion of the table and managed to hold onto a spot that would guarantee them home-field advantage through the first round.
What they've not been able to do, however, is register anything that approaches a "signature win." The kind of result that would state with a full chest that this team is a real contender.
The 0-0 tie with Nashville SC on Saturday obviously wasn't that "signature win," but it was arguably the first time in many months that the Sounders have shown themselves capable of standing toe-to-toe with one of the league's top teams.
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"This is a good playoff test and we handled ourselves exceptionally well," Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said after the game. "Sometimes you have to be content with going to a tough place, being good defensively and carving out some good chances."
Nashville had come into this match one of the league's top teams at home, having gone 13-3-4 at Geodis Park across all competitions this year. Yet, the Sounders looked like the better team for much of the match, especially in the second half.
Nashville's best chance of the game came in the dying moments of the first half when they got out on a counter-attack. Hany Mukhtar played Jacob Shaffelburg into space, but Cristian Roldan was able to catch the attacker and force him to cut it back onto his right foot. That gave Jackson Ragen just enough time to make a last-ditch tackle and clear the ball to safety.
In the second half, Nashville only managed two shots. One from the top of the penalty area that was blocked and another in the 95th minute that never really had much chance. Nashville ended the match with just five shots and .27 xG, the lowest figures they've ever posted in a league game at home.
The Sounders weren't exactly generating a ton of quality chances themselves, but they were consistently applying pressure. Unlike many other matches, the Sounders never really got off the front foot and pressed basically up until the end of the match. They also generated a few decent looks, whether it was Héber hitting the crossbar or Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan each narrowly missing shots from about 19 yards out.
Like Nashville, the Sounders' best look of the night didn't actually count as a shot at all. Héber appeared to score the go-ahead goal, smoothly collecting a pass from Lodeiro and firing it into the goal, only to have VAR – correctly – disallow it for offside. But that chance was somewhat emblematic of how the Sounders were playing all evening. Immediately following Héber's header off the crossbar, Josh Atencio was able to win the ball back in the Sounders' end. He then nutmegged his defender, picked up his head and found Jackson Ragen inside the penalty area. Ragen then passed it back out to Lodeiro, who found Héber.
The Sounders' inclination to not just counter-press but to aggressively look to score is what should be so encouraging there.
Even more encouraging was that the Sounders kept up that kind of play up until the very end of the match. Mukhtar, in particular, seemed to be frustrated by the pressure he received and never seemed to find any sort of groove.
A good deal of credit for that belongs to Reed Baker-Whiting, who Nashville appeared to identify as a possible weak spot early in the match. In just his second-ever MLS start at left back, Baker-Whiting followed up his breakout performance against FC Dallas with an even better showing in more challenging circumstances. The 18-year-old ended up winning 9 of 12 duels, had five tackles and even showed off some flair with three successful dribbles. It's probably getting ahead of things to suggest he has supplanted Nouhou as a first-choice left back, but he does offer a better two-way option.
"I don’t want to get the kid too big but you saw what I saw and what the people in Nashville saw," Schmetzer said. "He was really, really, really good offensively and defensively."
Taken together, I think this bodes well for the Sounders' ability to actually make a push in the playoffs. They've established that they can get results against good teams, that they can even dictate play when on the road and did all of this while missing several likely starters. Of course, now they need to build on it.
"We have two games at home and need to take care of business," Frei said.