When discussing elite defensive units in the history of MLS, we often hear a lot about the record-breaking 2000 Kansas City Wizards that Tony Meola led to MLS Cup. That team posted 17 shutouts in just 32 regular-season matches, then posted five more shutouts in seven playoff games.
There’s also a fair amount of discussion about Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy teams that won three MLS Cups from 2011-2014 thanks as much to their defense as starpower. More recently, we hear about the high pressing of the New York Red Bulls or even upstart St. Louis City. This year, more attention seemed to be paid to the defensive solidity of Nashville SC.
Rarely, if ever, have I heard this year’s Seattle Sounders mentioned among the best defensive teams in MLS history. Stefan Frei wasn’t even a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year despite posting league-best 14 shutouts, while centerback Yeimar Gomez Andrade finished a very distant third in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Matt Miazga and Tim Parker. Unless defensive midfielder João Paulo sneaks in, the Sounders are likely to be shut out from the MLS Best XI as well.
The numbers tell a different story. During the regular season, the Sounders allowed just .94 goals per game (.88 if you exclude own-goals). That’s the 12th lowest average for any team in MLS history. Maybe even more impressive is that they are allowing just .97 expected goals per game, which is good for the fifth-lowest average since American Soccer Analysis started recording that data. Their 16 shutouts – including playoffs – are the fourth most and their 12 home shutouts is tied for the second most in MLS history.
Considering how inconsistent the offense has been this year, the defense is what has carried the Sounders into Sunday's Western Conference semifinal against LAFC.
“We’ve taken great pride in being defensively sound this year,” Frei said on Wednesday. “It’s given us a great foundation.”
Part of why no one seems to be getting individual accolades, though, is that this truly has been a collective effort. While the Sounders may have a bunch of players considered top 5 at their positions, no one is considered to be clearly the best.
They also have settled on a starting group in which all 11 players are expected to do their share of defending. That starts with Jordan Morris and Albert Rusnák, who have been particularly proactive when defending in the opposition’s end. The Sounders finished the regular season forcing the fourth most “high turnovers” and limited opponents to the sixth-lowest completion percentage on long passes (those most likely to be disrupted by otherwise attacking players).
"It’s a collective effort," Sounders right back Alex Roldan said. "We’re all putting in really hard shifts."
While the strength in the Sounders' defense may be that it's greater than the sum of its parts, there's still a basic need for players to win their individual battles. No one has a bigger task than Roldan, who is likely going to be matched up with LAFC's Denis Bouanga.
The Gabon international has put together one of the best seasons in MLS history, with 36 goals and 15 assists across all competitions. That includes three goals in LAFC's first-round playoff series win over the Vancouver Whitecaps and nine goals in his past five MLS matches. Just for good measure, he also scored in his past two matches with Gabon in Africa World Cup qualifying during the most recent international break, giving him goals in seven straight matches.
He's having the kind of season on the right side that LAFC teammate Carlos Vela had on the left back in 2019. Vela had 38 all-competition goals that season, which was, of course, cut short by the Sounders.
"He’s so direct," Morris said. "His first thought, his first action is 'I’m going to try to beat someone and go at goal.' He’s so explosive. He has an incredible shot, incredible finish. He’s on a different level. We respect what he brings but we know we can do our best to shut him down."
In their two previous meetings with LAFC, the Sounders have done a good job of limiting Bouanga's effectiveness, restricting him to just four shots and .2 xG in 149 minutes. Roldan was instrumental in the first meeting, matching up with near-full strength Bouanga for all 90 minutes. Cody Baker actually had the assignment in the second game, but Bouanga was coming off a long flight from Africa just a day earlier and was limited to 59 minutes in that match.
Part of the challenge for Roldan is that he's also a key component of the Sounders' attack, getting so far up the field that he's effectively a winger in the attack. With 22 international caps as well as numerous encounters with elite MLS attackers, Roldan said he's actually relishing the challenge.
"There’s some personal pride that goes into it for sure," he said. "It’s kind of the outside back’s role. I have other things to focus on, but defensively 1-v-1 is something we looking forward to. He’s a quality player and I look forward to going against quality players. I’m looking forward to our matchup."
It seems appropriate as the MLS Playoffs enter their single-elimination phase that there's a matchup like this one: An elite defense against an elite offensive unit. Although LAFC's regular season seemed to be dragged down a bit by fixture congestion – something the Sounders are plenty familiar with – they still managed to finish with the third-most points and second-best goal-difference in the Western Conference.
Although Bouanga was a significant part of their offense – he directly contributed to 49% of their regular-season goals – it should be said that LAFC has plenty of other weapons. Vela, even at 34, still managed 14 goals and 11 assists across all competitions. Cristian Olivera, acquired over the summer, is already getting starts with Uruguay at 21 years old. Ryan Hollingshead remains one of the top attacking fullbacks in MLS at 32 years old, with seven goals across all-competitions, including two in the playoffs.
There's a very real sense that the winner of this game will likely go on to represent the West in MLS Cup, especially since they'll be hosting the conference final.
This Sounders team may not have etched their place in history quite yet, but there's still time.
"There’s some electricity," Frei said. "You feel it, that people know that everything is heightened. There’s no room for error, the margins are so, so tiny. It’s almost like everyone is walking on needles, trying to find their way into the game. You want to create but don’t want to create something for the opponent. I enjoy that. You know it’s a meaningful game, everyone knows it’s a meaningful game. I’m excited for it. It should be a good match."