The Seattle Sounders are absolutely flourishing in attack right now. Whether you want to call it “Highlife Soccer” or not, a team that produces 6.5 xG through two MLS games and turns that into 6.0 actual goals by any other name would be as sweet.
If Brian Schmetzer and his staff can keep the squad reasonably healthy and performing at this level, there will be plenty written and said about the attack. Jordan Morris is leading the Golden Boot race, Héber is putting up a goal a game and has still missed more Big Chances than all but two MLS teams have even produced, and Nico Lodeiro is creating chances at a rate that if he keeps it up will have all of his attacking teammates filling out the scoresheet. There will be plenty to talk about and enjoy with this attack as the season continues, but what’s more interesting to me at this point is what’s allowed the team to thrive in the attacking third.
I think our dearly beloved Jeremiah Oshan did a great job of explaining how the Sounders defense and counter-press are fueling the attack. I don't want to waste time re-covering what he’s already played out, so suffice it to say that the ability to consistently win second balls and pick up loose touches in and around the area has allowed them to extend plays and directly led to goals.
According to MLS, the Sounders lead the league in “headed duel percentage” (67.2%) and in straight duel percentage (55.6%). The team’s tackle success rate is firmly middle of the pack, as 43.5% puts them 15th out of 29 teams, but their 23 tackle attempts per game is the fourth highest average in the league. They’re fourth in the league when it comes to winning possession in the final third, according to Fotmob, with 7 per match, and they lead the league in possession won in midfield. That’s all to illustrate that the Sounders are absolutely hoovering the ball up throughout the field so far, and when they’ve got it they very seldom give it up. They get dispossessed — both when attempting dribbles and being tackled — less than any team in the league, per FBRef.
That all seems good, and I think you’d expect a team that does those things to have success. Add in the flair that the team can play with and it makes a lot of sense that they’re scoring goals at a good clip, and doing even better at keeping opponents from doing the same. I think there’s something deeper at play here, though.
This team is playing with a level of confidence that we just haven’t seen in a long time. Jordan Morris is taking guys on, Alex and Cristian Roldan are communicating telepathically as they play 1-2s through defenses, and Jackson Ragen is hitting dimes from the back line. Sure, good performances build confidence, which leads to further good performances, but there’s more to it. I assert that the defensive stats above are playing a significant role in the confidence the Sounders have when building possession or attacking.
Not a predictive stat but maybe my favorite one:— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) March 7, 2023
Sounders rank 1st in "build-up attacks" (sequences involving 10+ passes that lead to a shot) with 11; they also lead in "direct attacks" (sequences that start in own end and feature 50%+ forward touches) with 5. via @OptaAnalyst
At least to some extent, I think that confidence plays a part in both of the stats cited in that tweet. As Albert Rusnák put it after training on Wednesday, “I think the movement helps... having the confidence to play the balls to each other in tight areas. Sometimes when a pass is on, sometimes last year we would opt to go long and to kind of be a bit lucky with the second ball and sometimes we would win it, sometimes not.” Whether playing a direct pass — the Sounders lead the league in accurate long balls per game with 40.5 — from deep or dribbling and passing through tight spaces with back heels and flicks, knowing that it’s okay if the play doesn’t come off because your teammates will pitch in to win the ball back provides a level of mental security that’s hard to quantify. Rusnák continued, “we’re really trusting each other with the ball, and we do find players in tight areas on the field and it’s been going well. Even when we lost the ball a couple of times, I felt like the teammates around the ball were really good to press and win the ball back.”
Jackson Ragen and Jordan Morris are key examples of players benefiting from this confidence. Per FBRef, Ragen is completing the same number of long passes/90 minutes in 2023 as in 2022 (8), but he’s completing 80% of his attempts compared to 68.5%. Morris is a frequent target of those passes. With an added bit of confidence, Ragen seems to be releasing those long balls for Morris earlier than he was last year, which gives the defense less time to prepare and leaves Morris with an even greater advantage. Now not only is Ragen succeeding more often with those passes, but Morris is also in a better position to make use of the pass when it comes off. When he approaches the penalty area and has decisions to make, he can make them without hesitation because he knows that even if he gets stopped Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo, Albert Rusnák, the Roldans, Héber or any number of his other teammates will be there to help clean it up.
If you’ve ever done any gardening, especially on a large scale, you know that the work’s not easy. It’s physically draining, it requires constant attention, lots of thought and planning, it’s dirty, and it takes a serious time commitment to see results. The Sounders have collectively picked up their shovels and sheers, now look at their garden grow.
FEAST YOUR EYES pic.twitter.com/QENB9dNqY8— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) March 7, 2023