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Postgame Pontifications: ‘Highlife Soccer’ is about more than sexy passing

Attractive as the Sounders play has been, the engine of their success is dogged defending and an ability to extend possessions.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — On the rare occasion that Brian Schmetzer has asked the address the media directly before taking questions at a postgame press conference, it’s usually on a somber note. Either he’s recognizing someone who passed or he’s getting an uncomfortable talking point out the way early. I’m not sure I ever remember him doing what he did on Saturday.

Schmetzer was so moved by what he’d just watched his players do that he felt compelled to play hype man.

“The team was really good,” he said, grin stretching from ear to ear. “It was only 2-0, it was a shame that we didn’t score again but ... the passes and the one-touch and everything. That was some of the best soccer that the Seattle Sounders have played in a very long time.”

To drive home his point, Schmetzer compared the Sounders’ performance against Real Salt Lake to the halcyon days of 2014-15 when Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins were creating appointment viewing with their “drift compatible” play.

It’s not hard to understand why Schmetzer would make the analogy. The Sounders were putting on a show. The number of backheels, little sideline rondos and first-touch passes was something we haven’t really seen the Sounders do in recent years.

Fellow Sounder at Heart contributor A. Pearson compiled a Twitter thread of some of the best moments, but this one sequence is a pretty good example:

What differentiates this run of form from those Oba-Deuce days, though, is not only how much more involved the whole team seems to be but how much more stable the foundation for it seems. It’s not like the Sounders are pinning their ears back and giving up chances on the other end; they way they are defending is a huge part of their early success.

As flashy as the offensive patterns have been, the Sounders’ willingness to counter-press and ability to extend possession through winning second-balls is what stood out to me. This sort of solidity is an aspect of the positional play the Sounders implemented this offseason that has mostly gone overlooked. It’s no accident that deflected crosses are finding their way back to the Sounders or that a fullback is in position to take advantage.

We can see how that effort paid off on both goals, in fact.

On the first goal, the Sounders win possession off a goal kick and get into the attacking third through some slick passing. But what makes the goal possible is recycling possession twice, first after Cristian Roldan has his shot blocked and then again after Alex Roldán has his cross blocked.

There’s some more good passing in the buildup to the second goal, but again what keeps the sequence alive is Nicolas Lodeiro picking up the rebound after Jordan Morris’s cross is blocked (a very similar play to what created Héber’s goal in the season opener).

Given the right circumstances, most professional soccer players are capable of playing attractive soccer. What differentiates the great teams from the good ones is a willingness to do the work when everything isn’t going as smoothly. All six of the Sounders’ goals this season have featured elements of both.

“Everyone wants the ball, everyone wants to be a part of it,” Morris said. “Everyone is being unselfish and working for the team, the pressing and back pressing. There are so many examples of that today. Guys sacrificing and doing little things to help the team. I think that’s what you’re seeing going forward. Everyone is feeling confident and it’s showing up on the field.”

In an effort to put some more data behind all this, I started digging around to see what I could find. I wouldn’t say I’ve found anything conclusive, but FotMob does track possessions won in the final third and in the midfield. The Sounders currently rank fifth in winning possession in the attacking third (7.0 per game) and lead in possessions won in the midfield (66). A year ago, they were basically middling in both categories. The Sounders are also tied with press-heavy St. Louis City for causing the most “high turnovers” according to

That defensive effort has continued even when the opposition breaks through the Sounders’ lines.

“Defensively, I see attacking-minded players come back and help,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, whose two shutouts are just three less than he had all of last year. “It’s the second game where I’ve seen Léo Chú check back into our 18 and make a good play. When subs come in, that’s what we need. We need your help up top, but we also need your energy in the back.

“I think we’re seeing that the team is buying in and getting that reward offensively and defensively. We talk about shutouts being the goalkeeper or the back 5, but it’s something to be proud of as a team. It really truly takes a team.”

It’s this attitude and aspect of play that makes me think what the Sounders are doing is potentially sustainable. They aren’t always going to play “champagne football”, but what my colleague Tim Foss has dubbed “Highlife Soccer” incorporates sexy passing with lunch-pail defending, and that is something that will be a pain to play against no matter what.

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