Well, that was very fun until it very much wasn’t. For most of the game on Saturday night the Seattle Sounders were their usual, dominant selves. The Portland Timbers weren’t a threat until they were very, very much one. However, the dominance only produced one goal and soccer matches are — in fact — 90 minutes. A 20-minute blitz of horrific errors from the Sounders and some Timbers voodoo later, the match ends 4-1 in favor of the home team. So what the hell happened? Here are five things to explain why the Sounders collapsed.
Poor Rest Defense
I figured I’d get the boring nerdy tactical point out of the way first. If this stuff isn’t really your cup of tea and you’re here for the emotional gnashing of teeth type stuff, just skip down below.
Perhaps you haven’t really heard of the tactical terminology “rest defense” before, but I promise you that you’ve seen it with your eyes before. The way we talk about the game of soccer is important, but often times it is flawed or at the very least not holistic. We often describe the game in two ways: attacking (when a team has the ball) and defending (when a team doesn’t have the ball). However, that’s not really what’s happening. Teams attack when they don’t have the ball (pressing) and defend when they have the ball (rest defense). For a Rest Defense 101 course, here’s a less-than-five minute video from the wonderful folks at Tifo Football.
The Sounders’ rest defense was extremely poor on every goal the Timbers scored last night. Yeimar, João Paulo (more on him later), Obed Vargas, and Jackson Ragen can all learn a lot from the film of this game. If the Sounders want to be a dominant possession-based team, they need their central midfielders and defenders to be switched on at all times. You can basically take your pick of any Timbers goal from Saturday night and find fault in these four based on their positioning in possession that led to poor mistakes on defense.
If you are one of those people who are wondering what Albert Rusnak does well or wishing he contributed more, spend the next few matches watching him while the Sounders have the ball. He’s so, so good at positioning himself when he doesn’t have the ball to A. help the Sounders attack but also B. take up very good rest defending spots.
João Paulo’s brain-dead yellow card
João Paulo picked up a yellow card in the 44th minute on Saturday night and I’m still upset about it. Evander, Portland’s shiny new DP, was winding up for a shot outside the box when he cleverly changed his body position to allow JP to plow into his back. It’s perhaps a soft call, however it’s such a brain-dead play from JP that I had to rewatch the play to make sure my eyes weren’t lying to me. It was his first — and only — foul of the match, but it completely changed how aggressive he could be.
Vargas was making his first start of the season after only playing 51 minutes so far this season. It’s an incredibly hostile environment for a young player given the circumstances, and JP needs to be the one to help navigate the teenager through the match. Picking up that yellow card when he did meant that the roles had to reverse for the second half.
And now, it’s time to touch the lightning rod. There always seems to be at least one polarizing Sounders figure a season and so far through eight games it seems like it’s Stefan Frei’s turn to be it. I’ll preface this with that I’ve included Frei in this column before and I’ve wanted Frei to do better on a handful of occasions, but let’s get into what’s actually going on.
Evaluating goalkeeping with statistics is very difficult. We’ve come along way, sure, but it’s the most difficult position in the sport to judge. They can use their hands for crying out loud! So, what do the numbers say about Frei? All of these stats are for the goalkeepers who have played eight games. He is 7th in Goals Prevented (1.8), 4th in Post Shot xG (8.0), and 9th in PSxG per shot on goal (0.30). Basically, all of this to say, he’s performing above the average that the statistics say he should be, but is that good enough?
A common refrain in the comments is that Frei is showing signs of aging and fans wanting him to be better. I think I find myself agreeing with those things. There are now a handful of saves this year he should’ve done much better on. The PSxG/SoT stat above makes me think the defense is putting him in some tough spots and tightening that up should result in much better goalkeeping performances. After all, the best goalkeepers are ones you rarely need to use.
Things are particularly interesting because Stefan Cleveland is the one behind Frei. If the veneer continues to crack with Frei, perhaps Cleveland playing for a few games could help reset the club legend.
Portland’s voodoo magic
Per Opta, the Timbers scored four goals between the 71st and 89th minutes against Seattle. The span of 18 minutes is the fastest they’ve ever scored four times in an MLS match in their history.
That’s bad enough on its own, but that also comes in the context of the Sounders being utterly in control for three-quarters of the game. On top of that, this is the first time in MLS that any Cascadia team has won four in a row against a single opponent. The Timbers are also bad this season and this win almost certainly saved Gio Savarese’s job! I’m going to be sick to my stomach.
In the grand scheme of everything, this loss doesn’t change a whole lot. The Sounders are still very good and the Timbers have a lot of work to do. However, it is never acceptable to get absolutely molly-whopped by Portland. I recommend everyone watch Brian Schmetzer’s post-match press conference, if you can stomach it. It’s as angry as I’ve ever seen him after a loss.
A Léo Chú-sized hole
You can basically pinpoint the moment the Sounders became vulnerable and that moment was the Héber for Léo Chú in the 69th minute. That sub worked well against St. Louis, but very, very poorly against Portland. That’s not necessarily really down to something Héber or Léo Chú did or didn’t do, but it totally threw the shape out of whack and Portland was able to exploit it because the Sounders no longer offered any width on the left side of their attack.
Learning that Raúl Ruidíaz was on a medical time limit because of his hamstring made that sub even more perplexing. Schmetzer could’ve pulled Raúl around the 65th minute for Héber and the Sounders could’ve used Jordan Morris and Léo Chú to pin Portland’s fullbacks. Héber could’ve held the ball up in transition. It would’ve been a completely different game.
Oh well. It’s one to take on the chin. Great teams get punched in the mouth and they respond well. The Sounders have been punched before this season against SKC, LA, and Cincy, but it’s up to them how they want a 4-1 loss to their most hated rivals to end up. Does it derail their season or is it just a weird blip? Time will tell.