Given how the Seattle Sounders had dominated Real Salt Lake in their previous meeting and consider their respective places in the standings, this felt like the year the winless streak in Sandy, Utah might finally end.
To their credit, the Sounders generated some good chances, did an admirable job of limiting RSL, and put themselves in position to do just that. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and they were forced to settle for a 0-0 tie. Still, that was just the second time in their last 13 regular-season trips to Utah that the Sounders had even claimed a point and the first time they’d registered a shutout in that period.
Beyond that, I’m not sure there was much to really unpack about this game. Instead, 10 games into the 2023 season feels like a good time to give a broad overview of some trends I’ve seen.
Defense has been great
This was the Sounders’ sixth shutout of the season. To put that into some context, that equals their regular-season total from a year ago, which of course took them 34 games to achieve. The Sounders are currently tied for third in goals allowed with seven and have only allowed more than one goal in a game once, the fewest in MLS.
While all of that is nice, what’s especially encouraging about the Sounders’ defensive effort is that it at least appears to be reasonably sustainable. Only four teams have allowed fewer expected goals (10.0) and in 6 of 10 games they’ve allowed .7 xG or less. Again, to compare that to last year, that’s something they only managed to do four times in 34 games.
The biggest area of defensive improvement seems to be in the way they’re pressing. No, the Sounders haven’t turned into a Red Bulls West or anything, but they are much better at applying pressure out of their 4-4-2 defense than they’ve probably ever been. The Sounders still rank fifth in “high turnovers” and they’ve converted those into shots often enough to rank fourth in that category.
Analytics seem to like them
Beyond their defense, the Sounders’ overall success also seems to be supported by the underlying numbers. Just to cherry-pick a few encouraging stats, they are rated second in MLS by G+, the all-encompassing stat favored by American Soccer Analytics; they lead the league in open-play xG (13.78, according to Opta); and they lead the league in Expected Goal-Difference (+7.0).
They are doing this through a balance of solid defense and repeatable offensive patterns. The Sounders have been among the best teams in possession with the second most completed passes per sequence (3.94) and the most sequences of 10 or more completed passes (132). They’re also converting those long spells of possession into shots at a good rate, with 31 of them ending that way (second-best in MLS).
Add it all together and the Sounders’ 20 points through 10 games is a little bit ahead of where the analytics say they “should” be, but at 17.34 it’s still the best in MLS.
They’ve done this while changing the lineup a lot
After the Sounders used the same lineup in each of the first two games of the season, they’ve been forced to make at least one change in every game since then and have now used nine different starting lineups. Twice they’ve needed to make three personnel changes from the previous game and they’ve actually won both of those matches.
There have been 17 players to start at least one game and all but one of those have started at least twice.
I think it can reasonably be said that they have at least 17 players who have proven to be solid starters, and that’s without Xavier Arreaga starting any league games. That sort of roster depth has allowed them to maintain a high level despite João Paulo, Cristian Roldan, Alex Roldan, Albert Rusnák, Nouhou and Jordan Morris all missing at least one game.
Nicolás Lodeiro is a big reason why
While acknowledging that the RSL game was probably Lodeiro’s least impactful — he had a season-low 59 touches and was held to 0.0 xG+xA for just the second time this year — it only serves to highlight just how good he’s been otherwise.
On the top-line stats, Lodeiro is tied for third in MLS with five assists. That dramatically undersells just how good he’s been, though.
Lodeiro is sixth in expected Assists (2.9) and 12th in non-penalty xG+xA. He’s also third in progressive passes and fourth in progressive passes received, the only player in MLS to even rank in the Top 10 in both categories.
Most of his contributions are coming from open play, too, where he’s leading the league in shot-creating actions and second in goal-creating actions.
Not only is Lodeiro far from “past it”, as I keep seeing people insist, he’s actually closer to MVP caliber.
I don’t have the data handy to back this up, but I suspect Lodeiro is being asked to roam the field a lot less than he used to. Rather than floating all over the field to look for the ball, Lodeiro is more likely to focus his energy on acting as sort of an extra attacker on the left side. You can see this manifest itself a bit in his heatmaps.
Cristian Roldan’s absence is notable
One of the possibly unsung heroes of 2023 has been Cristian Roldan, who has missed each of the Sounders’ last three league games while recovering from a concussion he suffered against St. Louis City.
When Roldan plays, the Sounders are 5-1-1 with a 15-3 goals advantage. That’s compared to 1-1-1 and a 4-2 goals disadvantage when he doesn’t play. We see this is the more advanced data as well, with the Sounders .90 xGD better when he’s on the field vs. when he’s off of it. That’s among the biggest impacts in all of MLS.
Maybe even more than Nouhou, I think Roldan’s versatility might be the key to making the Sounders’ offense work, as he’s able to both stretch the field vertically and drop into the pocket to help with possession.
Hopefully we get some positive information about Roldan’s status this week.
A few more standouts
- We’ve said plenty about Jordan Morris’ performance over the course of the season, but it bears repeating that he’s been very good. What’s particularly notable about his play this year is that he finds ways to be impactful even when he’s not finding a ton of the ball. He just seems generally more assertive when he has the ball and is making better runs off of it. One thing I will say is that the early returns suggest he’s much more effective either on the left or at forward. Two of his least impactful games have come when he started on the right.
- Léo Chú has to be considered the breakout player of the year so far. Since that four-assist outburst, he’s become a fixture in the starting lineup and while he’s not been able to top that performance, he has consistently been dangerous. Against RSL, he was probably the Sounders’ most effective player, at least through the first half.
- João Paulo isn’t quite at the MVP level he showed in 2021, but he continues to be very good for the Sounders. He ranks second in tackles+interceptions, has completed 92% of his passes and ranks 17th in progressive passes. Just the kind of two-way play we’ve come to expect.