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Postgame Pontifications: Heads above water

After a disastrous start to the season, the Sounders got back to .500 and above the playoff line. Now the work really starts.

Last Updated
3 min read
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

It took quite a bit longer than anyone would have preferred, but the Seattle Sounders officially got their record to .500 with their win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Thanks to the result, the Sounders are now 7-7-7 and sitting in the No. 9 spot, though just three points out of fourth.

Of course, getting to this point has been a bit of a grind, to say the least.

The win over the Fire involved the Sounders playing some of their most uninspired soccer of the season for the first half-hour. At that point, they were trailing 1-0, had given up two gilt-edged chances, were being out shot 5-1 and had been out-possessed about 60-40. They looked far more like the road team visiting a powerhouse, not the home team hosting the Eastern Conference’s cellar-dwellers.

Once seemingly immune to making halftime changes, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer did it for the second time in three games. This time, it was Alex Roldan who got yanked, although it would be unfair to say he was the only one playing poorly.

“The whole 11 could have been taken off at halftime,” Sounders midfielder Albert Rusnák said. “No one was playing up to their potential or the standard we have. If we had 11 subs, maybe we’d all been off.”

The change had the desired effect. With Paul Rothrock coming in at halftime, Cristian Roldan slid to right back and suddenly the Sounders played with a lot more urgency. After losing the xG battle 1.57-.07 in the first half, the Sounders turned it around to a 2.23-.12 advantage, a net swing of about 3.5.

A lot of that was that the Sounders won two penalties in the second half (each worth about .8 xG), but they both came from situations where they put Fire defenders under pressure. From open play, they still had an 8-3 shots advantage, with four of those shots on frame, and held 60% of possession, with most of that coming in the Fire’s end. After a first half in which the Sounders had just four touches in the Fire’s penalty area, they racked up 21 in the second half.

This was actually the third straight game in which the Sounders secured at least a point after giving up the first goal, something they had only done once in their previous 18 matches. The Sounders’ three come-from-behind wins are now tied for the second most in MLS, behind only Inter Miami, who has done it seven times.

“At halftime I’d say we were a lot calmer than in previous games,” said Rusnák, who converted both penalties. “Once you do something you feel a little more comfortable and believe you can do it again. We weren’t panicked. We’ve done it before,  but we needed to raise the level because the first half wasn’t good enough.”

While maybe not the most satisfying way to do it, the Sounders do deserve some credit for getting this season back to the point where climbing into a Top 4 spot — which would mean they have home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs — is a reasonable goal.

Since bottoming out on on April 27, when a loss to D.C. United left them at 1-5-3 and sitting 13th in the 14-team Western Conference, the Sounders have gone 6-2-4 in league play and 7-2-5 overall. During that stretch, only two teams have collected more than their 22 points, and their 1.83 points per game are the sixth most in the league. That’s allowed them to make up six points on the final playoff spot and close the gap from 11 points to three points on the No. 4 spot in the West.

The advanced metrics aren’t quite as flattering, but over the last 11 games Seattle's expected goal-difference is 10th best in the league and fourth best in the West. LAFC, the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake are all virtually uncatchable, but it’s notable that the Sounders have managed to at least be competitive in four of the five meetings against those three teams. If Pedro de la Vega can be successfully integrated, it’s not that hard to see some significant upside.

None of this is to suggest the Sounders are remotely out of the woods. For all the work they’ve put in, they have effectively managed to get their heads out of the water but they remain very much in danger of getting knocked down by the next moderately-sized wave. To make all this work stick, they probably need to win their next home game against the New England Revolution and would be wise to collect as many points as possible with three of their next four league games at home. They’ve also got a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal during that stretch; hopefully this uptick in form hasn’t diminished their desire to win that trophy as well.

But given the way the season started, it’s worth at least taking a breath and appreciating the improvement they’ve made.