What Are They All About? Seattle Sounders
The glass is half empty. This past Saturday the Chicago Fire drew on the road against the LA Galaxy 2-2. They put together one of their finest performances of the season in the first half and in the second they reminded onlookers why that tingling sense of doubt continues to linger in the depths of their stomachs. Reactions varied and included everything from jettisoning all hope for the season to declaring Chicago a sure bet for the playoffs. The reality is that the match was one in which the Fire should have beaten an LA side that is a shadow of its former self. Instead, they managed to blow a 2-0 lead and leave with a point, a feat bettered by last place Philadelphia the week prior. Is the result devastating? No. Had Chicago managed to get more from their New York and Toronto encounters this a draw against LA would have been a great result no matter what happened on the field. However, they did not and Chicago enters their tenth match of the season tangoing back and forth across the red line.
As promised we have withheld judgement of this year’s progress and will not provide a full assessment until after the ten-match mark (our measurement of success was being between 15-17 points). With that said, this match will be decisive in terms of evaluating where Chicago stands. They’re unbeaten at home this season and should that continue there is no doubt on our end that they’ll be playing well into the month of October. On the other hand, merely stumbling across the red line shouldn’t be the goal for anyone. Their latest test comes in the form of another struggling Western Conference opponent, the Seattle Sounders.
The defending champions have not started the way that Brian Schmetzer and Garth Lagerway would have expected. They’ve won just two matches this season (losing three and drawing the remaining four) and have not reflected the ability present within the team. A squad known for their attacking prowess has fewer goals than half the league and has looked suspect defensively as well. This Saturday provides an opportunity of vindication for both sides and has been billed as one of the matches of the weekend (kick off at 8:00 PM CT on ESPN). Will Seattle continue to dominate the history of this fixture, or will Chicago head into the second quarter of the season in a playoff spot? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Seattle Form Guide (last five matches): L-D-W-L-D
Previous Result: A 1-0 home loss to TFC.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Frei; Delem, Torres, Svensson, Jones; Alonso, Roldan; Lodeiro, Dempsey, Morris; Bruin
Strengths: When it comes down to it, this Seattle Sounders side are still the reigning MLS Champions. There is an air of expectation surrounding the Pacific Northwest in terms of league success and a slow start will not deter a franchise that has shown they know what it takes to win. Health issues have not impeded Clint Dempsey who has taken on a new role in the center of midfield; Osvaldo Alonso has shown that no matter what people think of him he will continue to perform at high levels; Nicolas Lodeiro has a full season under his belt; and Cristian Roldan is maturing into a two-way midfielder as Seattle looks to solidify their place as the elite team of the West in MLS 3.0. Let’s take a look at where they will succeed this weekend.
Possession and Passing: Over the course of the last three matches Seattle has completed 87% of its passes and enjoyed an average of 66% possession. They’ve also out shot their opponents, put more shots on frame, and created more goals scoring opportunities as well. These stats are largely reflective of their entire season and one can see why confusion arises when looking at their place in the table. In a midweek interview, Harrison Shipp reiterated this sentiment by saying that Seattle has “been struggling a little bit to put teams away, score goals, and to finish games” but remained hopeful that things will click for them soon.
Lodeiro has continued his magnanimous presence in midfield this season–notching three goals and four assists–and will look to spark their return to form. His vision, passing ability, and panache for relieving pressure from his teammates is largely responsible for their impressive statistics. The leadership undertaken by Lodeiro is perhaps most visible in Seattle’s overturning of a three-goal deficit against New England earlier this month. Not only did the Enganche provide a goal and an assist in the comeback, but the Uruguayan refused to believe that Seattle was out of the match at any point. The match against Chicago and a midfield of McCarty, Schweinsteiger, and Juninho will provide a challenge to Seattle’s style of play and statistics, but Lodeiro could be a calming presence for the Sounders.
The Prodigal Son Returns: No, this section is not about Harrison Shipp. During the 2015 MLS draft, Chicago traded o Jones to Seattle in exchange for allocation money and the number fifteen draft pick. The outside back/winger showed promise in Chicago but his party life style and wage increase demands rubbed the new front office the wrong way and the youngster was sent packing. Several months (and haircuts) later the Trinidadian played a large role in the push towards playoffs–including beating the Fire at Century Link Field. He played with a bit of extra swagger that day and his personality is one that will not pass up the opportunity to do so again in front of the Chicago crowd. He is hands down the best left sided fullback in the league and he doesn’t seem to be done progressing. Questions remain about his defensive capabilities but the Sounder’s technical staff has alluded to pressing on the road and allowing players to express themselves more freely away from the confines of home expectancy. Having notched five assists already this season, Jones could play a crucial role in the encounter against a very green Drew Conner.
Historical Complacency: This will be the twelfth meeting between these two sides in league play and Chicago has won just one of those encounters. A stoppage time winner from Jason Johnson at Toyota Park in July of 2015 is the only bright spot for the Fire in a long history of mediocrity. Whether you believe in MLS voodoo or not, the precedent is overwhelming. This is a new era for the Fire and they will hope to change the past, but will they?
Weaknesses: Full trophy cabinets are a beautiful thing to behold but they don’t earn you points. This Seattle side is far from the one that mounted last year’s historic turnaround and its reflected in the standings. They find themselves in eighth place after nine matches and the Western Conference is once again an unforgiving place. We’re not sure banking on the extraordinary two years in a row is a great strategy and so Seattle will need to get their act together soon. Let’s take a look at where they could struggle.
Irreplaceable Departures: The most obvious sign that this is a much-changed Sounders side is a quick glimpse at their roster. The offseason saw Zach Scott retire, Nelson Valdez depart for Cerro Porteno, Erik Friberg return to Sweden, Andreas Ivanschitz sign for Viktoria Plzen, and Tyrone Mears traded to Atlanta for 50k in allocation money. Those players either played significant minutes throughout the season or contributed massively in the short minutes they had (Valdez). Adequately replacing all of them was always going to be a problem but significant questions must be asked of Lagerway and Schmetzer in their attempts to do so.
Gustav Svensson was brought in to help solidify the back line but has struggled to find consistency. Harrison Shipp has finally found frequent playing time but his continual bouncing around between a winger and a central midfielder suggests a questioning of his true role as much as it does a lack of adequate personnel. League veteran Will Bruin has contributed three goals in his eight appearances but the chance creation provided by Lodeiro and Morris warrants a larger haul from the lone striker.
Additionally, many of the veterans that Schmetzer was counting on to provide some continuity have not been available. Chad Marshall has been dealing with a series of lower back issues and hasn’t been in the squad for the last three matches, Brad Evans seems to be out of favor for some reason and has featured in the eighteen just once this season (against TFC), and Roman Torres has struggled with hamstring issues throughout the season. The acquisition misses of the Sounders FO will become all the more glaring coming up against a Chicago side that won the offseason.
“Youth Movement”: In addition to the shortcomings mentioned above, Seattle seems to be fully in line with MLS’ narrative of growing the grass roots movement of American soccer. The promotion of Jordy Delem, Seyi Adokoya, Aaron Kovar, Nohou Tolo, Zach Mathers and Henry Wingo to the first team along with the newly announced 5,000 seat S2 stadium in Tacoma seem to affirm their commitment to the story line. However, the fact remains that such a narrative is unsustainable at the moment. Those players simply aren’t good enough for MLS yet and the Tacoma announcement will be nothing more than fluff until the youth player pool deepens in talent. Lest we be taken for Curmudgeons, the statistics speak for themselves. Despite frequent appearances in the eighteen, those players have combined for a total 370 minutes this season (284 of those came from Delem) and the performances have been suspect at best. Rather than being a dig at the Sounders organization (which has the foresight to attempt this new model), the purpose of this analysis is to show just how thin the squad is at the moment.
Schedule Congestion and Conference Priority: In building upon their thin squad and inadequate youth, Seattle also find themselves amidst a busy schedule. They have three matches in seven days including an away trip to Western Conference leaders SKC and tenth place RSL at home. You would think that the Sounders will prioritize in conference matches during this stint and could tweak the lineup a bit on Saturday.
Prediction: The Fire will continue their impressive home form and they’ll do it in style on the national stage. Chicago 4-2 Seattle. Nemanja Nikolic scores a hat trick and Daniel Johnson notches his first career goal. Joevin Jones and Harrison Shipp for Seattle.