A quick glance at the Major League Soccer Western Conference standings shows the Seattle Sounders sitting in second place with a mere six games remaining in the regular season.
They are 2-2-2 in their last six games but have beaten the arch rival Portland Timbers and the Los Angeles Galaxy in their last two games.
But how good are the Sounders, really? Are they actually one of the best teams in the league as the playoffs loom? Can they hold on to that second playoff seed and possibly land two playoff games at home?
Great questions but there are unfortunately no clear-cut answers.
Let’s take a deeper look at the good and bad aspects of the team and see if we can come to some sort of conclusion. Because honestly, they are extremely hard to read.
First the bad, and it all starts with the defense. They’ve given up 15 goals in their last six games and 43 for the season. They gave up just 37 goals ALL of last season, which was second best in the league.
What exactly happened? Chad Marshall happened when he chose to retire midseason. On paper heading into the season, the team defense looked stacked with Marshall, Kim Kee-hee, and Roman Torres as the three-headed monster at center back. With Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam at the outside back position and a youthful Nouhou Tolo rotating in, the defense looked set. One can only dream.
Marshall limped away with his chronic bad knees, and he left a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. He was arguably one of the best and most consistent center backs in league history (three Defender of the Year’ awards), so replacing him was a daunting task. Brad Smith got injured (groin), Torres was suspended, Leerdam can’t seem to stay on the field, and you can see where I am going with this.
In this league, you can’t expect to plug in young, inexperienced players for extended amounts of time and assume automatic success. It just doesn’t happen.
The addition of center back Xavier Arreaga in midseason was a great move, however, and he is starting to play better. But his inexperience in MLS shows. He tends to lose his man in transition and finds himself out of position. His distribution out of the back is shaky at times but seems to be improving.
The blame for the shaky defense doesn’t land on just one person obviously, but Kim Kee-hee, in my mind, is having a very disappointing season. His positioning in transition and on crosses appears to be guesswork. He is constantly out of position as he watches players and crosses go right by him. Yes, the game is fast and furious, and it can be hard to get your feet right every time. But at the age of 30, with his experience, he has to do better.
The defensive midfielder position has been in flux all season as stalwart Gustav Svensson has battled injury and can’t stay on the field. His replacement, Jordy Delem, is serviceable, but, as with Kee-hee, he finds himself out of position more times than not, which has cost the team several crucial goals.
The offense has managed 46 goals, which is third in the conference, but remains inconsistent. They scored just six goals in the entire month of July.
The absence of Victor Rodriguez (hamstring issues) can’t be understated. His playmaking ability and nose for goal make everyone around him better. He takes pressure off Nicolas Lodeiro. However, his vacancy puts Cristian Roldan out of position, covering for him on the wing.
Lodeiro is having another solid season, leading the team in assists. However, shouldering the playmaking role without Rodriquez or Roldan in the middle of the park has him doing too much. His accuracy on his passes leads to too many turnovers, making the Sounders susceptible to the counter attack, which has resulted in too many unnecessary goals. Consistency is a huge problem on this team, and the midfield is a prime example.
The final problematic issue that needs pointing out is the injury bug. This team has been riddled with injuries. As I stated in an earlier column, how a team deals with the inevitable spate of illness can be the key to the season. The Sounders have truly been put to the test this season.
The list of players missing significant amounts of playing time is long: Rodriguez, Svensson, Torres (suspension), and Smith just to name a few.
If the team is going to make a deep run in the playoffs, they need to get healthy, and fast. Fortunately, in recent weeks this appears to be the case with Svensson and Smith getting back on the field.
Enough with the doom and gloom. The team is in second place after all, so there is a lot to get excited about this season.
A couple of bright spots:
Jordan Morris: he is second on the team with eight goals and six assists. The last couple of games he has looked fast and aggressive, taking defenders on and going for goal. I think getting healthy has clearly benefitted him, and I anticipate him having a big impact on the team’s playoff success.
Raul Ruidiaz: his 11 goals lead the team, and he continues to be dangerous whenever he touches the ball. However, his touch tends to let him down, and he could very easily have five more goals if his finishing was just a bit more clinical.
Nicholas Lodeiro: his 12 assists make him tied for fifth in the league, and he has also tallied five goals. He’s played in 24 games, which says a lot about this team. The team offense flows through him, and he seems to be involved in every scoring opportunity. He’ll need to be more consistent in the playoffs but look for him to shine.
Stefan Frei: what more can be said about the team’s goalkeeper? He has been a rock between the pipes all season (90 saves, 7 shutouts) and has saved the defense time and time again. It is hard to imagine how this team would survive without him.
So what is it going to take for the Seattle Sounders to make a splash in the playoffs and possibly bring home another MLS Cup?
If the organization can get its first-team on the field on a regular basis, they can beat anyone. They’ll need to tighten up the backline and limit giving up those head-scratching goals because of mental lapses.
Ruidiaz, Morris, and Lodeiro need to continue their stellar play but take it to the next level. How the team plays when the games get tight will be crucial. They tend to sit back and absorb pressure late in games when they need to hold possession and take the game to the other team instead of the other way around.
Los Angeles FC is going to be hard to beat in the Western Conference, but the Seattle Sounders have all the pieces for an upset.
In the past the team has always entered the playoffs, peaking at the right time. Will this be another one of those years? I sure hope so. Just six games remain.