SEATTLE — What once was lost is now found.
Four weeks ago, you could’ve hardly spotted the Seattle Sounders on a roadmap to the 2016 MLS Cup playoffs. They sat ninth in the Western Conference, had just parted ways with the only MLS coach they’d ever known and were nine points out of the final playoff spot.
That was then. This is now. And the Sounders of today are suddenly, arguably, the best team in MLS. And certainly among the hottest.
The Sounders reversed a 3-1 loss in Portland a month ago by smashing the Timbers to pieces on Sunday with a reverse result that dynamically shifted the race in the West. After getting some results to go their way earlier in the weekend, the Sounders’ win pulled them up to eighth in the conference and just two points off the Timbers’ sixth-place pace. And with two games in hand.
Here’s a glimpse at three things we learned from a massive evening in Seattle.
Pikes and Armor Beat Portland’s Arrows
When the Persians were expelled from Greece for a last time under Xerxes - brought to American pop culture fame by the film 300 - it was at a place called Plataea in 479 BC. The Greeks were outmanned in numbers but made up for it with their hoplite formation that relied on shields, pikes and heavy armor. They preferred to fight up close, while the Persians wanted to keep distance between the lines and snipe away with a heavy rain of arrow fire.
The Greeks won the battle - and the war by extension - when they charged, forcing the Persians into uncomfortable close-quarters combat when all they wanted was to fight from range with their inadequate armor. When that happened, the Persians routed and left Greece forever.
That’s essentially what happened on Sunday night. Portland wanted desperately to retreat into its shell, pull Seattle into its own half and hit over the top from range when Seattle unveiled gaps in their line revealed by its own press. It’s precisely the strategy that won Portland the first match between these teams earlier this year. In that match the Timbers scored goals that required fewer than 12 touches to cover the entire length of the field.
The difference this time was monumental, and it wasn’t just the ground-quaking addition of Nicolas Lodeiro.
While the Sounders took the fight to the steadily retreating Timbers - the pikes were the irrepressible Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey and Lodeiro - the shields were Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso. Those two have been a frankly incredible pair in interim coach Brian Schmetzer’s four-game term so far, and they utterly shut down Darlington Nagbe and kept Diego Valeri from doing much of note at all. With two dedicated shielding midfielders this time - they didn’t have that on the trip to Portland - everything was freer in the attacking third.
Shields and close-quarters battle won the day on Sunday. Just like it did on the plains of Plataea.
Roldan Takes Another Step Forward
Dempsey was probably the easy choice for Man of the Match. He converted a pressure-packed penalty for the game’s first goal, and he scored again with a brilliant far-post sidewinder that handily beat Timbers ‘keeper Jake Gleeson, who’s in arguably the hottest form for any keeper in the league.
But the choice for this columnist? Roldan. With a bullet.
“Cristian,” Schmezter said, “what a fantastic performance by that kid.”
Since Schmetzer took over and dropped Roldan deep to pair with Alonso in a 4-2-3-1 the Sounders hadn’t run once all year, Roldan has two goals, two assists and two drawn penalties. And Sunday was his Mona Lisa to date. His header goal to make it 3-0 was nice, of course, a marvel of positioning after Brad Evans knocked it into his path with a flicked header at the near post. And so too was the penalty he drew off Vytas Andriuskevicious just after halftime that led to Dempsey’s conversion.
But it was perhaps the play that didn’t worm its way into highlight reels that defined his night.
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Roldan completed 89 percent of his passes on Sunday night, a higher percentage than everyone on the field who went the full 90 including Alonso, who usually occupies that pole position. Paradoxically, it was even higher in Portland’s half at a staggering 92 percent, meaning he’s picking his moments to get forward more shrewdly than ever.
His defensive spadework too shouldn’t be overlooked. Over the last four weeks, the Sounders have basically frozen out the likes of Kaka, Giovani dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Javier Morales and now both Valeri and Nagbe. That’s down to the preternatural pairing between Alonso and Roldan, who’s been brimming with confidence in just about every aspect of the game.
Somebody wake up Jurgen Klinsmann. Time to call up the kid.
No Need to Stow the Optimism
The Sounders will say all the right things this week. With a short week and Houston on the road arriving quickly on Wednesday, they’ll talk about measuring out expectation and taking things a step at a time and not letting all these wins rush too quickly to the fore. There are, after all, 10 games left on the regular season docket. Anything can happen, and that’s a doubly loaded sentiment in MLS.
But it’s OK to flash some optimism, and it’s certainly warranted at present. There may not be a team playing better soccer than the Sounders right now. And after the first couple months of the year, maybe celebrating its accomplishments a little bit to lighten the mood is exactly what this team needs.
Look at it this way. In the first 20 games of the season, Seattle had 20 points. In the last four games, all under Schmetzer? Ten points and an unbeaten record of 4-0-1.
So yes, the Sounders are having fun right now.
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The road ahead is uncertain, but to even call it perilous right now is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. San Jose’s loss over the weekend to last-place Houston, which hosts Seattle on Wednesday, meant the Sounders are now just two points outside the playoff picture with 30 points to Portland’s 32. They’ve scored nine goals in their last four, which is 30 percent of their entire season total. In four weeks.
Everything is clicking for the Sounders right now. The back line is as cohesive as they’ve been in its current setup. The midfield is maybe as good as it’s ever been in the MLS era. And Morris and Dempsey, who’s scored five times in his last three games, are just throwing in chances and goals for fun.
The Sounders just needed to give themselves a chance over the last month. They’ve done that, which will make the stretch run one of the more exciting horse races in Sounders history. Buckle up.