If you’re tiring of the Nicolas Lodeiro hype, well, there’s an easy answer for that. You’re probably just not watching him closely enough.
Lodeiro did it again on Sunday, tying the Real Salt Lake defense into an intractable doughnut twist and then eating it whole. Lodeiro scored his first MLS goal with his brilliant left foot and set up a header for Jordan Morris on a golden platter for Seattle’s second with an inch-perfect cross. A late defensive mishap allowed Real Salt Lake to dream, but in the end the better team prevailed.
The Sounders won 2-1, and the push for the postseason just got a lot more real.
By winning Sunday, the Sounders moved to 2-0-1 under interim head coach Brian Schmetzer and closed the once-yawning gap between their league positioning and the final playoff spot. With seven points in their last three, the Sounders are now a tantalizing five points behind fifth-place Portland with two full games in hand. And don’t look now, but the Sounders next host Portland on Aug. 21.
Whether or not the Sounders can close the gap, they’ve certainly given themselves a puncher’s chance. So with that in mind, here are three things we learned on Sunday.
Lodeiro’s debut half-season shaping up to challenge the greats
Columbus Crew SC's Federico Higuain is probably the most impactful summer midfielder signing in MLS history. There’s an argument to be made that Didier Drogba was the quickest impactor of any position player, but there’s little question Higuain had a wider effect in a shorter amount of time on more facets of play than just about anyone.
Lodeiro is doing his best to challenge that paradigm.
Higuain played his first game for Columbus on Aug. 19, 2012 and played in all 13 of the Columbus' remaining games. In that run, Higuain scored five goals and had seven assists in a little more than 1,000 minutes, but what he did to the Crew as a whole was even more notable. Columbus was 8-8-5 over the first 21 games of the season. With Higuain, they went 7-4-2 and finished a single point out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
If Lodeiro plays in every match from his first appearance to the end of the year, he’ll have played in 14 games, almost exactly the same total as Higuain. So far, Seattle is 2-0-1 and Lodeiro has a goal and three assists in 270 minutes. More importantly, he has a chance to be the catalyst for what would be a miraculous turnaround that could see Seattle rise from ninth place into the postseason in two months.
There’s still more season to go, but the early returns put Lodeiro among the all-time MLS greats in terms of debuts.
Defensive miscues still marring quality performances
During the course of the match’s commentary, FS1 color analyst Brad Friedel noted that despite the fact the match was 2-1 late on, RSL had no business being that close. And it was true. Seattle’s optics were good, and their numbers backed them up. They out-passed (542-495), out-possessed (52-48) and out-shot (18-9) RSL, and in truth the score line could’ve (and probably should’ve) been even more lopsided than it was.
And yet there RSL was, late on, with a chance to steal an undeserved point. Blame another brief, anomalous mishap for that.
RSL’s lone goal is one Seattle keeper Stefan Frei would just assume forget forever. Frei, who’s arguably been the team’s most consistent player through its summer doldrums, incorrectly judged RSL’s high press and was caught out for what eventually turned into a simple, empty-net Joao Plata tap-in. It might’ve come only moments after Frei made a brilliant, sprawling save to deny a golden chance for RSL, but it stung all the same.
The issue wasn’t so much the mistake itself - Seattle won, after all, and it didn’t ultimately matter - but rather the trend it revealed. In short, Seattle keeps inflicting defensive wounds on itself.
In three games under Schmetzer, the Sounders’ back line has been static: Tyrone Mears, Brad Evans, Chad Marshall and Joevin Jones have played every game, and by and large the returns have been positive. In the span of three weeks, with the help of the outstanding defensive midfield duo of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, they’ve limited the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Cyle Larin, Kaka and Javier Morales to scraps of chances.
And yet they’ve still surrendered a goal per game over that stretch, all three of which have been individual errors outside the normal run of play. Against the Galaxy, Evans heard Keane shout “leave it” and Sebastian Lletget had an easy tap-in. Orlando City didn’t even score in the run of play, relying on poor marking on a corner that didn’t reflect the tenor of the match. RSL’s goal falls into the same category.
Taken as a whole, the Sounders’ defense doesn’t have much to worry about. If they can cut out the intermittent mistakes, they’ll be one of the best units in the league.
Think fast, play slow
A major offseason talking point that emerged after FC Dallas eliminated the Sounders from the 2015 Western Conference semifinals on penalties was how much faster FC Dallas looked over the course of the two legs. The Sounders’ quality was undeniable, but the speed of play was reflected in the oldest average age for any MLS team in 2015.
Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey made it his business to get younger and faster this year, and while the transformation has been methodical, Sunday was further indication that that transition is happening.
The Sounders have, of course, gotten younger in a couple key spots, and that’s made an enormous amount of difference this season. But coaches are often fond of quoting the phrase, “the ball is faster than your feet.” Make it do the work and you can out-run anyone in the world.
The Sounders may not be the most fleet-of-foot team in the league, but the team is clearly thinking faster than ever this year. Just watch the builds on every one of the Sounders’ six goals over the last three games. There’s foot speed, but the real transformation has been in speed of thought. The addition of Lodeiro has quickened the pace of every scrap of possession, and the presence of Morris makes every through ball a possibility.
The Sounders aren’t suddenly just a markedly different team than they were in 2015. They’re markedly different than they were four weeks ago. If they can continue on this pace, the postseason could be calling for an eighth consecutive year.