The Sounders’ trip to Colorado on Saturday night turned sour rapidly.
Seattle’s 3-1 loss to a suddenly resurgent Rapids side put a damper on an otherwise successful April in which the team went unbeaten in its first three games. That modest uptick came to a swift close with Saturday’s loss, a difficult pill to swallow as Seattle managed to control swaths of the match. The Rapids, however, controlled substantive chances, and so went the game.
The Sounders’ difficult, trying start to 2016 continues apace. Here’s a look at three things we learned from the match.
Clint Dempsey’s influence was missed
It’s easy to take something for granted until it leaves you. When it comes to Clint Dempsey, the Sounders were handed a stark lesson in what this particular team looks like when he’s not a part of it.
At this point in his career, Dempsey is unquestionably best when he’s deployed centrally and as close to goal as humanly possible. But as we know, Dempsey is his own man, and he’ll basically use this deployment to diagnose the game’s tenor and inject himself into its flow as needed. If the midfield is sagging and linkage is minimal - a common issue this year - Dempsey routinely drops deep to collect and recycle.
That isn’t ideal Dempsey. But it’s also value added to the attack on balance. In the absence of a true central creator, Dempsey can fill that role to a degree. In a word, he can link. Even if he’s better closer to goal.
Dempsey wasn’t in this lineup for the first time this season, a victim of a training injury at midweek. This sent the Seattle midfield into a dangerous spiral in Colorado where roles were stepped on, positioning was uncertain and the central midfield looked like a feverish whirlpool.
It’s hard to discern much in the way of wider purpose from this. Herculez Gomez, the No. 9 here, was asked to provide width but mostly pulled in centrally, which is what he knows. Jordan Morris tried to push the tempo but often found himself alone, disconnected from the midfield. Andreas Ivanschitz rarely had a forward outlet before coming off with an injury, while Oalex Anderson was largely on an island on the left, taking on defenders one-on-one and routinely losing possession.
Meanwhile, Osvaldo Alonso pushed higher in an effort to add value to an attack that became increasingly desperate to score late on. This left the Sounders wide open on the break, which is where the Rapids’ ultimate game-winner came from Luis Solignac.
Even with Dempsey this team needs a prototypical No. 10. Without him? The situation became even more dire on Saturday.
All eyes on Jones, but Gashi leads the way
Before the match we talked at length about the unpredictable danger provided by Jermaine Jones. Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni deployed him as a defensive attacking midfielder the week earlier, and Jones filled that role again ably on Saturday.
Jones routinely pushed into Seattle’s danger areas, and 24 of his 33 passes came in Seattle half of the field. There’s no question he played a massive part in the match, and his second goal in as many games - a header off a free kick to open the scoring early in the first half - proved his influence is increasing at altitude.
But he wasn’t the ultimate key to the Rapids’ day in an attacking sense. That honor goes to Shkëlzen Gashi.
Gashi’s been the unsung hero of the Rapids’ successful season so far, and the technically inclined central midfielder continued his torrid pace on Saturday. The Rapids were extremely narrow in the build, and Gashi was the middleman between Jones and defensive midfielder Sam Cronin. But more than that, he was the primary creative hub, pumping in eight crosses and a handful of masterful free kicks. One of those, served on a platter, led to Jones’ goal.
More than that, though, Gashi was willing to challenge the Sounders’ defensive midfield. His 62 touches were tops for any Rapids midfielder, and he racked up a mind-boggling 17 duels, or one-on-one battles. He was successful in nearly 60 percent of those, which you don’t necessarily expect with a stone wall like Alonso opposing most of those. Further, four of his passes led to shots - the most of any player - and he poured on four shots of his own.
Even if the Sounders were prepared for Jones’ unpredictable marauding, Gashi’s threat was unique and mostly unchallenged.
Jordan Morris is finding his way
Whenever Nelson Valdez returns from his injury, Sigi Schmid has a decision to make. In that way, there was at least one glaring positive from Saturday.
Morris’ positioning has undergone something of an evolution over the past three games, a span that has seen Valdez log just 27 minutes combined due to injuries. Morris started the year as a like-for-like switch with Obafemi Martins on the right side of the 4-3-3, but Morris hadn’t played that position consistently since his Sounders Academy days. While he showed some flashes early, he struggled to find the flow of the match.
That flipped on its head almost immediately after Morris took Valdez’s spot as the central forward.
A week after Valdez’s injury, Morris scored his first goal running underneath an Ivanschitz diagonal in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union a week ago. Morris scored in his second straight game against Colorado, providing the Sounders’ only goal in the 63rd minute to give the team life. That it was created by a cross from Cristian Roldan, who pushed up and took on a Rapids defender, only made it that much sweeter.
The encouraging piece here was that Morris not only plucked his goal out of the run of play (again), but that he created his own shot, used the space he’d made for himself and raked a beautiful ball across Zac MacMath’s face to find the opposite corner of the net.
The question is what Schmid does when Valdez returns. Last season, Valdez did spend some time wide, but his recent injury history and his utility on headers around the box would suggest some level of central deployment is best. But the same can be said for Dempsey, Gomez and Morris too, so the question then becomes who can cope with being wide, not necessarily who’s best there.
The good news is that while the midfield flails for both linkage and consistency, the attack still has options worthy of the best in MLS. If the front line can heal up and start taking more chances around the box, the attention will swing back to beefing up the midfield and requiring more consistency from an engine room currently in need of some repair.