At least on the surface, it might seem as though Sounders FC views its match against the last-place Colorado Rapids this weekend with the ravenous visage of a famished hunter. Seattle, after all, is still in first in the Western Conference, the Rapids are still in the cellar 11 points off the pace and Sounders FC gets this one at home.
But the optics under the surface aren’t quite as soft to the touch. Buffeted by the howling winds of injury and international duty, Seattle’s lost five of its last six matches, including a disappointing 1-0 setback last week against the Chicago Fire, still the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. Even more worryingly, Seattle’s only two goals in its last four MLS matches came through right back Tyrone Mears, one an assist off free kick service in a 4-1 loss to Portland and the other via a thunderous goal to beat D.C. United on July 3.
The Rapids, meanwhile, are in the midst of a modest turnaround. After going winless in four straight, Colorado rides a two-game win streak into CenturyLink Field this weekend. They were hardly idealistic performances, but a 2-1 win over the surging Vancouver Whitecaps and a 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake should hook Seattle’s full attention.
So while the two teams might be on opposite ends of the table, recent events make this matchup perhaps a bit more intriguing than first glance might indicate.
"Obviously, they're coming off two wins, so they're very happy about that,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “They've done a good job getting those two wins, so they're a team right now that's got a little bit of confidence. We have to be ready. We have to be sharp."
At least on the defensive end, Sounders FC has largely been its old self over the last two games despite missing Brad Evans on CONCACAF Gold Cup duty. They pitched a deserved shutout against D.C. United, and it was only a stoppage time lapse on a quick-fire break that cost them in a 1-0 loss to the Fire. That moment has stuck with the team this week in its preparation, but it wasn’t an overall indictment of the Zach Scott-Chad Marshall centerback pairing, which has largely been sturdy. The wide play from fullbacks Dylan Remick and Mears, meanwhile, has been one of the bright spots of the season.
The issue has been finding appropriately productive interchange further upfield with so many missing teeth knocked out of the gears. Osvaldo Alonso’s return from injury has been a boost, but Seattle is still figuring out how to even moderately replace the production they receive from missing Designated Players Clint Dempsey (Gold Cup) and Obafemi Martins, who’s still working his way back from an injury he suffered in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match on June 16.
Seattle’s most productive - and healthy - stretch of the season was in May, when Sounders FC went 4-1-1 and played some truly aspirational soccer. The last time Seattle and Colorado played, a 1-0 Sounders FC win in Seattle on May 27, Seattle broke the MLS record for passes in a half with an unbelievable 425 over the first 45 minutes. They finished the match with 667 at an 83 percent completion rate, and a whopping 600 of those passes - 89 percent - were classified as short passes.
The true perspective, though, lies even deeper under the topsoil. That pass total against the Rapids was the fifth most in MLS history since the league began charting those numbers via Opta five years ago. But it wasn’t even Seattle’s highest that week. Sounders FC had attempted 689 against Sporting KC less than a week earlier.
In a consecutive three-game span in late May, Sounders FC managed to thread together 2,035 passes. The joys of a full-strength lineup.
Based on differing personnel, things will assuredly be different against Colorado this time around. The question is merely how much different. In the last meeting, the Rapids owned just 31 percent of possession, were doubled up in passes and touches and struggled mightily to string together even more than three or four passes at a time. One of Seattle’s greatest triumphs that day was completely muscling creative attacker Kevin Doyle out of the game.
But in an attacking sense, the partnership between Alonso and Dempsey that day best exemplified the moments when this team is at its best going forward. What’s more, they illustrated how badly the team needs to find an attacking midfielder comfortable enough to occupy the space Dempsey’s absence has vacated, high in the center cut of the field just outside the box in the attacking third.
This is the combined passing matrices for Dempsey and Alonso the last time Sounders FC faced Colorado at home. Pay less attention to the individual boxes and more to the broader picture. Imagine you’re looking at a Georges Seurat pointillism piece and step back a pace.
The first thing you’re likely to notice is that the positional roles are generally as you’d expect - Alonso in the crater above the back four and Dempsey in and around the box. But focus on the area between the two and you’ll see the numbers intermingle, twos and sixes coming together like wires twining around one another. This is a critical facet of a fully functioning Seattle midfield, and one of the main reasons why the team had been so successful passing around and through all manner of defenses. Including those that pack the box like cement poured into a bucket.
In moments when teams bunker - as Colorado did on May 27 - Dempsey simply dropped to Alonso, and the two shocked the game back into life with numbingly effective possession from deeper in the midfield. Notice where Dempsey collected the majority of his passes from Alonso here against the Rapids the last time out. It’s no coincidence a number of them were on Seattle’s own side of the field. The team simply doesn’t get this kind of interchange in so many places with anyone else.
By now, Sounders FC is no stranger to the absence of its key attacking pieces. The recent re-addition of Erik Friberg should help, and it is up to him and the rest of the squad to fill some of the holes in those high central places. The question this weekend is whether it can use what it has to fill that spot and break out of a turbulent midseason funk.