Midweek turnarounds in MLS are unlike any scheduling quirk in any other world league. And the Seattle Sounders just embarked on one of the more difficult ones on the calendar.
As far as league scheduling goes, no team has a quicker turnaround from one game to the next than Seattle’s three-day length between Sunday’s 3-1 blitz of Portland and Wednesday’s road match against the Houston Dynamo (6 p.m. PT; JOEtv, ROOT Sports, El Rey 1360AM, 770 KTTH). With just two full days of rest in between the most emotionally draining fixture in MLS, Seattle’s ironclad season resuscitation is about to get its sternest test to date.
Emotional let-downs are a real thing, making Wednesday’s clash in the swampy climes of southeast Texas 1,000 miles from home a far more difficult fixture than it looks at first blush.
Yes, Houston has been in dead last in the Western Conference for three months now, a run of form that precipitated Owen Coyle’s departure from the sideline after only a year and prompted Dynamo ownership to acknowledge fans' frustration in an open letter. Yes, Houston has struggled mightily at finishing chances and stopping them at the other end. And yes, Seattle’s surging form behind its four-game unbeaten run under interim coach Brian Schmetzer is reason for mild celebration.
Houston only has two wins since May 14, but one of them came last weekend in a 2-1 road win over a San Jose team Seattle desperately needed to lose to gain ground in the standings. Since Wade Barrett took over on June 7 on an interim basis - Seattle fans know the drill - every game Houston’s played has either been a draw or decided by a single goal.
After taking some lumps earlier in the year, Barrett has Houston playing as well as it has all year. Whatever Seattle’s form, that should worry the Sounders as they prep for a match that looks far more difficult than it might have even a couple weeks ago.
The primary reason is that Houston is suddenly taking advantage of its relatively scarce chances with lethal precision. Look at this statistical passing chart from Houston’s 2-1 win last weekend.
This is all the more remarkable because San Jose typically makes no attempt to control the flow of the match on the ground. The Earthquakes are one of the most pass-averse teams in the league. They nearly doubled their average passes per game against Houston, which was all too happy to retreat into its shell behind shielding midfielders Collen Warner and Ricardo Clark and bomb balls up to Alex and Cristian Maidana and Boniek Garcia.
San Jose peppered keeper Joe Willis with seven shots on target. Houston had two. Both went in. So it goes sometimes.
Houston will play a bit freer at home, where it will almost certainly crest 300 passes, but Seattle can expect to own the possession battle and control the final tally in shots, on and off target. The key is simply limiting Houston to poor ones when it inevitably pops up in dangerous spaces. If there’s been one hallmark of the Barrett era so far, it’s efficiency.
The Sounders' success this past month boils down to increased energy, better spacial positioning through a more beneficial 4-2-3-1 formation and the addition of Designated Player Nicolas Lodeiro. The latter had perhaps his quietest game since joining the team on Sunday, and the Sounders still managed to use his movement and influence to blow a quality Portland team out of the water.
If the Sounders are this good with Lodeiro playing a secondary role, it’s a bit scary to imagine how much better they can still be.
Maybe the biggest quiet story over the last month has been the maturation of Cristian Roldan, who’s scored two goals, assisted on two more and drawn two penalties for Clint Dempsey in just his last four games. To watch Roldan maneuver and position his markers with possession at his feet is to watch a balletic salsa dancer manipulate his partner on a crowded dance floor. It almost looks directed, like someone is positioned in the stadium rafters adroitly moving him into open plains through the herds of stampeding buffalo with a joystick.
There are two things you’ll notice immediately about Roldan: He is a bulldog on possession and he rarely puts a pass where it should not go. To average 47 passes per game and complete 84 percent of them is no small thing over two-thirds of a season. Not for a 21-year-old.
The issue won’t be Seattle’s play, which has been sizzling over the last four games in which the team is 3-0-1. In fact, there might not be a team playing more dominant soccer than the Sounders, who’ve scored nine goals over their last four and have never allowed more than one in that stretch. The team is as healthy as it’s ever been, seemingly leaving behind the snakebitten 2015 season as well as the first couple months of '16.
The issues will be dealing with the heat, the travel distance on a short week and a Houston team buoyed by new energy on the sideline just like Seattle is under Schmetzer.
But the Sounders still can’t afford to lose games. They have significantly shortened the gap between themselves and the final playoff spot, which sits at a scant two points with 10 games left. That might not seem like much, but a lot can happen in that viscera if the Sounders lose focus. A road draw would hardly be a death knell to its playoff hopes, but Seattle is still below that thin red playoff line. Wins are key.
The good news, Sounders fans, is that wins have been plentiful lately. Whether or not you can expect one on Wednesday, the portends certainly look much better than they did a month ago.