SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 27: Mauro Rosales #10 of the Seattle Sounders FC celebrates after scoring a goal on a penalty kick during the first half of the game against the Columbus Crew at CenturyLink Field on August 27, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
The Seattle Sounders got off to a rocky start this season, but despite their early struggles they've found themselves back in the ranks of the elite teams in MLS. And it's a shame about that poor start, because it obscures just how dominant the Sounders have been these past few months.
Around 10:00 PM on June 11th I was sitting with some friends in a pub in Pioneer Square, taking stock of all that had gone wrong so far this season for the Seattle Sounders. The wonder goal scored by Eric Hassli to bring the Vancouver Whitecaps level right at the death was fresh in all our minds; all the euphoria we'd felt after first Mauro Rosales and then Osvaldo Alonso had scored to hand Seattle a 2-1 lead late in the day was instantaneously erased; it's easy to think there still would have been complaints about "only" beating the hapless Whitecaps 2-1 had it not been for Hassli's miracle strike, but suffice to say this was quite a bit worse. The Sounders were a club most thought would be competing for the Supporters Shield at the beginning of the year, but such thoughts seemed laughable at that point in time. Barring a major collapse the Sounders were going to make the playoffs and another run at the US Open Cup seemed achievable, but a slow start to the season and major struggles to find their identity made any real progress over the 2010 season seem a very distant possibility.
And to at least some extent, that would have been understandable. The losses this team has had to contend with have been talked about a great deal this season and there's no need to continue to beat that particular issue into the ground, but suffice to say the Sounders were forced to reinvent themselves if they wished to have success. They went narrow, they went to a traditional two-up-top 4-4-2, they tried to turn the central midfield into a second defensive line. It's hard to say they struggled, exactly, but there was always the feeling that the team was underachieving relative to the talent on the pitch. There were some wonderful moments; the 2-1 win at Rio Tinto to end Real Salt Lake's then MLS-best home unbeaten streak and the 3-0 shellacking of Toronto FC spring immediately to mind. But they were offset by massive disappointments such as the two draws at home to the Sounders Cascadia Cup rivals or the ugly 2-1 loss at DC United.
Then, starting with the Sounders trip to Toronto the following week, something clicked. That game in particular wasn't the most beautiful you'll ever see, but the Sounders picked up a much-needed 1-0 victory. They'd go on to win their next three to close out June with four straight wins. The streak was broken up by a 0-0 draw against the Galaxy in LA -far from a terrible result, despite the fact that the Sounders were a missed penalty away from taking three points- and then go on a run of another three consecutive victories. By mid-July, the Sounders had put themselves back into the picture for consideration as one of the league's elites and spirits were running high. And I think we all know what happened next; the Sounders lost 7-0 to Manchester United, allowing six goals in the second half while playing a largely reserve side. There were loudly voiced concerns that the result would derail all of the success the Sounders had built. Those complaints got louder after Seattle dropped their next two games, 1-0 in the first leg of the CCL qualifier against San Francisco in Panama and the next a shocking 3-1 loss to the Dynamo in Houston, the latter Seattle's only loss by a margin of greater than one goal all season. With a very difficult run of games on the table in August, things were beginning to look dicey once again.
Instead, the Sounders have just completed the best month in their history, arguably the single best month for any team in the history of MLS. In all competitions the Sounders went 7-0-1, outscoring their opponents 17-4 and keeping 5 clean sheets. And it's not as though Seattle's schedule was a walk in the park; it included the win in Monterrey, two hard-fought wins against Dallas (one the first game the Sounders have ever won in Texas, the other in the US Open Cup semifinals) and a 6-2 pasting of the best team in the Eastern Conference. Any and all concerns about the team's mental state following the loss to Manchester United are long gone and though it's a long-shot, the Sounders are still in the hunt for the Supporters Shield, trailing the Galaxy by three points with LA holding a game in hand. They're seven points clear of the Colorado Rapids in 4th place, meaning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs looks like a very minor threat.
It's difficult to put into words how impressive the Sounders run has been, so perhaps a look at the table below will help to illustrate Seattle's recent dominance:
|First 17 Games (All Comps)||17||19||15||4||1.12||0.88||6||4||7||1.47|
|Last 17 Games (All Comps)||17||36||18||18||2.12||1.06||13||2||2||2.41|
Through the first 17 games, the Sounders looked like an above-average MLS team; not a lot going on in the attack, but an elite defense was keeping them in games and helping them rack up a fair number of points, a 1.47 PPM figure almost certain to get them into the playoffs. Through their last 17 games, the Sounders have been an absolute beast. They've allowed more goals (enough that at that pace over the course of a full season they'd allow another 6) and even while the Sounders have been winning there have been criticisms of the play of their defense. Meanwhile, if a team were to score at the rate the Sounders have been hitting in their last ten MLS games for a full season they'd end up with 78 goals, or 40 more than they'd score at the pace from their first 17 games. Has the defense slipped? A bit, sure. But not nearly enough to counteract how much the attack has surged.
It's difficult to think that this torrid pace is truly sustainable. But there's just as little reason to think that this isn't far closer to Seattle's true talent level than what we saw at the beginning of the year. To put it blunty, if Seattle had played at anything even approaching their current level for the first part of the season, they'd likely be running away with the league. And though a simple tactical change isn't enough to fully explain the Sounders dominance these past two and a half months, it's likely not coincidence that this current run came on the heels of a shift in style and formation first employed in the 1-0 win against Toronto FC. The Sounders aren't just winning, they're winning pretty and if you aren't having a blast watching this team, you might need to re-evaluate your expectations.
Enjoy this while it lasts, Sounders fans. We really are so good it's unbelievable.