Three takeaways from Seattle Sounders' march past LAFC

It’s another win for the red-hot Seattle Sounders, as the Rave Green continued their fast start with a 2-0 victory over LAFC at Lumen Field on Sunday, paced by goals from Xavier Arreaga and Brad Smith.

Seattle now own a league-best 5W-0L-1D record with 16 points from six matches, while their Western Conference counterparts are still working to find their footing.

With all that in mind, here are three takeaways from Sunday’s match.

Lights out

The Sounders lead MLS with 13 goals scored through their first six games, an impressive total considering Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is yet to start this year. But an arguably more impressive piece amid this quick start is their play on the other side of the ball. With another clean sheet on Sunday, Seattle have yielded just two goals in their six games, none of which came from open play.

The formidable start has been buoyed by breakout campaigns from two key members of the backline: Nouhou Tolo, who has made a seamless transition to center back, and right wingback Alex Roldan, who continues to be a lethal two-way threat.

Asked if Seattle boast an elite defense, head coach Brian Schmetzer used a different word during his postgame video call.

“I’d say we have an effective defense,” Schmetzer said. “In my postgame commentary, Will [Bruin] and I have this back and forth about the dirty work he does that people don’t appreciate. Raul [Ruidiaz] does his part. These are all important, subtle things. The defending has been a complete team effort. It’s not one guy.

“Defense wins championships. If we continue to get everyone to commit to that and you have the quality of Nico, Cristian [Roldan] and Fredy [Montero], we’re going to win games."

Stef 2.0

When goalkeeper Stefan Frei went down with a sprained knee in Seattle’s midweek win over the San Jose Earthquakes, it left the Sounders without one of the top backstops in MLS. Who would step in as the starter between 26-year-old Stefan Cleveland and offseason signing Spencer Richey became the key debate.

Cleveland, playing in his first MLS match since 2018, ultimately got the nod against LAFC and deputized admirably, anchoring a clean sheet and making every save that was asked of him. Frei has been deemed out 4-6 weeks, so Cleveland’s successful first go-around between the posts may have earned him a hold on the No. 1 job as the Sounders look to keep building.

“He did great, exceeded our expectations,” Schmetzer said of Cleveland. “We knew there would be some nerves. He had a previous win over LAFC with [Chicago Fire FC]. He did a lot of really, really good things. Really pleased with his play.

“Tommy Dutra is the best goalkeeper coach in MLS. I know I’m biased, but he is. And so I lean heavily on him and his expertise, so he was the one that guided me to that decision. Spencer is a great goalkeeper, very good, he’s got MLS experience and we’ll just see how the season plays out. But tonight Stefan Cleveland did very well.”

New territory

In fairness to LAFC, no team has come into Lumen Field this year and left with a result. Even so, it’s been an uncharacteristically slow start for the Black & Gold, who find themselves at 1W-2D-2L through five matches and at the bottom of the Western Conference table. That’s not where the 2019 Supporters’ Shield champions are accustomed to being, especially since they still boast one of the most talented rosters in MLS.

The fitness of Carlos Vela will be topic No. 1 until the superstar forward gets fully back in the swing of things. Vela featured as a second-half substitute on Sunday, entering in the 70th minute after missing the club’s last three games. That’s a step in the right direction, but we still haven’t seen the 2019 Landon Donovan MLS MVP at peak form.

Carlos Vela

Aside from that, head coach Bob Bradley said he has full confidence that these early-season doldrums can be worked through and that better form is within reach.

“It's new territory. This is a rough start for sure and we can't be afraid of the moment,” Bradley said after Sunday’s match. “We've got to find a way to just raise the bar in a lot of little ways. I still think we've come out in every game with good intensity, with a good idea of how we needed to get into the game. But the little things, again, we've not done a good enough job going forward in terms of making enough big chances. That's certainly such an important part of the way we play. So we have to sort of keep ourselves going.

“I believe strongly that we're going to become a very good team, the way that the season has started with some guys not completely fit, with our attack not being as sharp as normal. We get into some games where the margins are real tight and we haven't made the important plays."