It’s that time of the year again. Some people call it “late summer.” Others know it as “I can’t believe the Sounders are doing it again.”
Over the last three years, in games prior to July 18, the Seattle Sounders have amassed the second-worst record in MLS (behind only D.C. United). In the games after July 18, the Sounders have the best combined record in MLS (credit to Fox’s broadcast team for this tidbit). The last two seasons, Seattle have spun their midseason turnaround into MLS Cup appearances.
If you haven’t been paying attention, the Rave Green may be doing it again.
I don’t think the interesting question is whether they can make up the three-point deficit to get into the playoffs — they can — or if they can make noise in the playoffs — they can — but rather something bigger. Or, at least, something more complex.
The Sounders are unbeaten in their last eight games. Are the Sounders more than a playoff contender, and perhaps the best team in the Western Conference right now? Or, instead, have they just gotten lucky recently and are the same non-playoff team they were six weeks ago?
They might be great because:
- They’ve won their last five, including victories over New York City FC and FC Dallas.
- They have a spine of Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso, Nico Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Raul Ruidiaz.
- Their defense has only conceded five goals over the eight-game unbeaten streak, and they have had the best (lowest) xG against in that span.
- Dallas, Sporting KC, LAFC, Portland and the LA Galaxy have stumbled lately, so the mark of “great” in the West isn’t that great right now.
They might actually be bad because:
- Four of their six wins during the unbeaten run have come against Colorado (when they were really bad), San Jose, Minnesota and Vancouver. (Remember when Orlando and Montreal had their multi-game win streaks after playing similar teams?)
- They beat NYCFC after the Cityzens had traveled across the country from a game in Orlando three days earlier — and NYCFC bossed Seattle for the first 30 minutes.
- They have the fourth-lowest xG scored over the eight games, wedged in between D.C. and San Jose.
I don’t have a great answer. The Sounders look unbeatable, but I’m also not sure what they do well. They don’t keep particularly good shape on defense; they don’t have particularly fluid possession on offense; and they don’t produce a ton of chances (they are 15th in chances created and 22nd in big chances created per game since their win streak began).
Here’s how I would describe the Sounders over the last year and a half.
They have phenomenally talented players. Marshall, Alonso and Lodeiro are each in the top three in their positions over the last decade — at perhaps the three foundational positions on the field — and Frei will probably get into that echelon with time.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer isn't known for a heavy-handed tactical approach, which ensures his players are rarely confused or constricted in any way. The team doesn't exceed the sum of its parts, but the parts don't underachieve their abilities. Alonso, Marshall, Roldan and Lodeiro make for a pretty nice car, even if it's not the best car they could make.
The tough part is that they don’t always look great as a group. Even when Alonso and Lodeiro are playing well, the Sounders don’t necessarily look in control. The Sounders win, but it’s not clear why or how. What is their playing style?
It creates a difficult paradox: They’ve won enough games that you can trust it will happen again, but you also probably should not trust the future results of something you can’t explain.
The puzzle-making part of my brain says that the Sounders will regress to their mean. But the common-sense part of my brain says, “just look at the results!”
I don’t have a coherent prediction on where the Sounders stand right now. The Sounders have already shown they can — and I would put money that they will — make the playoffs. But it also seems plausible that they won’t.