A statement made in the regular season. A completely different statement made in the playoffs.
A gif is worth a thousand words:
The Sounders came out of the gates firing and compensated beautifully not just for the guys they parted with after last season, but also for missing stars like Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, Stefan Frei and, on and off, Raul Ruidiaz. The foundation is strong and it was really, really impressive – easily the most impressive Seattle regular season since they won the Supporters’ Shield in 2014.
But they eventually ran out of ideas and ran into teams who didn’t come out of their own defensive shell, and for just the second time under Brian Schmetzer, suffered an early playoff exit.
Formation and tactics
Brian Schmetzer got it so, so right from the start this year. He scrapped his long-preferred 4-2-3-1 for a 3-5-2 that, on occasion, became a 3-4-2-1 and damn did it work on both sides of the ball. The Sounders spent months and months pitching shutouts and if Nouhou had stayed healthy there’s a good chance we’d have been speaking about him as both the Breakout Player of the Year (not an actual award, except on Extratime) and the Defender of the Year (an actual award).
The key to how this worked was Cristian Roldan playing as a kind of central winger, making diagonal runs to the right flank to overload that side with his brother (one of the outstanding wingbacks in the entire league this year) while Brad Smith bombed up the other flank. Seattle got a lot of numbers into the attack and did so at pace, and it was dope.
All of this started from much, much deeper on the field than what we’re used to seeing from Seattle – the great Joao Paulo had a lot to do with that! – and it’s there in the numbers: as per Second Spectrum, Seattle successfully evaded almost 90 pressures per game in the final third, which was third-best in the league. This year they plummeted down to 23rd, evading 56 final third pressures per game.
Schmetzer, in other words, figured out how to get his side to be a very effective attacking team despite what was basically the season-long loss of Lodeiro, who’d been the alpha and omega of everything the Sounders have done since his arrival in mid-2016. They held the ball deeper, built through JP and took some wild risks with those wingbacks.
That record-setting 13-game unbeaten streak to start the year was real nice, especially since they outscored their opponents 23-8. That is, it turns out, an unsustainable level of dominance.
They were still good, but not quite so good over the rest of the 2021 season, save for one magical summer night in Portland. When two teams have been beating the hell out of each other in one league or another for half a century there’s bound to be some legendary games, and Aug. 15 gave Sounders fans a delirious 90 minutes they will never, ever forget:
HIGHLIGHTS: Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders FC | August 15, 2021
They set a record. They scored golazo after golazo. They humiliated their biggest rivals in their biggest rivals’ home, in front of 26,000 miserable fans.
It felt like, at that moment, with the attack clicking and Lodeiro, Morris, Frei and Ruidiaz all either back or weeks away from being back, that the Sounders were destined to top the West and chart a path straight to MLS Cup for the fifth time in six years.
Seattle crushed the Whitecaps 4-1 on Oct. 9. They’d earned themselves a gap over the chasing pack, had six games left in the season and a win in any of them would’ve basically guaranteed the top spot in the conference and a bye they could’ve used to get everyone one week closer to health.
They went 0-3-3, posting no shutouts and scoring just five goals in those six games. The injuries had finally taken their toll.
And then they just kept taking their toll straight into the playoffs. Obviously the defense got better – you remember they didn’t allow a single shot to RSL, don’t you? – but with the year’s worth of rust on Lodeiro and Morris they had no way of breaking down that Claret-and-Cobalt bunker.
Obviously the statline of the game itself was surprising (this was just the third time in MLS history a team was held without a single shot), but the manner in which Seattle went out was not. They’d struggled against low-block teams all year and, well, that was that.
There are a couple of good shouts here, including young Josh Atencio graduating into a first-team regular in central midfield. He had a lot of very nice moments and contributed 1500 mostly good minutes to one of the best teams in the league.
But Alex Roldan going from “central midfielder” to “preseason right back trialist” to “MLS Cup goat” – which to be clear, was not an entirely fair categorization – to “one of the best right wingbacks in MLS and a full-fledged international” over the course of 24 months is a hell of a transformation. And I don’t think anyone would argue with my take that the very best moments from Seattle in 2021 came with Cristian flaring out to combine up that right side in transition, ripping teams apart with his little brother on the overlap.
It’s a fun story and it produced a lot of really good soccer.
I don’t think there’s any one particular player who I could point at as having a disappointing season. Most of these guys played at expectations, and a bunch played above expectations, and that led to a 60-point year and a lot of moments in which they accounted for the absences of a bunch of Best XI-caliber players.
So I guess just refer to the lowlight if you want to see the disappointment. As good as many/most of these guys were, there was just no making up for the lack of most of their match-winners in the playoffs, and it was too much to ask any of the other guys to step up.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Joao Paulo (DM): Until that collapse over the final six games I had him neck-and-neck with Carles Gil in my personal MVP ballot. Dude was amazing.
- Morris (W/F): He’s come back from a torn ACL before and been better, and there’s no reason to think he can’t pull it off again.
- C. Roldan (CM): Had a Best XI-caliber season playing as a No. 10, but should probably be even better playing next to JP as a No. 8.
- Yeimar Gomez Andrade (CB): Got off to a slow start but was probably Seattle’s best CB over the course of the season, and one of the very best in the league.
- Xavier Arreaga (CB): He’s still prone to YOLO moments, but he’s clearly become a core piece of this team, and his distribution remains a weapon.
Yeah there are two big names missing from that list: Ruidiaz and Lodeiro. With Ruidiaz it might be a matter of money (there are rumors he wants a massive raise) while with Lodeiro it’s a matter of age and health. If I were a betting man I’d wager both guys will still be in Rave Green next year, but I would also wager this is the offseason Garth Lagerwey starts incrementally building around other aspects of the team and maybe putting in some contingency plans.
Beyond that, though, there is the fact Seattle need to figure out if they’re a 4-2-3-1 team or a 3-5-2 team heading into next year. If it’s a 4-2-3-1 team then they’ll probably want to use a DP slot – Joao Paulo can be bought down with TAM – on another true winger (we'll also see if Leo Chu, a U22 Initiative signing who had some bright moments, hits his potential). If it’s 3-5-2, then maybe a second forward is in store? It’s kind of tough to say, to be honest.
Either way, though, they’ve got to get more goalscorers on the field more often in 2022. The defense is obviously fine, but the attack can stand an infusion of talent.
Though, of course, this is the Sounders we’re talking about here. So don’t expect them to do anything big until next summer.