The Seattle Sounders have shaken their usual malaise and started the 2019 season with great potency and success. But how have they avoided their usual slow starts?
The Seattle Sounders are off to their best start ever to a Major League Soccer season with 10 points in four matches to start the season. This comes in the aftermath of some notoriously slow starts in recent years, with Brian Schmitzer, in the offseason, even admitting that it is a mental block that he and his players must overcome. So what has changed in 2019?
Well, here are some reasons for the Seattle Sounders fast start to the year.
The Seattle Sounders were in the CONCACAF Champions League the previous two years which necessitated squad rotation to begin MLS play. The result was disjointed passing, sloppy defending and a lot of early losses. This year, the Sounders have started the same 11 men in each of the first four games. The result has been a team that looks cohesive and dangerous in the final third. Moreover, quite a few Sounders can be considered injury prone (Chad Marshall, Kelvin Leerdam, Victor Rodriguez). So far, none have succumbed to injury. Luck with health is always needed for a title run, and thus far, Seattle has been on the right end of it.
The Sounders have four bench options in Nouhou Tolo, Roman Torres, Harry Shipp and Will Bruin who were opening-night starters a year ago. Whether it’s bringing in Nouhou at left-back and pushing Brad Smith up the field to see out a lead, subbing in Torres as a third center-back, bringing Shipp in to keep possession or Bruin as a second-striker, coach Brian Schmetzer has options all over the field. And that’s not including up and coming, 19-year-old Handwalla Bwana, who was the first sub of Saturday’s match against Vancouver.
In recent years, the Sounders have desperately waited for the summer transfer window to add attackers, such as Nicolas Lodeiro in 2016, Victor Rodriguez in 2017 and Raul Ruidiaz last season. But they start the year with all three in top form, in addition to Jordan Morris coming off ACL surgery on the right wing. The Sounders have scored 10 goals already this year, even after being shut out against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday. They didn’t score their 10th goal last year until June 13th, which happened to be the 13th game of the season. Bournemouth loan Brad Smith has been a revelation at left-back, with his overlapping pace, and even Kelvin Leerdam has scored two goals from right-back.
Tight at the Back
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In a league where defending seems optional for some teams, the Sounders prioritized defense, bringing back all four primary starters and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who is one of the best in the league. They gave up the second fewest goals in MLS last year and have clean sheets in two of their first four matches to start 2019.
If I’m honest, I expected a much more significant adjustment period following the loss of long-time captain Osvaldo Alonso in midfield, but Gustav Svenson has stepped in very well to Alonso’s number-six role. While Svenson may not be as tenacious or skilled in tight spaces as Alonso, he’s shown great discipline, allowing Smith to get further forward and has won the key tackles at key moments. Cristian Roldan has also helped in central areas, though he has a tendency to push forward leaving space behind him at times. Nevertheless, only D.C. United have conceded fewer goals this season.
With the Eastern Conference having a little more parity, it wouldn’t surprise me if a team from the Western Conference has an upper hand for the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta United is 12th in the Eastern Conference with just two points, but based on goal differential, they would be ahead of four teams in the West, where San Jose, Colorado and Portland are doing a solid Chivas USA impression. Seattle and LAFC look like the class of the West early but the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas and Los Angeles Galaxy aren’t far behind. That bodes well for a run at the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
All in all, the Sounders may be a little thin in the midfield behind Roldan, Svennson and Jordy Delem, otherwise, they look as complete as they’ve been since 2014 when they won the U.S. Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield. It’s high times in Seattle.