SEATTLE — There may come a time when we may run out of things to like about what appears to be a special Seattle Sounders team.
Today is not that day.
Finishing off a three-game, eight-day trip with 9 points — 6 of them on the road — would satisfy even the harshest of critics. When you allow only one goal over the span, and only two over your first six games, well, you have to credit to a defensive unit — and team — that has fully bought into what the coach is trying to build.
That’s not to say the Sounders were as lights-out in their 2-0 victory over LAFC. They were under the gun for most of the first half, as the LAFC press gave them fits, though to be fair the LAFC attack was pretty milquetoast thanks to the aforementioned defensive cohesion. Head coach Brian Schmetzer conceded as much after the game, noting they didn’t play particularly well. But the Sounders made some halftime adjustments, allowing them to attack the flanks more effectively. And goals, well, goals change games.
And thanks to two goals from the defense, the Sounders have stretched their early lead atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, and look to have navigated the treacherous start to the season better than anyone could have reasonably expected. What’s not to like about that?
It’s probably time to stop marveling at Roldan’s development from trialist to starter, and start asking if he is making a case for an all-star appearance. Schmetzer called Roldan’s performance a “monster,” and it’s not hard to see why. Defensively, Roldan held his own in one-on-one situations against LAFC’s dangerous attack, including Diego Rossi. On the second goal, Roldan used a bit of individual skill to get himself out on the break, before receiving the ball back from Raul Ruidiaz and floating a cross which Brad Smith expertly headed home. Roldan’s crossing is already at an extremely high level, and the rest of his game continues to develop at an impressive clip.
Smith had some difficulty getting out on the wings in the first half, though that had more to do with LAFC effectively pressing the Sounders. However, Smith’s miss in 43rd minute is one that he’ll wish he had back, after sending a pinpoint pass from Cristian Roldan well wide of goal. In the second half, the adjustments the Sounders made allowed Smith to stretch his legs and the LAFC defense much more effectively. Getting Smith to use his speed to put the opposition under pressure is still a work in progress, but he now has three goals in six games and that’s hardly something to complain about.
The centerback debate has been a notable one thus far, with Yeimar taking the bench early, and Schmetzer seemingly using a rotation among the Colombian, Shane O’Neill and Xavier Arreaga to see who plays alongside Nouhou. Arreaga had his struggles last year, but he’s also put in some big-time performances, most memorably against LAFC in the 2019 Western Conference Final. So it probably wasn’t a surprise that Arreaga got the start, and he rewarded Schmetzer with a fine performance. Arreaga was solid defensively, using his anticipation to break up LAFC attacks. The Ecuadorian got a reward of his own when he opened his Sounders account with a header from the left side of the six-yard box to give the Sounders the lead in the 57th minujte. The goal also served to change the momentum of the game, as the Sounders were much more on the front foot from that point forward.
There’s a good reason that Nouhou has been the one to start every game thus far. His defensive skill set and athleticism are simply not replaceable. Nouhou was once again dominant in this game, repeatedly winning his one-on-one battles and providing cover for his teammates. His passing from deep positions has clearly improved as well, as he was able to release teammates up the field. While he may never be a particularly great crosser from attacking positions, in his current role, he doesn’t need to be.
A yellow for an errant hand to the face aside, Yeimar provided a near flawless performance to help the backline complete the shutout in this match. Yeimar won his headers with his usual aplomb, helping the Sounders win an impressive 65% of their duels. Earlier this year when Yeimar wasn’t starting, Schmetzer said there would be plenty of minutes for all of their centerbacks over the course of the season, that seems to have been borne out, and the questions about the rotation seem quaint, now.
It would be remiss not to mention Stefan Cleveland’s first start in a Sounders uniform, taking over for Stefan Frei. Schmetzer had nothing but good things to say for Cleveland’s performance, helping the Sounders to secure a clean sheet. Schmetzer was especially complimentary of Cleveland’s decision making, in particular when it was clear that playing out of the back wasn’t working against the LAFC press in the first half. Cleveland began sending the ball long to Will Bruin, who did well to hold up the ball and win some fouls to give the Sounders some possession. Keeping any team scoreless in your first start replacing a legend certainly worthy of mention.