Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The start to the 2018 campaign was, at best, a complete and utter disaster. Expectations were high for a team that had just made its second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance. You don’t usually see trains derail without gaining any significant speed or momentum, but somehow that’s exactly what happened here.
Jordan Morris, coming off of an injury and a disappointing sophomore campaign looked primed to return to the form that saw him capture Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, instead he suffered another devastating season ending injury and Seattle went from dreams of CCL glory to that one where you show up to class naked and have to take a final you didn’t study for.
Even the most patient and tolerant Seattle fans were at their wits end while Seattle just could not manage to score goals. Magnus Wolff Eikrem, a source of optimism with a good resume and a better name couldn’t manage to find minutes before being released, add in some poorly chosen words from GM Garth Lagerwey, and Seattle’s situation looked messy in a way that required more of a razing than a cleaning.
But we know how this goes. Seattle signed a new DP striker, and went on a 9 game winning streak. They’ve lost twice in their last 18 matches. After Sunday’s round of matches they could finish as high as second in the West. People that do not follow MLS will never understand these things. Those of us that do just nod our heads and accept it.
Possession: 49.9% (9th in MLS)
Passes Per Game: 464.5 (8th in MLS)
xGoals For: 42.4 (20th in MLS)
xGoals Against: 50.8 (12th in MLS)
It would be easy to glance at Seattle’s numbers and come to the same sardonic conclusion that many have and think that their recent burst of form is merely a representation of the pendulum finally swinging their way. That on a long enough timeline this team would and will be made to look as average as they are. This seemingly annual midseason surge from a team of pronounced profligacy to an MLS Cup contender is probably wearing thin to their detractors who for the third year in a row have seen this team get back up from the mat. The Sounders have become masters of bending but not breaking, but while in previous seasons underlying numbers always seemed to point to Seattle being a sleeping giant, this season the rise has been even more extreme and even less explainable.
Let me nip this in the bud. The Sounders have one of the best rosters in the league, and it’s the underlying numbers that make less sense than their place in the table. Defensively, they’re anchored by two of the league’s best center backs, the league’s best goalkeeper, and Osvaldo Alonso. That alone puts them in the upper tiers of talent. Add in a playmaker as splendorous as Nicolas Lodeiro, a striker with as much guile as Raul Ruidiaz, a finally healthy and productive Victor Rodriguez, and the versatility and talent of both Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svennson and it’s really no wonder that this team is back near the top of their conference.
So. About those underlying numbers though. They are not good at all. Their xGF beats only Montreal, Chicago, and Colorado. Their xGA is... let’s say, midtable and barely above the LA Galaxy whom I think we can all agree are bad at defending. But Injuries! That’s representative of an entire season the first of half of which was obviously bad surely we’ve seen a significant uptick since around the time they signed Ruidiaz? Well….. Not so much no. As you can see, there’s a pretty significant increase in actual goals scored, but xG, xGA, and xGD, are more or less identical - and yet…. There’s just so much improvement here in terms of actual results.
|When Seattle Were Bad||15||0.94||0.87||1.4||1.27||1.61||-0.34|
|When Seattle Were Good||22||2.18||1.82||1.0||1.28||1.58||-0.30|
Why Seattle Won’t Make the MLS Cup Final
Because this has to stop eventually. Because reaching the final three years in a row after phoning in the first half of the season can’t and shouldn’t be a sustainable model. Because inevitably they’re going to ask Stefan Frei to once again reach into his hat and pull out a rabbit only to find there isn’t one this time. Because Nouhou is like that spinning, wobbling, top at the end of Inception. Because Lodeiro might have a bad game. Because players can get hurt or just have an off night, and once we get to November that’s really all it takes to end a season. There are two forms of Seattle, the one that kicks dirt in the xG model’s face and the one that the xG model accurately represents. For the last few months we’ve seen a Seattle that’s as good as any team in the league, but if they regress back to the team they were at the beginning of the campaign for even 90 minutes, they’ll have a few extra weeks of vacation this time around.
Why Seattle Will Make the MLS Cup Final
Because it’s what they do and if we’re being totally honest here, we have to acknowledge that in the Western Conference, there really isn’t a “powerhouse” so to speak. Assuming LA go through at RSL’s expense, any of these six teams could wind up on the top of the pile without causing too much shock. Why not Seattle? Seattle can and has beaten all of these teams (except LAFC who took both matches 1-0), has been strong on the road lately, and only really looked bad in one match since July.
You’re going to be hard pressed to find someone who lives that xG life as hard as I do. I will extol the virtues of that particular metric until a bartender tells me that they just need me to close out my tab before the shift change. However, I think focusing solely on xNumbers can be a bit reductive. Yes, the Sounders would appear to be a house of cards, but this is a team that’s taken 44 of the last 54 points on offer. Even if they’re getting some breaks, they’re also doing something right. So what exactly is that? The short answer is that I don’t know, but the longer one may be this:
Seattle may not be excellent at any one particular thing, but they’re reasonably good at just about all of them and if you’re looking for an explanation as to how they’re winning as often as they are, it’s probably no more complicated of an answer than that.
Bet against them at your peril. I’m certainly not going to.