Matt Pentz: Have Sounders improved in 2017?

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Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo.

Their current run of form is something of a Rorschach test for how you feel about the 2017 Seattle Sounders.

Optimists will point to the solidity of the defense, and to their 13-match unbeaten streak that is the longest in club history. Following Saturday’s scoreless draw at Dallas, goalkeeper Stefan Frei is now tied for the MLS lead with 10 shutouts, and this ongoing run has catapulted Seattle from outside of the playoff places into fourth in the Western Conference and just a single point behind first-place Vancouver.

There is merit to this line of thinking. If the season ended today, the Sounders would feel as good as anybody out their chances to come of the West and earn a shot to defend their MLS Cup title.

The naysayers counter that though, yes, Seattle is unbeaten in 13, it is also winless in four, most of which came against teams it jockeying with for postseason positioning. They point to an attack that hasn’t netted a goal from the run of play in more than a month, a front four that many claimed just needed time to jell but still hasn’t, 29 games into a 34-match season.

Their reasoning is more subjective, based on the eye test. Something about this team just doesn’t look quite right – it hasn’t all year, really – and that disconnect could ultimately cause this team to eventually bump up against a ceiling.

In the aftermath of last Saturday’s scoreless draw against FC Dallas in Frisco, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer kept a foot in both camps, though, as is his nature, he leaned slightly toward the positive.

“Overall, I’m pleased,” Schmetzer said, copping to a worryingly low shot total (just two on target) before adding some caveats. “We won 52 percent of our duels, which showed the effort in the group, and we caught up to them, because they kept the ball for long stretches in the first half, and we caught up to them. That showed, in the second half, that we came back.

“Yeah, we still have to find a way to be a little more goal-dangerous, but the fact of the matter is that this isn’t an easy place to play, that’s a good team and we were still able to get a point. You look at the calendar at the beginning of the year and you think you can get a point from a really good team, you take it.”

Seattle missed Jordan Morris’ ability to get behind opposing defenses and stretch the field, a reality it’s going to have to get used to with Morris out for the foreseeable future with a hamstring injury. Temperatures in North Texas topped out around 93 on Saturday, and conditions were still sweltering despite the late kickoff. Dallas’ swarming press bothered the Sounders early on, preventing them to establish much of a rhythm.

“We didn’t play good football,” Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam said. “We waited until they were tired, because you cannot do it for 90 minutes (in the heat). We had enough control of the game. If we had any problems, we still have Stef.”

Much of what Schmetzer and Leerdam described is demonstrably true. The points just aren’t particularly new.

This Sounders team is always going to fight to the end. They’ve proved that for more than a year now, dating back to last August’s come-from-behind win in Orlando that multiple players pointed to as that campaign’s turning point. They’ve flashed that ability throughout 2017, as well, most notably when they played down a man for the entire second half in Portland yet still earned a point thanks to Clint Dempsey’s stoppage-time strike.

That aforementioned ability to control games is valuable, as well. Built on the foundation of that solid back line and around the stellar defensive midfield partnership of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, Seattle can slow tempo and hunker down if need be. That could very well come in handy come playoff time.

“I know people who will say that maybe you (should) lose one or win one, instead of playing many draws,” Leerdam said. “But I’m happy with the way we performed. When you don’t lose, people are going to recognize you as a strong team, because you have a good base, and good fundamentals. I think we are a strong side.”

Combine those two attributes, the never-say-die attitude and defensive discipline, and Seattle could very well grind its way through the West.

There might be something, though, to Leerdam’s throwaway comment about Frei. If we run into any problems, we still have Stef. There is a thin line between confident and complacent, not just in Seattle’s faith in its goalkeeper but in its belief that it can shift into an extra gear when circumstances call for it.

We’ve reached the point of the season where it is reasonable to start peering over the fence at the other half of the bracket. That side-by-side comparison is not particularly flattering.

Toronto used last year’s MLS Cup setback as motivation and turned itself into a juggernaut. Averaging 2.14 points per game, TFC is already compiling a strong case to be considered among the best squads in league history.

New York City FC and Chicago have also drastically improved from this point a year ago.

Even if one points to the merits of Seattle’s ongoing unbeaten streak, would anybody convincingly make that case about the Sounders? They haven’t fallen off, and considering the fate of recent league champions, there’s some merit in that. But given preseason expectations, the club’s resources and the talent on this roster, it’s not unreasonable to ask for improvement, not inertia.

The Sounders are a disciplined, defensive team. In this Western Conference, that could go a long way.

If they are to make a legitimate title defense starting at the end of next month, however, they’ve got five games within which to become something more.


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