SEATTLE — In the early months of the season, the Seattle Sounders have convincingly demonstrated that when they have something of a full-strength roster, they’re as good as anyone. In 16 competitive games with at least nine first-choice starters, the Sounders won 9-3-5 – a pace that would see them in contention for the Supporters’ Shield.
The main problem so far has been the games where they had six or fewer of those ideal starters. In their first five games of this kind, the Sounders had gone 0-3-2 – a pace that would practically see them bottom in the standings.
With just five ideal starters available for Tuesday’s game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Sounders finally showed the kind of depth we’d long believed they were capable of. Yes, regulars like Raúl Ruidíaz (two goals), Nicolás Lodeiro (one goal) and Alex Roldán (one goal) provided the decisive goal, but the non-automatic starters also had plenty to offer.
It wasn’t just the staff that was reassigned due to injuries and international assignments, but the way they were deployed. Most notable among the moves was Lodeiro being pushed back a line to play alongside Obed Vargas in double pivot.
Lodeiro responded with 101 touches that filled the box score, including completing 77 of 87 passes and five chances created while hovering around the field. He even added nine recoveries as if to show he wasn’t completely abandoning his defensive responsibilities. Lodeiro was given that freedom because Vargas once again showed maturity well beyond his years and was largely able to handle the duties of defensive midfield on his own.
“I think it worked well,” Vargas said dead in the dressing room after the game. “We won 4-0.”
While that may be undeniable, it’s still noteworthy that head coach Brian Schmetzer has the confidence to use Vargas in this way. The double pivot relies heavily on the two players understanding each other, and each of the partners Vargas has competed with this year has different tendencies and desires.
But Schmetzer again had no hesitation in pairing Vargas with a partner whose natural tendencies would likely leave the 16-year-old on a midfield island. It also speaks to the frighteningly rapid rate at which Vargas absorbs and processes information. Vargas has now been paired with five different partners and has started a team high 12 times in double pivot.
“I mean, [Schmetzer] put me in the Concacaf final when JP went down,” Vargas said of his 60-minute performance against Pumas in place of the injured João Paulo. “That was all the confidence I needed. Choosing me in this game was just another expression of his faith in me.”
Against the Whitecaps, Vargas kept a low profile for the most part, concentrating on maintaining possession. He completed 40 of 44 passes, won 7 of 13 tackles and was fouled four times.
“There was a lot of talk about how to set up the team,” Schmetzer said of the decision to bring Lodeiro and Vargas together. “We also know that Nico likes to touch the ball, gets as many touches as possible in games and that suits his personality. That’s good for me too, because when Nico plays a little deeper, our game is a little better from back to front. He’s not afraid to get the ball in tight spots, he can turn, he can connect passes to the next line.
Lodeiro’s freedom was particularly evident in the Sounders’ second goal. Fredy Montero sat down on the midfield line to stop a long ball from Stefan Frei. Lodeiro immediately moved into that space and eventually made the pass that unlocked the attacking sequence and got Kelyn Rowe into the space before blasting a pass to Jimmy Medranda in the box. Medranda’s first touch was a little loose, but Ruidíaz’s first touch hit the net directly.
“When we put Fredy in Nico’s position and Nico moved back a line, I thought that worked very well,” said Schmetzer. “[Assistant coach] Freddy Juarez hit out of the park with the tactic. We played our back four narrower and flatter – because they had full-backs – and that created space and that helped Nico.”
All of this bodes well for a team that now appears to be on the road to success. The Sounders, right on the heels of a three-game losing streak in the league, have won 4 of 5 while outscoring their opponents 10-3, are in a playoff position for the first time this year and are in position , with their next climb even higher three games all at home. You will also get some starters back from international use.
The Sounders seem to be heating up just in time for the summer.