SEATTLE — In their first few months of the season, the Seattle Sounders have demonstrated convincingly that they’re as good as anyone when they have something like a full roster. In 16 games across competitions with at least nine first-choice starters, the Sounders have gone 9-3-5 — a pace that would put them in contention for the Fan Shield.
The main problem, so far, has been with games where they’ve had six or fewer of these ideal starters. In their first five such games, the Sounders had gone 0-3-2 – a pace that would virtually secure them last place in the standings.
With just five ideal starters available for Tuesday’s game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Sounders finally pulled off the kind of deep-bending performance we’ve long thought they were capable of. Yes, first-choice players like Raúl Ruidíaz (two goals), Nicolás Lodeiro (one goal) and Alex Roldán (one goal) provided the punch, but there was also a lot to like from guys who aren’t automatic starters.
It wasn’t just the staff that were being displaced due to injuries and international duties, it was how they were deployed. Most notable among the changes was moving Lodeiro back one line to play alongside Obed Vargas in the double pivot.
Lodeiro responded with a boxscore of 101 touches which included completing 77 of 87 passes and creating five chances while floating all over the pitch. He even added nine recoveries, as if to show he wasn’t completely abandoning his defensive responsibilities. Lodeiro was granted such freedom because Vargas once again showed maturity well beyond his years and was able to handle defensive midfield duties mostly on his own.
“I think it worked well,” Vargas said in the post-match locker room. “We won 4-0.”
While this may be indisputable, it should be noted that head coach Brian Schmetzer has the confidence to deploy Vargas in this manner. The double pivot relies heavily on both players understanding each other, and each of the partners Vargas has fielded this year has different tendencies and desires.
But Schmetzer was once again not shy about pairing Vargas with a partner whose natural tendencies would likely leave the 16-year-old on a midfield island. It also speaks to the shocking speed with which Vargas records and processes information. Vargas has now been paired with five different partners and started a team record 12 times in the 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 injured João Paulo. “It was all the confidence I needed. Choosing me in this game was just another expression of his trust in me.
Against the Whitecaps, Vargas mostly held back and focused on holding the ball. He completed 40 of 44 passes, won 7 of 13 duels and was fouled four times.
“There were a lot of conversations about how to set up the team,” Schmetzer said of the decision to pair Lodeiro and Vargas. “We also know that Nico likes to touch the ball, to get as many touches as possible in games, and that matches his personality. It’s also good for me because when Nico plays a little lower, our back-to-back game forward is a bit better. He’s not afraid to put the ball in the hard places, he’s able to turn, he’s able to connect passes to the next line.
Lodeiro’s freedom was particularly evident on the Sounders’ second goal. Fredy Montero had dropped in midfield to hold off a long ball from Stefan Frei. Lodeiro immediately moved into that space and eventually made the pass that unlocked the attacking streak, putting Kelyn Rowe into space before passing Jimmy Medranda into the box. Medranda’s first touch was a little loose, but it fell straight to Ruidíaz, whose first touch put the ball into the net.
“When we put Fredy in for Nico and Nico back, I thought it worked really well,” Schmetzer said. “[Assistant coach] Freddy Juarez went out of the park with the tactic. We played our narrower, shallower back four – because they had wingers – and that opened up space and that helped Nico.
This all bodes well for a team that now seems to be hitting its stride. Coming directly on the heels of a three game losing streak in the league, the Sounders have won 4 of 5 games while beating their opponents 10-3, are in playoff position for the first time this year and are well positioned to climb even higher with their next three home games. They will also pick up several international duty starters.
The Sounders seem to be warming up just in time for summer.