The Week in Seattle: Sounders again starved for goals

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle sits ninth in the West with the conference's worst attack. As Richard Farley notes, explanations begin with the team's biggest star:

The week in five words

If you’re not worried, worry.

What went well

From head coach Sigi Schmid’s point of view, apparently, a number of things, despite Saturday night’s 1-0 loss at home to league-leading Colorado.

“I thought for the majority of the game, we controlled the game,” the Seattle Sounders coach said in the opening remarks of his post-match press conference. “I thought we created chances …  The effort of the guys, I thought was great. I thought our play was good as well.”

Welcome to the world of professional soccer, where, seemingly, 80 percent of high-level losses could be spun this way. Lose but have more possession? We controlled the game! Win, but do so on the back foot? That was our plan all along.

Comments like Schmid’s may be reasonable, but they’re also truisms. Soccer’s a game where, when ahead, you have huge incentives to look like the worse team. We’ve constructed ‘being the better team’ to mean more assertive play, usually going toward the opponent’s goal. So when you’re trailing, particularly late, you’re often given permission to “[control] the game” by a team who has reason to ‘look’ worse.

Often times, claiming you played better is useless, particularly if you trailed for most of the game. If you’re Barcelona, dominate play for 88 minutes, then lose on an own goal? That’s one thing. If, like Seattle on Saturday, you concede a goal before half time and never give Colorado a reason to pursue a second? You become soccer’s game-state truism.

To Schmid’s credit, his positives were laced with criticisms. The result was “disappointing,” the team “didn’t finish” its chances, and the final score is “the only stat that matters.” Schmid was, ultimately, fair. Still, once you get beyond one, two games of saying ‘we played well, but …’ the description is no longer constructive. When you’re constantly behind – and Seattle has trailed 34.1 percent of the time this season – playing better is as much your opponent’s choice as yours.

What didn’t

Being only minus-three in goal difference, Seattle’s margins are encouragingly thin. The team has only allowed 13 goals in 11 games, tying it with the Galaxy for the best defense in the Western Conference. The Sounders are depressingly good at falling behind, but only once have they conceded more than two.

Right now, though, the attack is a nightmare. Schmid is right to note the team is creating chances, but the quality on those chances is not as good as he implies. Only five teams (Montreal, Toronto, New England, Chicago, and San Jose) are creating fewer chances per game from six yards and in, while only five teams (D.C. United, Dallas, NYCFC, Toronto and Sporting KC) have created more chances from outside the penalty area. The Sounders may be generating a lot of chances, in the aggregate, but a disproportionate number are coming from low-leverage spots.

Again, though, that may be down to game state. Play from behind, face packed-in defenses, have to shoot from distance. Maybe this is all a tale of a team that’s just been unlucky when it comes to goal distribution. Maybe the cosmic dice rolls will even out, and Seattle will start scoring more of its goals first.

Unfortunately, when you see the disappointing play of Nelson Valdez and, most importantly, Clint Dempsey, this is also a tale of top-end talent not performing to expectations. Valdez, the team’s second-highest earner, is no longer guaranteed a starting spot, while Dempsey is experiencing the league’s biggest year-over-year drop in production.

In a salary-cap league, that’s a recipe for disaster. Unless your payroll’s backend can make up for shortcomings elsewhere, your big-ticket items have to perform, and if you’re trying to answer the question ‘Why is Seattle in ninth in the West?’ the easiest answer has become ‘because the top-end talent hasn’t performed.’

Quote of the Week

“Possession doesn’t win us games. Banging away goals and keeping it to zero in the back does. Right now we would rather take a sloppy victory than a high percentage possession game loss at home.” – Seattle captain Brad Evans.

The need to know facts

  • According to information released last week by the Major League Soccer Players’ Union, Seattle has the league’s fifth-highest payroll, a ranking that will likely climb to at least fourth this summer, when the team fills its third Designated Player spot and spends its Targeted Allocation Money.
  • Dempsey ($4,605,941.50, annual salary) and Valdez ($1,455,000) make up 56 percent of the team’s payroll. They have totaled two goals and no assists in 1271 minutes, and they’re a combined 65 years old.
  • The Sounders’ 10 goals in 11 games ranks 19th in the league, four goals worse than the next-best total in the Western Conference.
  • Seattle now faces three in a row on the road: At New England, then D.C. United, followed by New York Red Bulls. Those teams, combined, will be missing four players to Copa America: New England’s Je-Vaughn Watson (Jamaica); D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum (United States) and Alvaro Saborio (Costa Rica); New York’s Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica).
  • Seattle will be missing Dempsey (United States) and Valdez (Paraguay).

Video of the week

The Sounders’ game wasn’t the biggest event at CenturyLink Field this week. On Wednesday, Beyonce Knowles took over the south-downtown venue, giving the “CLink’s” groundcrew three days to deconstruct her extravagant lemonade stand and re-lay the field:

Winner of the week

Clint Dempsey. With Jordan Morris and Brad Evans missing out, Dempsey was the only Sounder to make the U.S.’s Copa America squad. With one more goal, the former national team captain will join Landon Donovan as the only 50-goal scorers in U.S. men’s soccer history.

Loser of the week

Dempsey, which is somewhat unfair since he's coming off one of his best performances of the season. Five shots, four on target, creating a chance for a teammate, Dempsey was as active as he's been all season. Still, at a time when the Sounders need to start focusing on causes, the 33-year-old’s play over the course of the season is an obvious starting point.

Coming off a 12-goal, 10-assist (nine primary/real assists) campaign, Dempsey is on pace for 4.6 goals, provided he replicates last season’s 2,043 minutes. His shots per game are up (3.6 per game, from three) and his increased pass completion rate reflects his sometime deeper role (85.3 percent, as opposed to 82.3). Still, in terms of the bottom lines a player in his should deliver, he hasn’t been good.

Dempsey is going through a slump, but quietly, over the last offseason, the former Fulham star may have fully entered the twilight of his career. The raw shot totals imply his goal totals will increase, or perhaps the quantity-versus-quality scales have been thrown off, but when weighing slump and decline, it’s become worth asking: What if there’s no longer a difference between the two? What if this is just Clint Dempsey, now? What if, after 437 professional games and 122 appearances for the national team, Dempsey’s battery has run out?

Ten games into the MLS season, it’s at least worth asking those questions, even if “not enough time to know” is still the most-reasonable response.

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Richard Farley is West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.