So what do we make of these Sounders, who have jumped out to the (very) early lead for the Supporters Shield, outscored opponents 10-2 for the best goal differential in Major League Soccer through four matches, and already vanquished archrival Portland on the road?
They are unbeaten, once-tied, and giving a very strong indication that coach Brian Schmetzer’s bold decision to change the Sounders’ formation was a fundamentally sound one. Maybe even a stroke of genius, though Schmetzer cautioned more than once that it’s way too soon to make any definitive judgments.
OK, so we won’t. But even without injured Nicolas Lodeiro for much of the season, it’s hard not to like what you’ve seen as the Sounders head into an early showdown Wednesday at San Jose. The Earthquakes are one point behind the Sounders in the Western Conference and one of the trickiest teams in MLS to play against.
“You want talk about new formations and tactics and everything — no one in MLS plays like (San Jose coach) Matias Almeyda,” Schmetzer said in a phone interview Tuesday. “And you want to talk buy-in? That’s a team that believes in what they’re doing. So that makes them a very tricky, very challenging opponent.”
Schmetzer has been pleased with the Sounders’ buy-in to his decision to change formations, which he says wasn’t totally finalized until Jordan Morris went down with a major knee injury in late February while on loan to Swansea.
Until then, there was always a chance Morris would return to the Sounders during the season, at which point they would likely revert to what had worked so well for them en route to two MLS Cups.
“We had always tinkered with having a secondary formation, something that would, for tactical reasons, home or away, provide a different look to our team,” Schmetzer said. “And we’d always kicked around three center backs, especially when we had Chad Marshall, Roman Torres and Kim Kee-hee.”
The Sounders never pushed that plan forward, however — until Morris was loaned to Swansea.
“And we’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t have any true wingers.’ We kicked it around and said, ‘Yeah, let’s think about this. Let’s give this a shot,’ ” Schmetzer said.
“But I would even say that it was still, maybe in our minds, a secondary formation. Because you never know. Jordan could have come back to us, and it wouldn’t have been like a set formation; he would have come back in, and things would have been the way they were.”
But when Morris went down with a season-ending torn left ACL, Schmetzer and his coaches decided to go full throttle with the 3-5-2.
“And so far, knock on wood, it’s worked,” he said.
There’s a sound reason for that, too. It plays into the strengths of numerous players, which was the Sounders’ motivation in the first place. Schmetzer cited Brad Smith, Nouhou, Alex Roldan, Josh Atencio, Cristian Roldan and Raul Ruidiaz, among others, as particularly suited to the formation.
“I think if you have six or seven clear examples of how this formation suits the roster makeup, then your chances of success are obviously a lot higher,” Schmetzer said.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t some consternation among the team members when Schmetzer unveiled the new look.
“Let’s say they were curious. I would say there were a few eyes opened up a little bit when we pushed it out there,” Schmetzer said. “But the easy thing for me was for everybody to see that this formation suits so many of our players.”
The next stage in the Sounders’ development — and Schmetzer stresses they are far from perfect, and far from peaking — is to become more instinctive and aggressive while employing the new look. He can point to stretches during the season when they’ve been less than stellar, most notably in the first half against Portland. That prompted a stern halftime speech, after which the Sounders broke loose for two goals in the second half and a 2-1 victory.
In his postgame talk to the team, the video of which was posted on Twitter, Schmetzer noted how the Sounders had played passively in the first half against the Timbers, “and it wasn’t us. … You can’t have fear. That’s what I want you to learn from this game.”
It’s a natural adjustment to a radical change in formation and tactics. Once the growth is complete, the Sounders could really soar.
“I believe in this, and the coaching staff believes in this group of players and this formation,” Schmetzer said. “That’s important, because you’ve got to have buy-in from your coaches as well. And so we’re firmly committed. We firmly believe that this is a good formation to take us through the first part of the season.
“And so what we as coaches want is, obviously, great effort, hard work, all of those things that should come that should come automatically for a pro athlete for the Seattle Sounders. Those are non-negotiables.
“But what I also want them to do is learn and grow in this new formation, and go ahead and try something. And look, if it works, great. But if it doesn’t work, then OK. You’ve learned that this isn’t what I should do. And I just felt they were playing too passively against our bitter rivals. They were just passive. And that’s what kind of ticked me off a little bit.”
But, conversely, what encourages Schmetzer greatly is the sense that the buy-in to the new tactics is taking strong hold. And that bodes very well for a Sounders season that has gotten off to a crackling start.