Seattle has 16 of its 17 goals this season from open play. Last year, nearly a third of its goals came either from set pieces or the penalty spot.

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The buildup began at the very back, as Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei gathered Tyrone Mears’ backward header into his grateful arms.

Seattle captain Brad Evans pumped his arms downward, gesturing for his teammates to slow the tempo. Frei booted a roller into Osvaldo Alonso’s path. The midfielder turned upfield, scanning for fellow black jerseys.

The sequence that followed highlighted a new Sounders specialty, one it has deployed strategically and with success this season: An increased ability to keep possession for lengthy, opposition-leg-killing stretches of time.


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It’s not that Seattle was uncomfortable on the ball before. But neither were its buildups quite this long, this complex.

“Every team is different,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said this week. “Even though you think, ah, it’s basically the same team with a lot of the same players, each team, each year takes on a little bit of a different dynamic.

“(Possession play) is something we’ve been working on. It’s something that seems to fit the character of this team.”

The Sounders are completing more short passes per game than any other team in Major League Soccer besides Orlando City, according to stats by

Seattle also has 16 of its 17 goals this season from open play. Last year, nearly a third of its goals came either from set pieces or the penalty spot.

More than half a minute had passed from the time of Frei’s initial pass to the one Evans stepped up to gather deep in his own defensive half. Evans knocked the ball to Alonso, who played it to midfield partner Gonzalo Pineda, who dropped it for center back Chad Marshall.

Some of the increased emphasis on possession play is the natural progression for a team that was kept largely intact from its Supporters Shield-winning season last year.

“It’s been a little while playing together now,” Seattle winger Marco Pappa said. “We know each other.”

Pappa has gotten better, for example, at knowing when to shift further inside to provide Alonso and Pineda with a ready passing partner and when to stay wide to stretch the field. The teammates have a stronger read on each other’s feints and the subtle head nods.

For most of the Seattle core — Alonso, Pineda, Pappa, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey — playing with the ball on the ground and building gradually comes naturally.

Others needed more of a nudge. Marshall is a defender first, but against Vancouver, the game plan called for him to step up and help out the passing attack. Winger Lamar Neagle has also altered his game.

“Before I was more about staying wide and running up and down the line,” Neagle said. “But when you do that, with the way we play, you don’t see the ball very much. You can still be an outlet and I still do it occasionally, but I’m finding my confidence in coming inside and playing with the guys.”

Sounders forward Clint Dempsey tracked all the way back in the Vancouver half, received a pass, then left it for Pineda with a back-heeled flourish. Pineda to Pappa, back to Dempsey, who swung the ball across the field toward the right sideline. Pineda, Alonso and Pappa in a triangle — ping, ping, ping.

It can be maddening, trying to regain control against a team that can keep the ball. You’re forced to chase shadows, exert so much energy to gain possession only to give it right back and hit the reset button.

“I’ve been on the other side of that,” forward Chad Barrett said. “Everybody has been on the other side of that. When they keep the ball, it’s like playing Real Madrid or something. They just don’t give up the ball. And when they do, you feel like you have to protect the ball that much more because you don’t want to give it back.

“That’s really deflating for another team.”

Vancouver’s hair-on-fire press sagged as Saturday’s match progressed and as the deficit grew.

Shoulders sagged, gaps began to open up. Seattle exploited some of them on the counterattack but mostly it just sat back, content.

Vancouver forward Octavio Rivera shuffled forward toward Seattle’s midfield triangle, and Pappa ghosted into the space he vacated. The closest Whitecap was 10 yards away when Pappa received the pass, leaving the Seattle attacker with plenty of time to pick out Barrett streaking toward the box. Barrett hit the bouncing ball on the volley, smashing it past the goalkeeper.

The sequence that started at Frei’s feet and ended with the ball in Vancouver’s net lasted 25 passes, the longest string of consecutive completions leading to a goal in the league this season. It ate up nearly a minute-and-a-half.

Pineda completed almost 93 percent of his 110 passes on Saturday, while Alonso completed more than 95 percent of his 90 — season bests for both midfielders.

But it’s one thing to sit back and dink the ball around when an opponent is facing a two-goal deficit, another to stay patient when you need a goal yourself.

“We need a good balance between being aggressive and also keeping possession of the ball,” Pineda said.

Slightly improved numbers or not, nobody is confusing these Sounders with the Pep-Guardiola-era, possession-obsessed FC Barcelona teams. Seattle is still going to alter its game plan week-by-week, depending on the matchups.

Playing long stretches of keep-away is just another mode to shift into, another weapon to deploy when the time is right.

“We have so many players that can play differently, with a lot of power and speed and aggression, like Oba and like Clint,” Pineda said. “We also have players that can bring possession to the team. That’s a good mix.

“We can probably be more aggressive, more dangerous at some point, but possession was key in this game and we had the full control.”