Month – May 2014

Obafemi Martins is World Class

Happy Monday! I am back in the land of the internet and will have a write-up from Saturday’s game up tomorrow.

Quick thoughts: Weird game. Glad we got the win, but wish we had a better showing against San Jose’s C team. But wow, Oba’s goal was world class! I could watch that all day.

San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders Gameday

The San Jose Earthquakes have the longest history with your Seattle Sounders, dating back to 1974. The two teams vie for the increasingly superfluous Heritage Cup, an homage to their NASL days. Seattle leads this meaningless derby 3-2.

Today’s game will feature two teams depleted by the USMNT call-ups. Seattle will be missing Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and DeAndre Yedlin. San Jose will take the pitch without striker Chris Wondolowski and centerback Clarence Goodson. Seattle has the shorter end of that stick, but San Jose will also be without the suspended Shea Salinas and Victor Bernardez. The Sounders have opened the upper bowl of Century Link Field. Seattle dominates in front of packed houses. Things look ripe for the Sounders to right themselves after last weekend. Which is good because, Lordy, I hate San Jose. They hit and flop and whine and hit. Like SKC, they both flop and goon. The Earthquakes define “flopoon.”

Bold Prediction: Seattle, even missing some stars, has the quality and pride to pound the Quakes in front of a full house.. 3-1 Sounders.

Raving Rewind: Depth the Right Way

Happy Friday Raving Readers!

Mrs. Ravinggreen and I are escaping for the weekend to an internet-less cabin on Hood Canal (which, factoid!!, is neither a hood nor a canal!). Thus I want be blogging for the next few days.

Today, in honor of the Seattle’s depleted roster, I am reposting an abridged “Depth the Right Way.” Enjoy!

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Scarcity is the chief rule of economics, the limiting factor from which all decisions descend. All sports leagues deal with a scarcity of resources: the player pool, roster spots, salaries, etc., but MLS has an especially acute scarcity problem.

As discussed before, the talent pool for soccer players is by far the largest in all international sport. Most countries produce soccer players. Couple this abundance with MLS’s limited salary cap (which for the 2014 season sits just above $3 million), and you have quite the knot. One perennial aspect of this issue, for example, is how can MLS best convince enough good players to jump to an upstart league that can’t pay much? This was, and is being, solved by league-wide changes to roster building: the DP rule, allocation money, etc. For the individual teams, the scarcity problem is different. What is the best way to build an MLS roster?

The fine art of roster building is quite the popular topic in Seattle. Last year, the Sounders went on an MLS-Cup-or-bust run. They squared off their roster, jam-packed the top eleven with talent and went all in. We all know how that worked out. Previous to last year, Seattle had arguably been the gold standard in effective depth. They built quality rosters, not just 1 through 11, but 1 through 22/23. Their three straight US Open Cup Championships (and that star-crossed championship loss) are proof of the efficacy of that approach. However, a team’s approach can vary.

A club’s priorities must be spread between three competitions: the MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, CONCACAF Champions League, and the US Open Cup. MLS has a fairly straightforward incentivation system. A team that wins one of the domestic titles: MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, or US Open Cup gets to compete in the Group Stages of the CONCACAF Champions league. Competing in CCL earns your club more resources (less scarcity) through allocation monies. You must succeed within MLS (or the Open Cup) to have a crack at CCL and its tangible reward of allocation money, and the intangible reward of potentially competing in the FIFA Club World Cup. While Seattle clearly sought to compete across all competitions, other clubs dismiss the Open Cup or CCL. It is a simple consideration of opportunity cost. If you build for MLS Cup, as the thinking goes, you are sacrificing depth and thus a fair chance at an Open Cup run. Scarcity limits your agency.

Are the Sounders building the right way this year? We have a shocking surfeit of depth. Jalil Anibab was a stud in Chicago. Last year he started every minute of every game for a playoff-caliber team, but has barely seen the field for Seattle. Marco Pappa is a two-time former Best XI Selection, but he’s in and out of our lineup, as is Kenny Cooper, one of the most prolific scorers in league history. We can look at all of our depth and be satisfied we have such proven quantities warming the bench. Or we can ask why we started young, unproven Michael Azira in back-to-back games already. We can ask if we have the right kind of depth. To do this we need to best consider how to maximize effective output from each position.

Below is the Seattle Sounders’ current roster (I’ve removed injured and on-loan players). I have roughly grouped the players into the following positional categories: Goalies, Center Backs, Zach Scott, Full Backs, Defensive Mids, Brad Evans, Attacking Mids, Forwards (yes, Scott and Evans get special flexibility considerations).

I’ve also color-coded the players. Green equals I love seeing this player take the field. Yellow equals Well, I guess we gotta run with him today. Red is Oh crap. We’re starting him? This ranking was done with my humble and flawed perspective, if you don’t agree with my rankings, let me know (click to embiggen):

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The first thing you notice is how stacked our team is. The defensive-side of the roster is chock-full of quality players, from having two quality keepers all the way to six quality CB and FB options for the backline. And despite Evans and Rose’s recent injuries, our defensive midfield is stacked. We could afford to trim the roster at that position.

The offensive-minded portion of the squad is more suspect. We are carrying more yellow-type players on this part of the roster, and this is the heart of our scarcity problem. We are allocating many roster sports to marginal players. Granted, you only ever want Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey up top, so you can afford to worry less about quality forward depth, right? On the one hand, we know Deuce will be gone for the World Cup and Oba wasn’t an iron man last year. On the other hand, we have Cooper and Neagle, quality MLS starters, who can always start up top for a game or three. So why carry Barrett and Weaver and Bowen? The Sounders have a deep roster, this summer we’ll find out if they built it the right way.

Osvaldo Alonso: El Corazon De Los Sounders

Osvaldo Alonso and the Seattle Sounders look for vindication against the San Jose Earthquakes this weekend. The team will open the upper bowl of Century Link Field for the the match, so 60,000+ frayed-edged fans will be out in force. Despite their recent run of excellence, the Sounders suffered a debacle  last weekend against New England. Anxiety is heightened due to the loss of our three USMNT players, Dempsey, Evans, and Yedlin, for the next month. The Sounders, desperate to redeem themselves on the pitch, must do so without an ideal lineup.

It would be unfair to say the Sounders will field a JV team against San Jose. With Obafemi Martins, Chad Marshall and Marco Pappa on the pitch the Sounders are still extremely talented. And the one player who IS the Sounders will still be wearing Rave Green on Saturday.

Osvaldo Alonso played in his 150th MLS match last weekend, setting the franchise record. From his milestone Open Cup goal (when he just tore lose from the midfield and made that massive run to score that scorcher) to his consistently dogged excellence, Ozzie, more than any other player, defines the MLS iteration of the Seattle Sounders. This wasn’t a foregone conclusion of how history would settle. Fredy Montero could’ve been the franchise, or Kasey Keller. Now it’s clear it was always Ozzie. He was my first visceral connection to the Sounders. As you know I am an NFL man, and it was easy to see Ozzie as a marauding middle linebacker. He was the first player on the team I fell in love with. I can’t call him Mr. Sounder (as that would be Brad Evans), and I don’t want to say “mascot,” as that’d be demeaning to Ozzie. I think La Barra Fuerza Verde said it best, “Ozzie es el corazon de los Sounders.” He is the heart of this team and he sets its tone.

Despite the universal adoration he receives, few people realize how important Ozzie truly is to the Sounders. On the pitch and in the locker room, Ozzie is a leader. For example, his teammates controversially chose Ozzie take the penalty kick against the Philadelphia Union. The Sounders were behind and they needed that goal. Brad Evans, Clint Dempsey and Gonzalo Pineda are all world-class penalty takers, but his peers chose Ozzie. The kick didn’t work out, but the decision-making process is telling. Ozzie wanted to celebrate his family and the Sounders wanted to honor him. This team respects and loves  Ozzie and wants him to know it.

The front office also appreciates Ozzie. GM Adrian Hanauer fittingly promoted him to a DP contract in the offseason. The exact terms of the deal were undisclosed, but the contract is a “long-term deal” that should keep #6 in Seattle for a long time. Which is great because Ozzie has the talent to play on a national team or overseas, and before the financial incentive, he may have wanted to try his luck in Europe or South America. Now in Seattle, Ozzie will have a career for life with the Sounders family.

Ozzie is building his Sounders legacy. We are all lucky to see him in his prime, and I look forward to telling my grandkids about the glory that was that Honey Badger. This Saturday in San Jose, I look forward to Ozzie adding a new passage to the lore of #6.

USMNT Roster: Chad Marshall Star-Crossed, DeAndre Yedlin at a Crossroads

A couple more thoughts on the USMNT selection‘s impact on your Seattle Sounders.

It’s a fortunate bummer that Chad Marshall was not called into camp. Sigi Schmid, when asked about Marshall’s chances for the World Cup roster, said, “I think Marshall is a good enough center back in comparison to the center backs with the national team that he deserves consideration. Unfortunately the train is pretty far away from the station at this point.” Coach was right on both counts. Chad Marshall is playing exceptional soccer right now and has been a decorated centerback in MLS for a decade. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are not “better” than Marshall now, but Marshall never caught the notice of USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Maybe we’re smitten because we’re Sounders fans and Marshall is our best centerback in, oh, forever, but former USMNT coach Bob Bradley was mighty high on Marshall in 2010. Marshall was fresh off back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year and Best XI selections, and he was one of Bradley’ very last cuts at the pre-World Cup camp. Now he’ll never play in a World Cup. But honestly, I am greedy. I never wanted Klinsmann to call Marshall in, especially because Seattle already has more players rostered for the pre-World Cup camp than any other MLS team.

The Seattle-World Cup connection is strong this year. One would think this dynamic would have helped Marshall’s cause. The worst kept secret in US Soccer is the Sigi/Jurgen connection. These two soccer lifers, and German-Americans, clearly respect each other and, often, seem to be in cahoots. Many things attract potential players to Seattle: the singularly great crowds and ambition and professionalism of the club. But I wonder if, indirectly, this connection contributes to the Sounders successfully attracting players. Eddie Johnson rehabbed his career with Sigi and almost punched his ticket to Brazil here. Brad Evans stormed onto the national team under Sigi’s watch, as is Deandre  Yedlin now. You have to wonder if Klinsmann only found Dempsey’s controversial return to the states palatable because he’d be working with Sigi. That’s all just speculation. It is a fact that for the first time in franchise history, Seattle will have active Sounders wearing the stars and stripes at the World Cup.

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The oddest story from Sunday’s dressing-down at the hands of the New England Revolution was Yedlin’s removal from the pitch in the 60th minute. Any suspense regarding the decision, was it merely a tactical change or an out-right benching, was quickly answered by Sigi in a postgame interview. When asked why Yedlin was removed in the second half, Schmid curtly replied, “Because he was playing poorly.”

It is never pleasant to be benched, especially when the perception is that you’re the player responsible for a loss. New England battered Yedlin’s right side and countered most successfully when he was pushed up and terribly out of position. Was he distracted by the roster announcement and not focused on the game? Yedlin’s head could be all sorts of places right now, ashamed of the game in Foxboro, proud of his selection to camp. That’s a complicated cocktail of emotions. Learning to manage the highs and lows is key to becoming a professional.

Though a budding star, Yedlin has learning to do. He is improving his 1v1 defending and can be solid on the backline, but he distinguishes himself with his speed and attacking prowess. But when he faces an opponent who can match his pace, Fabian Castillo, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Fagundez, his deficiencies get exposed. Yedlin is still grasping the spacing and discipline required of his position. And he is inconsistent. He played like a man on fire against Portland, as responsible as Dempsey for that result. Then he plays like a wet blanket against the Revs. Don’t get me wrong, I love Yedlin. He is great now and will get better. He’s young and learning, and these things will happen. Though I’d be be shocked if Yedlin makes the 23-man roster for Brazil, the USMNT camp should be great for him. He’ll work with seasoned veterans, face some healthy competition from players older and wiser than himself, and see what it takes to be a professional.

USMNT Roster: Seattle Implications and MLS Schedule Complications

Yesterday United States Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann released the official 30-man roster for his World Cup training camp and it includes three Seattle Sounders. The camp starts in Palo Alto, California tomorrow and already drama surrounds the selection. Sounders fans are both proud and anxious to see Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans, and DeAndre Yedlin rostered. Dempsey was always a lock, but Evans and Yedlin were on the bubble. Evans almost secured his spot during qualifying, but an injury suffered earlier in the MLS campaign put his position in doubt. Yedlin, though still young and improving, continues his meteoric rise in US soccer with this selection. The last note of interest to Seattle is that former Sounder Eddie Johnson was not selected. Johnson’s roller coaster career continues: selected for the World Cup and high flying back in 2006, he crashed and burned in European league play and missed the World Cup in 2010, then he enjoyed a career resurrection with Seattle in 2012 and 2013, but again will watch the Cup from his couch, just like the rest of us. Oh Eddie, pride goeth before a fall.

The selection of our Sounders means, though they will proudly represent our city at the international level, Seattle will not have them for at least three league games:

5/17: Home vs. Earthquakes

5/24: Whitecaps Away

5/31: Home vs. RSL

The official 23-man roster must be finalized on June 2nd. The players (definitely Dempsey, probably Evans) who make this final cut will also miss:

6/7: Chicago Away

6/28: DC United Away (this game takes place two days after the US’s final Group Stage game against Germany)

If the Stars and Stripes can somehow advance from the Group of Death, Dempsey and Evans could also miss:

7/5: Whitecaps Away

7/13: Home vs. Portland

I love the World Cup, I just love the Sounders more. This schedule sucks. The Sounders will be missing practically 30% of their starter during this stretch. And it seems likes poor scheduling by the league office, as three Cascadia Cup games happen during this window, and we know the league loves to pimp Cascadia. Additionally, the Sounders marketing team will open the full stadium for both the San Jose and Portland games. For a company that sells, first and foremost, entertainment, this is poor marketing. These games will be like an NFL preseason game where fans have to watch Tavaris Jackson hand off to Robert Turbin. Frankly, I am really tempted to cheer against the USMNT merely because of scheduling.

The MLS schedule is complicated, as it seems to punish ambitious MLS teams that roster world-class players. Unfortunately, the MLS schedule will always conflict with the World Cup as long as we play a summer schedule. But the recent talk of MLS converting to a schedule that mimics the rest of the world’s had me scared. I hate the idea of soccer played in the winter in northern cities like Montreal and Philadelphia (and they’d be none too pleasant at C-Link either), and MLS Commissioner Don Garber seems to agree. Just this past weekend there was snow warning in Colorado. In May. But the summer schedule contributes to the perception that MLS is a junior varsity league because we don’t do it like the big boys. Maybe we lack the tradition of the fall schedule here in the States, but soccer is a great summer sport. I love to go out under blue skies and support the boys in green (the current schedule is also conducive to very little fixture overlap with NFL games), but perennially losing top talent during the World Cup is less than ideal. The schedule inadvertently punishes teams, like the Sounders, that invest in international-caliber players.

But the Sounders should fine. We’ve built enough of a points bubble to weather the odd game off (see New England away). My faith in the front office is higher than at any previous time. I believe the roster Adrian, Chris and co. put together, Kenny Cooper, Marco Pappa, Obafemi Martins, is still above-average compared to most MLS teams. I am hoping for a modest ten points in the next six matches going into the Portland game. I have faith the boys left behind will see the Sounders through this tight stretch of matches.

Trainwreck Seattle Sounders Crash the Party in New England

The Seattle Sounders relapsed Sunday in losing to the New England Revolution 5-0. We have gotten very used to a single narrative here in the Emerald City: Sounders go down a goal, and, by playing beautiful, attacking soccer, rally for the win. Unfortunately yesterday was a different story, one that is all too familiar to Sounders fans. Last year Seattle started most games strong, and if they couldn’t translate their fast start into a goal, they usually got sloppy, gave up a goal, and eventually fell out of the game. This was the first game this season I had flashbacks to 2013. But no, this was most definitely the new-look Sounders falling prey to bad, old habits. The only thing missing at Gillete Stadium was a pouty EJ shaking his head and barking at his teammates. It was déjà vu all over again for the Sounders.

I’d like to write yesterday off as a hiccup, just a poor day at the office, but then I have flashbacks to last year’s tailspin. The Revs gave Sounders fans a horrible reminder of the fact that Seattle, though talented and successful yadda yadda, are guilty of the occasional train wreck of a game. To name the more infamous: the 4-0 drubbing by the Galaxy in 2010, last year’s routs, 5-1 against Colorado and 4-1 against Vancouver. I think most of us Sounders fans have some October 2013 PTSD, when we lost four straight at an aggregate score of 12-2. Hopefully the Sounders have banked enough character and self-confidence through their six-game unbeaten streak to not allow this rout to affect them too much. One bad game shouldn’t shake our faith, especially after the run we’ve enjoyed.

Besides, this game had loss written all over it: the short week, the travel, looking ahead to the USMNT roster. I hate to admit that I predicted a loss, (maybe I should keep my opinions to myself), but I wasn’t surprised by the result, just the score. In the end though, a loss is a loss. 5-0 doesn’t cost you more than 1-0 (unless you start looking ahead to playoff tiebreakers and the importance of goal differential, but let’s not get ahead ourselves). There were a lot of mitigating factors to this loss:

A) It was to an Eastern Conference opponent. We lost the opportunity to pad our Shield lead, but we didn’t give any points to Western Conference rivals. Oddly, we have only lost to the East this year (TFC and Columbus).

B) Hopefully this butt-kicking wakes us up. If we want to win a championship, this team NEEDS to commit to defense and cut out the mental errors. The Sounders are proud professionals. Hopefully this taste lingers and they swear to avoid it for the rest of the season. If this loss results in such an attitude adjustment, it will have been worth it.

C) For all the hand wringing, we have 15 points in our last 6. Stellar.

What I can’t believe is that Seattle was held scoreless for the first time all season. A team with Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, and Kenny Cooper did not get a single ball past Bobby Shuttleworth?!? The Sounders had two left feet on the sleek turf of Gillette Stadium, especially Obafemi Martins. I really feel he had an off day. After superlative games against Dallas and Philly, it seemed every touch of his was off. You’d think if any team would be comfortable as the visitor at a football stadium with turf, it’d be the Sounders.  And Dempsey barely had touches in the second half. What black magic was that?

New England seemed to have drunk a gallon (or 80) of Felix Felicis, the lucky juice from Harry Potter. Every touch was perfect, every shot a goal. The Revs made their chances count. They countered and scored with aplomb. Seattle was very dangerous in the first half, but they didn’t convert a single chance. Seattle had zero goals on twenty shots, while New England had four goals on sixteen shots. If we had their 25% conversion rate, we would have won 5-4 (oh the tyranny of maths). The Sounders are determined to play the game their way: pretty, cheeky and fast. This could very well be our Achilles heel, especially if we continue to bail on defense, communication and maintaining the shape.

Coach Sigi Schmid is going to be pissed. As a coach he needs to play this right, walk a fine line between discipline, dressing down, nurturing and cheerleading. This is a sensitive moment, a milestone of the season. We are about to lose Dempsey, Brad Evans and, maybe, DeAndre Yedlin (I am prepping a separate post for him this week) for 4-7 games. Now the ones who’re left behind need to rally and remember what makes the Sounders the Sounders. All that flair over the last six weeks was nice, but Seattle is about hustle and grit. We need to get back to playing team defense. Sounders chase loose balls, Sounders win duels. Sounders win. Let’s remember that.

Ok. Exhale. Let this stew and don’t forget it. Move on boys and let’s get another win streak started.

Seattle Sounders at New England Revolution Gameday

The New England Revolution will be a tough test today for your Seattle Sounders. The Revs have completely transformed in the last twelve months from Eastern Conference also-ran to title contender. They gave eventual champion Sporting Kansas City a battle in last year’s playoffs and are currently tied for first in the East. However, the statistics don’t like the Revs. Unlike Philadelphia, a team with a horrible record yet great predictive analytics, the Revs are winning despite poor stats. New England is mediocre in possession, shots on goals, and commits too many turnovers. Yet they field a team that continues to win.

New England’s roster is young, athletic and fast. Lee Nguyen plays a mean game of soccer. He has great vision and suave technicality in tight spaces (he pulled off a cheeky backheel in Toronto). However, he’s been heralded as “the most underrated” player in MLS so often lately that he may be getting overrated.

Another player to watch is rookie Patrick Mullins. Mullins may have finally cracked the eleven while proving all the haters wrong. At the University of Maryland, Mullins was the most decorated collegiate soccer player in the country. He won back-to-back Hermann Trophies, the Heisman of college soccer, and yet faced a lot of detractors before the 2014 MLS Super Draft. The knock being he was just a one-dimensional scorer without the skills to build a career as a professional. New England selected Mullins 7th overall and he’s starting to reward their confidence. He is so much more than a one-trick poacher. Mullins contributes all over the pitch, he moves well and does the dirty work. It’s easy enough to flash around, fill channels and poach goals. Mullins embraces the unsung grittiness, the hold-up play and thankless runs, of the forward position.

I’m nervous we lose this one. A lot of the fringe variable are stacked against Seattle. We’re tired. We’re looking ahead to USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s call-ups. We’re facing a quality team on the road on a short week. Our last loss was to Columbus, a rising Eastern team hungry to prove its mettle against mighty Seattle. This game could be déjà vu all over again.

Bold Prediction: I hate predicting a loss, but I see the Sounders sloppy early. The Sodo Mojo doesn’t follow them to the Eastern time zone. 2-1 New England. Prove me wrong boys.

Obafemi Martins: Peerless in Seattle

Happy Friday Raving Readers!

My newest post is up at Sounders Nation, check it out. I discuss Obafemi Martins MVP-caliber play and how he belongs to the Sounders.

Record-Chasing Seattle Breaks Dallas

It’s déjà vu all over again as your Seattle Sounders dispatch a pesky Dallas FC squad 2-1 on Kenny Cooper’s late game winner. Wow, the Sounders are the cardiac kids of Cascadia. Cooper’s 88th minute goal was the ninth result-earning goal Seattle has scored after the 75th minute. Four teams in MLS haven’t scored that many goals all season.

Maybe it’s early, but what other lofty records are the Sounders chasing? They have now won five consecutive games, which ties the franchise record. Seattle has scored 22 goals and earned 22 points through ten games this season. They are on pace for 75 points, that would not only win the Supporter’s Shield, but smash the current points record held by the 1998 LA Galaxy (68 points). If the Sounders keep up their offensive clip of 2.2 goals a game, they’ll finish with 74 goals, second only to those 1998 Gals (who scored a whopping 85!). Can any one beat Seattle? Maybe that vintage Galaxy is the only team that could stop these Sounders.

Real Salt Lake thinks they’re the team to stop the swaggering Seattle heroes. Beating Dallas creates some space atop the Western Conference, but RSL continues to lurk. And they have a streak of their own going, as RSL is without a loss on the season. The MLS marketing department would have gobs invested in a matchup between these two giants: the undefeated squad from the Wasatch and the magical team from the North Cascades. But when Seattle and RSL first face off May 31st, both teams will have players called into USMNT camp. I’ll write a longer post soon about the upcoming World Cup camp and what it means roster-wise and potential schedule wise for your Seattle Sounders.

Last question: Are the Seattle Sounders magical or are they magicaler?

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