supporters’ shield

The Value of the Shield

shield2

In case anyone forgot, the Seattle Sounders just won the Supporters’ Shield. I’ve been salivating at the thought of the Shield for months. Back on July 13, shortly after decimating Portland 2-nil, I interviewed Clint Dempsey and asked if anyone in the Seattle locker room was talking Supporters’ Shield. He looked at me like I was crazy and said “No. Trophies aren’t earned by talking about them.” I’ve wanted the Shield for a long time, but now that it’s here… it rings somewhat hollow.

As a sports fan, and a diehard, I have only one vicarious championship to my resume, the 2008 World Series. That was a great autumn. I spoke to uncles and cousins, ones I rarely call, and we talked about them Fightin’ Phils. Then the Phillies won 97 games in 2010 and 102 in 2011, back-to-back table topping seasons. But it didn’t mean squat. MLB fans look back at those Phillies teams as failures for folding in the playoffs, despite 162 games of consistent dominance. You Mariners fans know what it’s like.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy. I am impressed. The Shield is an incredible accomplishment, especially for a Western Conference team. But who really fetes and respects New York for winning it last year or San Jose for bossing the league two years ago. Americans respect the plucky and clutch teams that win when the pressure’s on, not steady, consistent winners. As an American sports fan, the Shield doesn’t resonate as much as winning the playoffs. It’s how we’re conditioned. I know table-topping is the traditional crowning achievement in international soccer, but Obama didn’t invite the New Red Bulls to the White House (do they do that in other countries? Did David Cameron host Man City? Or is it just our distinctly American obsession of marrying sports to politics?). Even the Sounders players celebrated the US Open Cup much more. After last weekend’s game, everyone in Rave Green was all business.

That doesn’t mean the Shield means nothing. Like winning the Preakness, it is a necessary ingredient to a greater accomplishment. We’re already sitting on history: a Shield and Open Cup double. But there’s more. To further Sigi’s postgame metaphor: the thing is MLS Cup, it is the cake. You don’t got much if you don’t got it. The Shield is lovely icing however. I’d love to look back and say, hell we won the Shield on the way to the Cup. Nothing makes you look more like a G.O.A.T., once-in-a-lifetime team than all those historical footnotes. We have 5 games left and I want the good old-fashioned, ‘Murican championship: MLS cup.

But last weekend the Sounders did win a trophy. And considering how we won it: going toe-to-toe with our nemesis and foil, Los Angeles, makes it even sweeter. It is another trophy for our collection and evidence for the growing case that “The Seattle Sounders are the class of American soccer.” Something was up for grabs and we grabbed it. Hell, that’s what winners do: they take ‘em all.

Giddy Yet #Hellahungry, the Seattle Sounders Win the Supporters’ Shield

Captain Brad Evans hoists the Sounders first MLS hardware

Captain Brad Evans hoists the Sounders’ first MLS hardware

A narrative, the Seattle Sounders choke when there’s silverware at stake, was buried Saturday at CenturyLink Field. In gritty and flashy fashion, Seattle won the Supporters’ Shield beating rival Los Angeles Galaxy 2-0.

The game was a deadlocked slugfest (literally at times) until the 82nd minute when Marco Pappa took an Obafemi Martins pass and one-timed it past the keeper, into the pink netting. That first goal was catharsis. I don’t think I’d ever heard CLink louder.

As the game drug into the 80th minute, the pressure became nearly unbearable. A draw seemed more and more likely, but conditioned to expect the worst in sports, I was sure L.A. was going to break our hearts. Sure of it. I could see them stealing one late and not leaving enough time for us to respond. But this year, as they’ve proven for months, the Sounders persevered, rewriting the history books and collective opinion of the club.

If the first goal was euphoria, the second was surrealism. Pappa again struck, bullyragging L.A.’s keeper, Jaime Penedo, into a turnover outside the box. Pappa dodged around the last defender and popped a cheeky chip into the net for the killing blow. I was in shock. I barely celebrated, literally stood mouth agape, until the ladies behind us tapped my shoulder for fives. Marco Pappa provided the sizzle to cap the game, but it was Seattle’s defense that won the Shield.

The Sounders, shockingly, played impressive defense. I don’t know if the game plan was to cede possession and absorb, but it worked. Defense and sitting back is not our strong suit, not how we roll. We attack teams, we punish them as we cram the ball down their throat. And yet Saturday, 58,000 screaming supporters saw Seattle, at home, tell the best attacking team in the league, go ahead hold the ball as much as you want, we won’t let you do anything with it. The Sounders didn’t bunker as ten men weren’t always behind the ball, but ceded the lion’s share of possession and shots to L.A.

This tactic proved brilliant. Much was made of the disparity of shots on Twitter and amongst those that follow MLS. The argument exists that L.A. was the better in the game, and Seattle got lucky at the end. Matthew Doyle, MLS’s armchair analyst, thoroughly debunks this narrative while discussing the expected goals stat. We gave up the ball, but not quality scoring chances.

Our spine is stout. Seattle has the roster to be a defensive power: Ozzie is such a stud, so is Marshall. If we protect the flanks with a reined-in Yedlin and play Evans in the midfield, we have a tight defense. And with Oba and Clint up top, we don’t need to be throwing the kitchen sink at the opposing goal. Stay tight, win the midfield, and link up to your strikers. Then sit back and enjoy the show. This tactic marked Gyasi Zardes to the point of irrelevance, (much like Keane last week), and allowed us to chose quality times to counter.

sigi

Sigi Got His Groove Back

With Zardes quiet, L.A.’s attack was further diluted because they had to respect our transition game. We forced L.A. into a pickle between pushing a weak attack or throwing more bodies up and exposing space for our deadly strikers. L.A. resorted to holding in the midfield and fouling with abandon. Coach Sigi Schmid pointed out how L.A. had 15 fouls in the first half alone, on pace for 30 on the day, an insanely high number. Sigi flat-out outcoached L.A.’s Bruce Arena. Maybe another narrative, Sigi’s not a tactics guy, was also laid to rest this past weekend.

We’ll probably see the Gals again very, very soon (though I’ll be a huge RSL fan for the next two weeks). Will this strategy work with Keane in the pitch? One goal was all L.A. needed, and Keane is coldblooded. Goals change games. The Galaxy had a couple near misses: that glancing strike by Zardes and the balding short timer Landycakes could’ve ended it early. In the x minute he ran screaming on the end of a great ball at the top of our box and snapped a chip that, somehow, Stefan Frei reflex saved.

Chokers no more. Supporters’ Shield champs. Two-thirds to the Treble. All is good in the Soundersphere, and yet we remain #hellahungry. Giddy yet hungry. We still have five games left.

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