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Sports >  Seattle Sounders

Analysis: The undefeated Sounders are off to their best start ever. Here’s why.

UPDATED: Tue., May 25, 2021

Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, right, walks with assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda at halftime of Sunday’s match against Atlanta in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, right, walks with assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda at halftime of Sunday’s match against Atlanta in Seattle. (Associated Press)
By Jayda Evans Seattle Times

SEATTLE – How good are the Seattle Sounders? The club is off to a franchise-best start but treated Sunday’s draw against Atlanta United FC like a loss. Seattle (5-0-2) remains atop MLS’s overall league standings with one match left on the schedule before a FIFA break.

“It’s still early in the year, but I am very proud of the fact that we’re still undefeated after seven games,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “It’s just another record to go into the Sounders book. It’s a great accomplishment.”

Here’s what’s working for Seattle to start the 2021 campaign:

Get on board

Nouhou’s pace and physical style is like trying to outrun a freight train. Schmetzer advised teams to stop trying his defender down the left side of the field, but opponents continue to find the same dead end to runs.

Schmetzer’s switch to a two-forward, three-centerback lineup is perfect to exploit Nouhou’s talent. The Cameroonian lines up with Xavier Arreaga in the center and Yeimar Gomez Andrade on the right side, and the trio has helped Seattle not concede a goal in the run of play this season. The Sounders have only allowed three goals overall – one on a penalty kick, two on free kicks.

“Nouhou thrives in this formation,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “He’s extremely effective playing one on one, supporting (left back) Brad (Smith) and making last-ditch tackles. He’s very smart defensively. It certainly helps him that he doesn’t have to think too much offensively because at times when guys get tired, they lack the mental ability to follow runners and just be smart defensively. So, this fits Nouhou perfectly. I think he’s going to be really good for us going forward as long as he can stay healthy and we continue to play well as a team. I’m excited for Nouhou.”

Youth movement

From goalkeeper to forward, there’s not a spot on the field where Schmetzer hasn’t needed to make a lineup change either due to matchups or injury. The Sounders still find ways to finish with positive results.

The way the younger players blend with the veterans as starters is particularly impressive. Teenaged midfielders Ethan Dobbelaere, Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva have all started games this season.

Leyva has accumulated 114 minutes, including subbing into Sunday’s match in the 70th minute for forward Will Bruin. Leyva only appeared in two matches during the truncated 2020 schedule due, in part, to a foot injury.

“Coming on every game, (Schmetzer) just wants me to bring a lot of energy as a young kid, and I think that’s part of our job, bringing the energy,” Leyva said Sunday. “In the center of the midfield a big part of it is keeping the ball and dictating the tempo, so that’s what coach wanted me to do: get in there, maintain some possession.”

Finding success with various lineups and with inexperienced players should be a big help to the Sounders as the season progresses. The club is expected to be without striker Raul Ruidiaz for an extended time, so the Peruvian can compete in the Copa America tournament, and there could be other call-ups.

The Sounders will have more stretches where they play three games in an eight-day span, where reserves will be needed. Leyva said the early trust is helping to build confidence for later.

Seattle is getting healthier. After the FIFA break, midfielder Nico Lodeiro (knee) and keeper Stefan Frei (knee) should be able to return to the lineup.

“It’s great to have a group of players that can take the information, digest the information, understand the information and put (in) their own little personalities,” Schmetzer said. “Credit to the players for buying into this system.”

The scoring

Bruin has yet to score this season, but the formation switch is opening up Ruidiaz for more goals. His goal in the sixth minute against Atlanta was his sixth of the season – one less than Los Angeles Galaxy forward Javier Hernandez for the MLS Golden Boot race.

Ruidiaz has netted 48 goals in 70 MLS career appearances, including postseason matches.

The Sounders have 14 goals through seven matches this year and a league-best plus-11 goal differential.

Credit Joao Paulo’s accuracy with corner kicks for some of Seattle’s scores. Lodeiro usually handles the duty but with the captain out, Joao Paulo has taken over and had the pinpointed kick to get goals the past two matches. He has a team-leading four assists overall.

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