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Statistical Breakdown of Real Salt Lake – Seattle Sounders

It was rough being a Sounder’s fan last night.  Amidst discussions of a CONCACAF Champions League curse, playing at altitude and missing one of their best players of the season in Mauro Rosales, the Sounders had a tough playoff matchup against Real Salt Lake.  While most fans would have been surprised if the Sounders had come away with a first leg lead, going down 3-0 was a bit of a shock.  Not only did they concede 3 goals for only the third time all season, but they just looked awful.  Using Opta’s chalkboards, let’s take a look at what went wrong.

If you chat with me about the statistical analysis of soccer, one of the first phrases out of my mouth is probably “I hate passing percentage”.  I still do (because often the numbers are quoted without context and used to “prove” one team is superior to another), but I am going to use some passing stats here to illustrate some points.

Passing Momentum

Total Attempted Passes for each team over time

For the first 30 minutes, Seattle clearly struggled to control the ball and allowed Real Salt Lake to maintain possession and pass the ball around.  Why is this important?  Seattle is a team that has been competing in 3 tournaments and is playing at altitude that it isn’t accustomed to.  Chasing the ball for 30 minutes to start the game is sure to be taxing on already tired legs.  It wasn’t until around the75th minute that Seattle started to see a sustained advantage in passes completed, however, that wasn’t so much because of their improved play but because RSL shut it down and tried to protect their two goal lead.


Total Attempted Passes in the final third

Looking at passes just in the final third, again Seattle was the inferior team, failing to get much penetration early on while having to absorb lots of pressure from Real Salt Lake.  Seattle had some opportunities towards the end of the first half, but failed to capitalize.  Towards the end of the match, Seattle was again getting opportunities in the final third, but their inability to complete a pass really let them down.

Passing Distance

Distribution of passing distances for Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake

Why did Seattle have such a hard time completing passes? Whether it was that Real Salt Lake did a good job of closing down the passing channels or Seattle failing to move off the ball and provide options for their teammates is hard to say without going back and rewatching (something I can’t stomach).  What is apparent, is that Seattle had to revert to attempting much longer passes than Real Salt Lake.  The above graph shows the quartiles of attempted pass distances for each team in 15 minute increments.  Throughout the game, but in particular early on, Seattle’s passes were much longer than Real Salt Lake’s.  Seattle definitely struggled playing out of the back, with defenders often trying to play the ball down field to alleviate pressure, but failing to connect with a teammate.

Passing Out of the Back

Passing completion in the defensive third. Weight of the line is the average distance of the passes.

There’s a lot going on in the graph above, but basically for the defensive third it shows passing completion and the average distance of complete/incomplete passes.  Seattle’s passing completion out of the back is very low with the incomplete passes tending to be much longer than the completed passes.

Midfield Battle

Pass selection for Seattle midfielders

Pass selection for Real Salt Lake midfield

Not surprisingly, RSL’s midfielders were able to complete a high number of short passes while Seattle’s midfield attempted longer passes with little success.  Of particular note is that there were long stretches of time where Alvaro Fernandez, Brad Evans and Lamar Neagle failed to complete a pass (hard to tell in the graph, but if there isn’t a dot on the line, there is no pass attempted for that time period and the software just connects points where there where there was data.  It’s not just that the Sounders midfield didn’t complete as many passes as Real Salt Lake, it’s that they didn’t see enough of the ball.


Shot Distances by Type of Shot

While Seattle only managed 5 Shots On Target, they were pretty even with Real Salt Lake in terms of shots taken from 18 yards or less.  RSL’s dominance in Shots On Target comes mostly from long distance shots.  Seattle was a little unlucky with the goals they conceded and had they been a little more clinical, the scoreline could have been a little more favorable.  I like that Seattle was selective in the shots they took and waited for good opportunities while (for the most part) restricting RSL to shooting from the outside.


The passing stats for the Sounders are atrocious.  They allowed Real Salt Lake to dominate possession early on, causing themselves to chase the ball and wear themselves out.  Long passes out of the back caused them to bypass the midfield and more often than not return the ball back to Real Salt Lake.  Seattle was able to absorb a lot of the RSL pressure and keep them shooting from the outside.  The abscence of the two first-choice center backs for RSL plus the possible return of Mauro Rosales bodes well for Seattle.  The Sounders are no strangers to scoring three but will find it tough since Real Salt Lake can put 11 behind the ball and protect their 3 goal lead.


  1. Dave Clark says:

    Great job.

    I do feel it is necessary to point out that the starting XI for RSL played more minutes in all competitions than the starting XI for Seattle.

    • Sarah Rudd says:

      I was a little surprised by that at first, but looking at the Sounders starting XI, we had Ochoa, Neagle, Evans and Gonzalez out there who have seen limited time this season for various reasons. Something that is hard to quantify, but very important is experience. That is something Ochoa and Neagle are lacking. There is also something to be said for squad consistency. Sure, the Sounders have done a good job of rotating and resting players, but there is a trade off with having a consistent lineup. Poor Fredy Montero has had a rotating cast of partners up top. How can he develop a good partnership with anyone? How many of RSL’s starting XI played in the CCL final earlier this year or the MLS Cup Final in 2009? How many games have Espindola and Saborio played together? How many games did Johnson, Beckerman and Morales have together before his injury? Sure, he and Beckherman haven’t played together much recently but man, he slid back into the lineup very nicely.

      Also, I hope I didn’t come across as sounding like I was attributing the whole loss to fatigue. Seeing that little of the ball for the first 30 mins at altitude will wear most teams out regardless of where they are in the season.

      • Dave Clark says:

        I forget the exact date, but the RSL starting XI hadn’t been on the pitch together since one of their April CCL matches. Due to Morales’ injury, Beckerman’s suspension and many international call-ups they didn’t have near term experience together.

        The total all-comps minutes played difference wasn’t just due to Ochoa v Fucito (though that’s ~1200 minutes) but also because of injury, rotation etc.

        • Sarah Rudd says:

          I think it would be interesting to look at a metric like edit distance (number of changes to the squad from the baseline) and see how that compares for each team over the last season or two. I’m pretty sure that Sounders lineup has never seen the light of day before, but the backline was the same one we used for most of last season. I think edit distance would tell you more about who plays together more than just looking at a straight match.

  2. [...] I looked at the first leg of Seattle Sounders FC – Real Salt Lake, one thing that was immediately apparent was the inability of Seattle’s midfield to have an [...]