TUKWILA — When Seattle Sounders FC visited Portland on April 5, the Sounders escaped with a draw after giving up four goals.
When the Timbers visited Seattle on Sunday, the Sounders emerged with a 2-0 win.
After that second match, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid stressed a point that has been somewhat obscured by the sparks from the Sounders’ league-leading offense: They have become tougher on the back end.
“Now our defense doesn’t look as bad,” Schmid said. “We had taken some goals and scored some goals with our style of play, but (now we’re) figuring out how to get zeros on the other end.”
The Sounders lead Major League Soccer with an average of 1.94 goals a game. They are seventh with an average of 1.33 goals allowed. Through 18 games, those numbers combine to give Seattle a plus-11 goal differential — tops in the league.
However, since giving up a club-record five goals at New England in mid-May, the Sounders have allowed five goals over seven league games (0.71 goals-against average) with four shutouts.
On the season, goalkeeper Stefan Frei has six shutouts, one behind league-leader Eric Kronberg of Sporting Kansas City.
After Sunday’s match, Frei was asked what changed between the four goals allowed in Portland and the clean sheet in Seattle.
“I thought we were defensively very organized,” he said. “That was one of the easiest shutouts I’ve had this season. … Very, very good defensive effort as a team; good shape, organized.”
Another defensive player on the pitch for both games was Jalil Anibaba, and his improvement parallels that of his team.
At Portland, Anibaba was conspicuously involved in a pair of goals that lifted the Timbers ahead 4-2. After that, he didn’t play for more than a month, and he didn’t start again until mid-May.
Anibaba said he never lost faith in himself, and always believed — correctly — that he never lost the trust of his coach.
“I think he’s bounced back well,” Schmid said this week. “Coming to a new team is difficult. That’s a big game to get into. I know he’s played there with Chicago, and he’s been in the Portland environment, but playing a Portland-Seattle game is different than a Portland-Chicago game. So from that standpoint, he had to adjust, just like (midfielder Marco Pappa) had to adjust as well, and grow into our team.”
Pappa, who like Anibaba came from the Chicago Fire during the offseason, also played a key role in the win over the Timbers, converting the final goal in the 87th minute.
“Scoring goals is important, but what’s more important is where we are as a team,” Pappa said. “We are at the top of the (standings), and we have to continue that way. It’s good for me and my confidence to score a goal.”
Pappa also had some early-season errors that had him in and out of the lineup, but now he has started nine consecutive matches.
“I see his game continuing to grow and develop,” Schmid said. “There’s some good, good defensive moments he’s given us on the flank — and that was never considered a trait of Marco’s. He’s on the field because he helps our attack, not because we want him to be a great left side defender, but he’s got to do some of that work and has really grown as a player.”
Schmid said he plans to use most of his starters in the friendly against Tottenham Hotspur at 1 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field. Schmid explained he wants to keep his key players in rhythm for their return to league play July 28 against Los Angeles. … Schmid indicated midfielder/defender Brad Evans won’t be rushed back for the friendly after suffering a calf injury last week.
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