This was originally posted on April 9, 2009. Since then a lot has changed in Sounders land, and we have gotten about 2 Million page views. It was one of my faves from my pre-SBN days. Lately, I have referred to it quite a bit, but I thought I would just bump it back up as a reprise of days past. I'm a better writer now, but I think the concept is still true as an ideal.
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I've been trying to come up with a suitable metaphor for what Sounders FC under Sigi Schmid have been doing philosophically and with their formations. Something like "Forty Minutes of Hell" from the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Pitino Zone, the West Coast Offense, the Spread Offense or the classic WW, 70s Total Football, or the modern English 4-4-2.
Naming a philosophy is difficult, especially if you want it to catch on, but I guess my first step is to be humble and aim low. I don't want to convince the world. I just want to convince my readers, and future readers. At first I thought that my metaphor would be a little too far out there. But now, I'm not concerned. My eyes see what they see. My mind thinks what it thinks.
What I'm seeing is many of the philosophies that are put forward in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. These combat philosophies are both simply written (it was a book quite popular in the Young Adult category) and yet elegant enough that it has been a supplemental book in various military schools around the world.
I will not give you a synopsis of the book (click here instead). Instead I will describe the two key elements to Ender's success in the Battle Room and how Seattle Sounders FC mirrors those concepts and finish with a final parallel to Ender and the Dragon Army.
The Enemy's Gate is Down
While this concept only wins Ender two battles, it is a structural philosophy that pervades his entire set of behaviors throughout the book. Quite simply it sums up that any leader must understand the rules to the game being played, and then only concern themselves with those that determine victory. If the goal, as it is in soccer, is to score more than your opponent does, do not craft a strategy that consists of attempting to take more shots than the opponent. Do not craft a plan that involves patience and build-up. Do not play with in 7-2-1. Instead maximize the talent at hand with the sole purpose of outscoring the opponent.
Certainly, this seems simple, but if you read around the 'net you will find many people who criticize Sounders FC for the lack of build-up, the lack of technique, the lack of flair. NONE of those things appear on the scoreboard. Sounders FC plays to SCORE.
The phrase goes beyond this. It is essentially an offense first strategy. It is a way for a team/squad/unit that could be thoroughly outclassed to force the larger unit back on its heels and in retreat. It orients the leader's team towards the opposition's goal. This change in mentality means that in Sounders FC's case that they constantly and consistently attack the ball on defense and as soon as they obtain the ball they attack the goal. There is no build-up, rarely long aerial plays, instead the player that captures the ball moves forward in attack, or quickly advances the ball to a teammates feet.
The Enemy's Gate is Down in soccer is constant attack. While it takes a fast team that is able to react quickly to transition, and forces the opposition to run backwards, a thoroughly unnatural action, it also forces a coach to trust that his players will do what is best for the team with little instruction from their coach.
The only way a leader can do this is by fully entrusting their players to become leaders at the necessary moment. Ender did this by forming 5 platoon leaders rather than four, and having sub-toons, as well as an elite ad hoc toon led by his most brilliant, but least charismatic soldier. This meant where most units only trusted the commander and four leaders, Ender put 11 of his 40 into positions of leadership, and expected those leaders to inform their toonmates of the goals in such a way that at any moment any soldier could become the leader.
This isn't just speculative fiction. This is actually the way that the US Special Forces and other Special Operations units act in combat missions. While there is an order of battle there is also the expectation that everyone knows enough about the specific mission at hand that no matter how many leaders are lost there is always another leader ready to step into the role.
How does this work in soccer? While many teams might work under the theory of a pivot, or in rarer cases a double-pivot, Sounders FC adopts a bit of the concept that at any moment any player is a pivot and any other player can be the next pivot, but also that any player in the forward position can be the scorer. There is individual sacrifice for team success.
This means that every player must Know the game plan
Every player must Think about their next action. Often in such a quick manner that thinking is instinctive.
After thinking the player must Choose what is next. This takes options. It takes depth, but it also takes trust.
Lastly the player, the leader, must act. They must Do. No matter the coaching, it is the player that does.
Dragon Army's colors were Grey-Orange-Grey, but outside of that there are actual similarities between Dragon and Sounders. Dragon was a re-opening of an Army with a poor history, a history of failure. But when tested earlier than most they succeeded.
Sounders FC is the re-awakening of 30+ years of tradition, yet it also carries the burden that all MLS expansion teams of the past. There is failure in expansion, and honestly there was only a little glory in top flight Sounders history.
Like Dragon Army, the Green-Blue-Green are changing the way that the league operates. While most of the league is focused on the atmosphere in the stands, or the commercial success, the general managers, the coaches and team captains are stuck trying to figure out what it is that Sounders FC is doing differently, and how to react. But as long as they are reacting, they will be stuck down trying to claw their way up in the standings.
Maybe I have stretched the metaphor, or shoe-horned it, but just maybe The Enemy's Gate is Down and Sigi, Hanauer and the Sounders are changing the way the league operates.