This is part 2 in the series looking back on the Sounders' system to prepare for a reasonable discussion of what to expect in the way of improvements this off-season.
Without any further ado:
The first goal of the Sounder's 2010 campaign was a clear demonstration of the potential abilities of Sigi's system that had emerged the year before. Ljungberg collected the ball on the right, and dribbled into the middle, eventually passing to Montero, outside the box. Montero feinted dribble, feinted shot, holding off the defender, before laying off to Zakuani, running in from the left, Zakuani beat his man to the end line, and centered the ball. There to knock it in was Evans, moving deep into the attacking third in his "box-to box" role. A fluid, 4.5 man attack, with playmaking duties shared. It was, if nothing else, the prototypical Sounders goal.
It came not 12 minutes into the season, and certainly seemed to bode well for the upcoming campaign, full of promise for a Domestic double, if not treble. It would be hard to imagine that by the time Summer had arrived and the World Cup was over, the Sounders would be among the worst in the League.
The first apparent, glaring problem was the lack of a target man, Nate Jaqua, a fixture in season one, was out with a troubling abdominal injury, and would be for some time. New signing Blaise Nkufo would not be available until July 15th. In the meantime, it appeared that the Fred's would play up top together, in hopes that their obvious lack of chemistry would not overshadow their respective playmaking abilities, as had been the case the previous October. It didn't work.
In Week 2 the same lineup - the familiar "Sigi's Arrow" from the previous fall with Levesque filling in on the right - failed to score against NYRB.
Ljungberg was shifted back to the right, and off-season acquisition Pat Noonan slotted in as a target man, the next week when they visited RSL. The 2-2 draw, which saw RSL net a stoppage-time equalizer, was agonizing, but belied a greater truth, which was that the Sounders were outplayed much of the match.
Brad Evans had very little to offer against NYRB, and his poor marking was blamed for both RSL goals. Vagenas replaced him the next week, home against the Wizards. Noonan shifted to the right, and Ljungberg paired with Montero... and the Sounders once again failed to score. That is until Mike Fucito, a late substitute, scored a stoppage-time game winner. This averted an early-season crisis, for now.
Ljungberg was left on the bench when the Sounders paid a visit to Dallas. Evans was back in the middle, rookie David Estrada was given a start on the right, and Levesque was paired with Montero up top. The Sounders ought to have won the match, but for a controversial late penalty awarded to Dallas, and had to settle for the 2-2 draw.
There were clear trends emerging. For the most part, Sigi was sticking with is Arrow. At forward, however, Montero was being asked to stay up top, as the Sounders lacked a true target man. Not only was this simply not his style, but with Ljungberg at 2nd striker, there were once again the issues of the two simply getting in each other's way when he would drop off. By simply having placeholders in Noonan or Levesque up high, and Ljungberg on the right or off the pitch, the attack seemed to click a bit better. But it was still not effective.
Sigi was going to try something new, and with their second match in 4 days at Toronto on the 25th, we saw it. No one called it the 4-3-3 at the time, but it was, in effect, where it started. There were three holding midfielders, Sturgis, Alonso, and Vagenas; a right wing, and two forwards. Ljungberg would be in a free role, and at center forward was none other than Brad Evans. A bold experiment probably born out of desperation, Sigi clearly hoped that Evans could adapt his natural versatility to fill the role of target man. It seemed to work, at least in terms of possession and getting the ball into the final third. However, when all was said and done, it was a 2-0 loss, two defensive lapses gifted Toronto goals, and failure to finish chances once again saw the Sounders held scoreless.
Against the Crew on May 1st was where we first truly saw the alleged "4-3-3", actually a 4-2-1-3, and in reality little different from a 4-2-3-1. Wingers shift a few yards to go from being midfielders to forwards, and the 2nd striker drops off just a bit to become a CAM.
This was, apparently, the solution. Alonso and Vagenas (or Sturgis or Ianni as subs) as a CDM pair, Ljungberg as a CAM, Evans or Nyassi on the right, Zakuani on the left, and Montero or Evans at center forward. There were problems, the biggest of which were that Montero wasn't a true center forward, and Evans really wasn't one at all. If nothing else, the switch to the "4-3-3" could be seen as Sigi's last gasp at truly separating the roles of the Fred's. Fredy was naturally going to draw back into the midfield, it was, intrinsically, the type of player he was. He could also score goals as well as anyone on the team, of course, and the team needed someone at center forward, and he best fit the bill. The bulk of Ljungberg's contributions had been as a 2nd striker in a "free" role, and as a CAM in this system was a role that should be able to fit his skills.
The results were not encouraging. After Zakuani's 4th minute goal against the Crew, they wouldn't score again until late against Red Bulls, when Montero, starting on the bench to allow Evans a reprisal of his experimental center forward role, scored as a substitute. In between was the dreadful 4-0 loss to L.A., which saw Alonso go off with an injury. May was turning into a rough month, with the NYRB win the only bright spot.
The "4-4-2" returned against San Jose on the 22nd, but what remained was the use of two defensive mids, in this case Sigi turned to Ianni and Sturgis with Alonso gone. The Fred's were paired at striker and Nyassi retained his right sided spot. And once again there were no goals to show for it. In the final minutes, another problem presented itself, as Hurtado would go down with what proved to be a season-ending injury.
To this point, The Sounders were suffering through a rather extended dismal run of goal scoring form, dating back to July of '09, interrupted only briefly by Freddie's October explosion. This was particularly ghastly at home, where the Sounders, including the playoff match to Houston and the Community Shield against Portland, had been held scoreless in 9 of 13 matches in front of home supporters, dating back to July 25th of '09.
In year one, as the system emerged and solidified, it became clear that there were to be 4 attacking players: a center forward, a 2nd striker/playmaker, and two nominally wide, attacking midfielders. Defensively, the back 4 had mostly been solidified with Gonzo, Hurtado, Marshall, and Riley; if injury or suspension dictated, there were adequate reserves to fill a space. Alsono was a 5th defensive player, a deep-lying midfield ball-winner who could serve as almost an auxiliary center back, in a way fulfilling the contemporary "sweeper" interpretation of CDM's emerging around the globe. Fullbacks, as is expected in the modern game, would push forward and help serve as link to the attack from wide areas. Evans would serve as a central link, even pushing into the box on attack, but also falling back as a CDM to help Alonso gather possession.
There was room for adjustment. If Vagenas or Sturgis replaced Evans, then the shape shifted ever so slightly to two, true, defensive midfielders. This had the effect of opening up Alonso's game a bit, allowing him to attack just that little bit more. Vagenas was widely scorned for what was seen as extremely limited vision and creativity, but others saw his presence as opening up the game for other midfielders. Up front, different players brought different interpretations to the respective 4 attacking positions, but for the most part, the nominal shape remained, and as '09 went along, the overall approach became very fluid, with wingers swapping sides or sitting centrally, and strikers moving wide and/or retreating into the midfield.
Zakuani had fully embraced the left attacking position, and was developing into a threatening inverted winger. For the most part, he had been the Sounders best attacking player through the troubling early months of the 2010 season. Montero was clearly hurt with the lack of a true "center forward" type of striker to work off of, and Ljungberg's whinging was beginning to wear on supporters and coaches with the lack of results.
Strike partnerships need to be complimentary, and the Fred's were anything but. Any way you sliced it up, they were virtually the same type of player looking to occupy the same type of space on the pitch. Montero was a forward drifting back to become an attacking mid, and Ljungberg was an attacking mid pushing higher to become a forward. They both operating in realm where the distinctions between layers is meaningless.
If anything, the much ballyhooed "switch" to a "4-3-3" was little more than a final grasp by Sigi to separate the two. As strike partners in a "4-4-2" they weren't scoring goals, with no-one staying high as a true target man. This was a shift to tell Montero "you stay high, you are the center forward" and give Ljungberg the playmaker reigns as a CAM. For players like Zakuani and Nyassi, the "switch" from midfield to forward amounted to a couple of strides in positioning. For Evans, as a right wing, it was a systemic approach to forcing him to play high, not as a "box-to-box" right mid in the ineffective "lopsided diamond" we had seen in early '09. Evans as a center forward was a project seemingly doomed from the start.
Whatever had happened in October of '09, when the system became so fluid the "target man" was a nominal right wing, seemed to come down to the fact that Jaqua was probably the key link. Jaqua was a key figure in the '09 season, both in terms of productivity and service, but also in controversy. Many saw him as clumsy in movement and awkward to watch, and lacking aerial presence that would be expected out of a 6'3" center forward. What he was was an effective complimentary striker to either Fred, and with his own abilities to distribute the ball and find the net seemed an ideal fit to play in front of the "triple playmakers" of Zakuani and the Fred's.
Jaqua had almost been forgotten, however. His troubling injury had lingered far longer than expected, and the fanbase was already looking forward to the arrival of Blaise Nkufo as the idealized man who would save the Sounders attack from itself. He was going to be the man to knock in all those chances which were being created... but that was still a long ways off.
In the meantime was a Memorial Day weekend trip to Colorado. With Ianni, a natural center back, filling Alonso's spot, Jeff Parke was called in to take Hurtado's spot. Evans was back in the midfield and Noonan was slotted in as the center forward, and it was back to the "Arrow." It proved to be the broken arrow, however. "You can't fault the effort" was rapidly becoming the buzz-phrase to describe another punchless attacking third effort by the Sounders. Possession was not a Sounders weakness, and with this the opponent's chances could be limited. The hint of chances could be created, but all too often fell to nothing. In the rare occasion that an open shot could come in the box, it was typically squandered. Colorado won 1-0 on a brilliant Conor Casey finish, that was precipitated when Parke either lost his footing or was shoved by Casey, depending on who you ask.
If there was ever hope for this broken lineup, it was to come with two early June home matches against bottom-table Eastern Conference sides, just 5 days apart, leading into the World Cup break. The same XI trotted out against New England and somehow contrived to score three brilliant goals against an overwhelmed reserve Revs goalkeeper. Both Gonzo's and Zakuani's goals would prove to be solid Goal of the Year nominees. There was reason for optimism, that the Sounders could win two on the trot and salvage something before the break. The lowly D.C United squad coming in next were clearly the MLS's worst side. Coming into this 2-match home stand with a dismal 3 wins and 12 points through 11 matches, there was every reason to believe the Sounders could even their record and at least be an average team when it was all said and done . What happened next was horribly emblematic of a season gone utterly awry.
In the early months of the 2010 campaign, two disturbing trends emerged in the defense of what had been one of the League's two best the year before. First of all, Keller was letting in the occasional soft goal, and for a side which had as much trouble finding the net as they did, this was proving fatal. Second of all, the defense was making extremely critical mistakes, both on set pieces and in open play. These had come to be expected, to some extent, from Marshall, but when Hurtado and Alonso joined in on the act, there was a real problem. Marshall was always seen as a center back on the verge of recklessness and disaster, but paired with 2009 MLS defensive payer of the year candidate Hurtado this could often be overlooked. The loss of Hurtado was proving to be a real issue, as Jeff Parke simply didn't seem to have his legs under him.
The same XI as had started the previous two were featured, and not even two stoppage-time Sounders goals - the first of which was a United own-goal - could paint the turd that was a 3-2 loss. The defensive breakdowns came from all over, the finishing was deplorable, and the Sounders went into the break with just 15 points through 13 and having just lost to the League's worst team.
The difference between the Sounders with Osvaldo Alonso and without was extraordinary. Not only was he the key defensive player on the team, with his bulldog abilities to always be everywhere at once and attack the ball, but his abilities to link up to the attack were beginning to be honed. As mentioned, these abilities were a compelling reason to feature him with a second defensive midfielder as a partner, despite the fact that Evans could provide far more going forward than the likes of Vagenas. Sigi hoped that Ianni could try to replicate Alonso's defensive abilities, and the "switch" to the "4-3-3" necessitated two CDM's. Once back in the "4-4-2" and without Alonso, running two CDM's left the link between the defensive 6 and attacking 4 quite lacking. Alonso with Vagenas or Sturgis could accomplish it, but Ianni with Sturgis or Vagenas couldn't.
And such that it was that Sigi brought the Sounders back from the World Cup break with the same starting XI we had seen before, but with Vagenas in for Evans. Evans was suffering from knee trouble, a chronic problem that would eventually end his season. That match against Philly, to open the new PPL Park, was utterly insipid from a Sounders standpoint. They somehow managed to score a nice goal, on a Noonan finish, to end an otherwise stultifying fist half. Noonan went on to have a comically poorly taken penalty saved in a second half which Philly fairly dominated. Second-half substitutions saw Seamon on as a more attacking replacement for Vagenas, and Jaqua make his season debut.
Noonan was capable of the rare moment of brilliance, but was not an adequate replacement for a true center forward. Freddie on the right was mostly going wasted, as it seemed he wasn't getting the service to play the way he wanted, particularly without Alsono or Evans in the middle. However, it seemed like this was the only way to keep any balance in the squad, and the Zakuani, Montero, Ljungberg triumvirate would work on paper, but wasn't in practice. It had been speculated before, as early as the Summer of '09, that perhaps Montero should move to the wing, but this had never really come to fruition. Fredy was getting labeled as lazy, and Freddie was getting labeled as too self-important, and not fitting in.
July 4th saw the Sounders complete the first half of the season in what can only be described as a J.V. vs. Varsity loss to the League-leading Galaxy. The first half was so uneven as to be tragicomic, the fact they were only down 1-0 seemed utterly miraculous. That Sigi was demonstrating no creativity by trotting out the same XI as against Philly was causing near open revolt amomgst the supporters. Early in the second half Seamon was again brought on for Vagenas, and Jaqua for Noonan, and the Sounders seemed to respond with some actual football. The "Arrow" was back, but it suddenly didn't seem as broken, with Seamon in the Evans role and Jaqua back where he belonged, the Sounders managed to make a game of it, pulling the score back to 2-1 when a clever Montero pass sprung Zakuani. Unfortunately, a Galaxy rush resulted in Riley knocking it into his own net, and the scoreline returned to something a little more in tune with how the overall match had gone, L.A leading 3-1, which is how it would finish.
The 2010 season was developing into a virtual disaster. Fifteen points through fifteen matches, a lineup seemingly damaged beyond repair by injuries, and a manager who seemed to lack the ideas to fix it. But the most telling story of the first half of the '10 season was that Freddie Ljungberg was playing his way out of Seattle...
stay tuned for the next piece, covering the 2nd half of season 2...