What happens in the center, stays in the center
Picking up where we left off at the end of Part 2:
In the troubled week book-ended between 3-1 road losses to Philly and L.A., the Sounders traveled to Portland to open up U.S. Open Cup play against their Cascadia arch-rivals. The lineup, as usual, featured an intriguing mix of regular starters, youthful reserves, and veteran backups. Of note were the use of Michael Seamon and Miguel Montano in the midfield, the former in the more advanced central midfield "Evans" role ahead of Sturgis, and the latter as a winger. Jaqua started as center forward, and scored the Sounders only goal, on a header, although he gave way to Montero in the 2nd half. It was an extra-time marathon that Seattle escaped to win on penalty kicks. The following week, a similar XI defeated the Galaxy, who themselves fielded a squad lacking Donovan or Buddle, but comprised of primarily veteran backups. It was 2-0, Jaqua again with two headed goals, both assisted by Montano. For the first time, we saw Ianni paired with Parke, who was getting his feet under him, at center back.
The Sounders turnaround started auspiciously enough. On July 11th, with much of the soccer world suffering from World Cup hangover, the Sounders drew a solid Dallas squad, 1-1. It was seen as a heartbreaking result, the Dallas equalizer coming in the 87'. The Sturgis-Seamon midfield, employed to some affect in the midweek USOC matches, was used in League play for the first time, as was Parke-Ianni. Jaqua and Montero were back at forward, surely a sight for weary Sounders' eyes, and Montero scored in the 14'. Zakuani was at his usual left wing position, but Ljungberg was nowhere to be seen. While the only USOC action he had ever participated in had been the '09 Final, in League play, his absence was palpable. His spot was taken by Montano, who was sent off for an elbow in the 57', putting the Sounders on their back foot for the rest of the match. Alonso came on for Seamon shortly thereafter, marking his first action since May, but couldn't help hold the lead. At the time it was another aggravating result, and draws would do little to help this team crawl out of their hole.
The team traveled to D.C. for a midweek match that Thursday, a day that marked Blaise Nkufo's first day of Sounders eligibility. He was suited but unused, Jaqua was still finding his fitness and was scratched, so it was Levesque up top with Montero. Sturgis-Seamon again ran the midfield, and Noonan was back in the lineup on the right. It was a stalemate affair between two bottom-table teams, but the Sounders found an 89' winner when Montero's hard work resulted in a cross finished by a Levesque header at the far post. Levesque, a Sounder favorite from the USL days, was again a late hero, despite the clear fact he is at best a marginal MLS starting forward. It was progress, and Alonso had again appeared as a substitute for Seamon late in the match. It was also perhaps not a coincidence that a minute after replacing Noonan, Nyassi had helped create the opportunity.
Ten days later Sounders were back home to host Colorado, and we saw the lineup that would come to be the default for the rest of the season, save for Zach Scott replacing an out of action Leo Gonzalez. Parke and Ianni in the middle, Riley at RB (as he had been for almost every Sounders match to that point) Alonso and Sturgis at defensive midfield, Zakuani on the left, Nyassi on the right, and Montero and Blaise Nkufo at forward. A Zakuani brace sandwiched an Omar Cummings goal, all in the first 17 minutes, and for the last half hour the Sounders could be fairly said to be hanging on. Nonetheless, the 2-1 win suddenly thrusted the Sounders back into the playoff race, in any meaningful sense at least. Seven points in 3 matches boosted them to 22 in 18 on the year, and in a League with as liberal a playoff system as the MLS, they were very much back in it.
In midweek the Sounders opened CCL play with their home leg of group stage qualifying against Metapan. The lineup was a typical "Cup Tie" XI, with Jaqua and Levesque at forward. Despite dominating the match, the Sounders would only have an extremely fortunate goal scored by Montero on his first touch after replacing Jaqua. Also of note was an injury to Vagenas, playing in lieu of Sturgis, with Seamon in the middle. He would go off injured early, replaced by Alonso, and would be never seen again...
The "default" XI were back on the weekend at San Jose, to wrap up a month that had started so dreadfully, with a convincing 1-0 win. Montero had a target man in Nkufo to play off of. Nyassi, although limited technically, was able to use his speed to decent affect on the wing. Zakuani continued to become a winger/scorer/playmaker of growing renown, and there was no doubt that the attack was better without Ljungberg. In fact, in the days before the match, it had become official. Ljungberg, who had ostensibly fallen victim to a mysterious ankle injury suffered in training before the July 11th match, had been officially shipped off to Chicago. He would shortly thereafter be seen helping the Fire upset L.A., with no visible sign of injury.
The Sounders also had a new weapon at their disposal. Alvaro Fernandez had debuted against San Jose as a second-half sub, replacing Zakuani. In mid-week he scored the goal that ultimately put the Sounders through to the CCL group stage in San Salvador, a 74' minute equalizer that won the aggregate series 2-1. He had come on 10 minutes earlier for Nyassi. And in League pay against Houston on August 8th, he scored a late insurance goal in a 2-0 win for his Qwest debut off a feed from Montero. He had again come on as a 60-something minute substitute, this time for Zakuani.
The Sounders were rolling, and Montero was on fire. Nary a Sounders goal in the previous month had come without his direct influence. In fact, in 5 League and 2 CCL matches, he had scored or been credited with an assist on 7 of 9 Sounders goals. This directly corresponded to the removal of Ljungberg from the team.
The next weekend saw a desultory 0-0 draw at Chivas, the only change being Fernandez getting the start over Zakuani. Despite the hot recent form they had been on, some things were quickly becoming clear, and foremost among them was that this team was still hardly scoring tons of goals. It wouldn't necessarily matter, though, because what they had was cohesion. Montero was flourishing as a true 2nd striker/playmaker hybrid, and overall the team was controlling possession and limiting opponents chances severely. This was the closest the team had come under Sigi to playing a true 4-2-3-1, with Nyassi playing as a true winger; and the Alonso and Sturgis pairing were the key to this approach. Sturgis was widely viewed as limited in creativity and attacking moxie, he was, in effect, the "new Vagenas," but he was also exactly what was needed to allow Alonso to be Alonso. They were forming a true partnership. In fact, from their starting debut July 25th until the end of the season, they would feature in 22 of the 25 remaining competitive matches, including playoffs.
The Sounders approach was not unlike what Spain had in the World Cup, scoring just 8 goals in 7 matches to win a World Championship. While some criticized the Spanish as being dull and methodical, it was undeniably effective. They could take the starch out of any opponent, and create just enough of an attacking threat that eventually, they were going to convert a chance.
Nkufo was already coming under criticism, as the bevy of goals that everyone assumed would be his for the taking had yet to materialize. But such criticisms completely missed to mark of the intrinsic value his presence as a skilled target forward had for the system. By taking up space, occupying a center back, and presenting himself as a sounding board, of sorts, for the probing runs of Nyassi and Zakuani. Most importantly, Montero was now free to do what he was naturally going to do.
It would be two weeks until their next League match, but in the interim the Sounders suffered two frustrating CCL group stage results, with lineups closely related to the usual League XI. Heads were down, and questions were asked, but this was the team's first foray into international competition, and it was always going to be difficult.
Spirits were lifted to close out August, in perhaps the most dramatic League victory at Qwest yet. Ljungberg was returning with his Fire squad who were in direct competition with Sounders for one of the final playoff spots. Tyson Wahl replaced a suspended Gonzo, and Fernandez started over Zakuani on the left. Chicago took a lead on a questionable PK call, but fortunately for Seattle, Montero was proving unstoppable. He quickly equalized, and, in stoppage time, headed in the match-winner off a cross from Sturgis. Montero was absolutely on fire in League play. Five goals and a further 3 assists in 7 matches, over a span in which the team was 5-2-0. It was a span in which they had also allowed only 3 goals.
In midweek the Sounders kicked off September by securing their second straight USOC final with a 3-1 win over Chivas, with a lineup that saw a fair number of changes, but none of which truly changed the system to any extent. Jaqua was a straight swap for Nkufo, and likewise Fernandez for Nyassi. Sigi went with his deputy center backs, Marshall and Graham, over his League starters. The attack clicked on all cylinders, Jaqua with 2 goals, Montero with the 3rd, and Zakuani with 2 assists.
It came suddenly, but the team that had been so confident and dominant in domestic play suddenly seemed to hit a rough patch, and it started with a 10-minute patch late in the match at new England on Labor Day weekend, which saw the Revs put three goals past an utterly flummoxed Seattle defense to win 3-1. Sigi was forced to swap out Nkufo and Sturgis due to injury, and saw fit to put Levesque up top while Seamon slid into Sturgis spot. Fernandez was once again on the right, and the Sounders attack seemed to have little to offer until Zakuani found a goal in the 59' to take the temporary lead. The Sounders unbeaten League run suddenly was over, and it came in a match in which they were fairly outplayed.
Four days later RSL, the defending MLS Cup holders, would come in leading the League in goals scored and fewest allowed, and it was obvious their intent was to take the starch out of the Sounders, being content with a draw if not able to poach a goal. They missed their chance to take that goal when Keller stopped a poorly taken penalty kick by Robbie Findley. The lineup once again saw Jaqua in for Nkufo, and Fernandez had seemingly staked a claim to right mid over Nyassi. Zach Scott also took over for an injured Riley. The Sounders created more chances but couldn't unlock the RSL defense. Fucito finally returned to action as a 2nd-half sub after a long layoff due to a troubling knee injury, but in coming on for Jaqua it left the team without a target forward, and answers could not be found with his injection into the lineup.
The next Tuesday, the Sounders lost a deeply troubling match in Costa Rica, to Saprissa in CCL play. despite a promising start, it all went awry starting with a red card to Gonzalez in the first half. There was a degree to which these CCL results could be shaken off, though. Lineups lacking Nkufo or Jaqua had a history of being unsuccessful, and there was no reason to believe there wouldn't be a drop-off with the backup CB pairing of Marshall and Graham.
If there was a lesson to be learned from the previous three results, that perhaps this team had a potentially fatal fallibility in attack, it would be forgotten when they stunned the Crew a few days later in their next League match. Nkufo was back in, as was Nyassi, which couldn't have been seen as a coincidence at the time. Nkufo not only finally opened his Sounders account, he scored a hat trick, and another threatening, if technically naive, Nyassi run won a PK which Sturgis calmly converted.
As the Season moved towards its final month, the Sounders continued to find ways to win League matches, and disappoint in CCL. The League starting XI was settled: Gonzo, Parke, Ianni, Riley across the back, Alonso and Sturgis as holding mids, Zakuani and Nyassi on the wings, and Montero and Nkufo in their roles up top. Fernandez was a likely substitute, often for Nyassi but also for Sturgis or Zakuani. Jaqua would often come on late for Nkufo or perhaps Montero. This lineup won the USOC on October 5th, 2-1 over the Crew, as well as dramatic late-game wins over Chicago and K.C. on the road, and building early leads and hanging on in home games against Toronto and Chivas.
The biggest development was that Nyassi was suddenly scoring goals... lots of them. He had a stunning week to begin October, opening his account with a game-winner over Toronto on Saturday, adding a brace in the Cup Final on Tuesday, then opening the scoring against K.C. the following Saturday. Nkufo had followed up his hat trick with a fortunate 88' winner in Chicago, then a go-ahead goal against Toronto. In fact, since Labor day, Nyassi, Nkufo, and Zakuani - who had added 3 goals and a handful of assists - could be found all over the score sheet in the 8 domestic matches played. One name who was suddenly hard to find was Montero.
Meanwhile, in CCL play, with the Sounders essentially eliminated, largely reserve sides were run out, providing Fucito to further embellish his astounding strike rate, and provide evidence at what he could potentially offer the team. The final League match lineup consisted of mostly starters, but minus the 10% that proper motivation provides in competition - the Sounders had essentially nothing to gain, but much to lose in terms of injury or suspension - there was little to be taken from the match. Jaqua started in place of the suspended Montero. Jeff Parke was subbed at half-time for Marshall, and after a 46' go ahead goal by Houston the team played with little conviction. Questionable referring made it easier to dismiss an already dismissible match.
The Sounders playoff failure against a more pedigreed Galaxy team would be built upon the foundation of Sigi's belief in the system, and his reliance on that starting XI that had been so successful. Despite a convincing first-half performance in the opening home leg, they had only a 1-0 deficit to show for it, thanks to an Edson Buddle wonder-strike. In the 2nd half the Galaxy discipline mitigated the Sounders attack, and only the late addition of Jaqua as a 3rd forward (in for Sturgis) seemed to provide any spark.
The second half of the home leg and the first half of the away leg a week later painted a stark picture. Nyassi was in over his head, and a player who had made the most of is athletic gifts - despite his technical deficiencies - during the regular season, was made to look more like someone whose athletic gifts couldn't overcome his technical deficiencies against L.A. The Brad Evans/Mike Seamon role was noticeably missing from midfield. Sigi had always shown a willingness to use two holders, rather than a deep-lying CDM and more of a box-to-box type in the central midfield. In using two holders, they both played as essentially hybrid CDM's and box-to-box-ers, and this could be seen to open things up for Alonso. The Alonso-Sturgis pairing had been extremely successful in the latter half of 2010, but there was clearly a midfield link missing against L.A.
Blaise Nkufo seemed to have little to provide, and in hindsight it seems clear the sheer number of matches he had endured in the previous year had caught up with him. Montero, meanwhile, couldn't find any answers himself. L.A.'s tactical discipline was also making life difficult for Zakuani. Beyond all that, when Jeff Parke limped off in the 2nd half of the first leg, replaced by Marshall, a successful CB partnership was broken up, and the fact that L.A. scored two brilliantly executed set-piece goals in the first half of the second leg should come as no surprise.
With Fernandez on for Nyassi at half-time, it was probably too little, too late. By the time Fucito and Jaqua were introduced, the shape had switched to an aggressive 3-4-3, with Gonzo, Marshall, and Riley in the back, Alonso as a CDM, Fucito and Zakuani on the wings, Fernandez as a CAM, with Montero in just behind Nkufo and Jaqua up top - the type of system you only see when a team is looking for a consolation goal against a team packed in and protecting a 3-0 aggregate lead. After 385' minutes of playoff soccer, the Sounders finally scored when Jaqua, who had provided nothing but energy and opportunities in his limited, late-game action in both matches, fed Zakuani who finished over Ricketts to make it 2-1, 3-1 on aggregate.
A season which would start so inconsistently, and suddenly turn so horribly, but end up quite fantastically, would end with a whimper. And the same could be said of the System. The "chicken or the egg" question which dominates tactical discussions about the game is whether players make systems or systems make players. What is usually the case is the Answer is somewhere in the middle. For a system to work, the player must fit, but for a player to work, he must fit the system. In a vacuum, it seems preposterous that the likes of Sanna Nyassi or Nathan Sturgis could flourish where someone like Freddie Ljungberg could not, but the reality of tactical and formational systems bears this out, and it is perfectly demonstrated in the 2-year history of this club.
I am tempted to say that Sigi is perhaps more system-driven than player-driven. The evidence can be found in his stubbornness to move ahead with his target-man-dependent attack despite the fact his list of available players lacked a target man. In the process, he nearly destroyed Brad Evans, a player who received scorn simply because he couldn't adapt to a mid-season position switch.
There may also be evidence in his handling of Ljungberg, who clearly didn't fit into the system. It must be remembered that despite our feelings for the player in hindsight, at the time he was widely believed to be able to provide such pedigree and skill that it seemed impossible to leave him out of the team. That Sigi didn't change the system, but instead tried to pry him into it, might be telling.
More likely is the case that Sigi was charged with an expansion team, and Ljungberg, unavailable in the off-season before 2009, was going to have to work his way in regardless. It would be impossible for any manager to know exactly what he had until an adequate number of competitive matches could be played, and after a time in 2009 the basic idea of lining him up on the right came to be, more or less, the default setting.
Another example of Sigi's system-driven fallibility could also be found in how he handled the L.A. playoff tie. Despite some rather clear indicators that a change might need to be made, he rolled out the same XI for the second leg. But again, there is a caveat. It is said that when you get to the party you dance with who brought you, and in this regard pulling a system change before the second leg is as likely to backfire as it is to produce a stunning result. Beyond that, other than Jaqua for Nkufo and Fernandez for Nyassi - neither of which necessarily constitutes a real system change - it is hard to see what really could have been done with the payers available. If the Galaxy's superior pedigree is indeed one of their great advantages, it is hard to imagine how someone like Mike Seamon could've drastically improved things.
So, more than anything, What COULD be done? In the two-year history of this club, there has been almost constant talk of the CAM. And this, among other changes, is what I will explore in the next installment... stay tuned...