Sounders, Matchday 1, 2-0 over Philly "analysis"
You can't spell "analysis" without "anal," which is good because my first in a [planned] series of semi-literate diatribes after Sounders matches will involve a lot of talking out of my ass.
First of all, and this is probably to the benefit of the tone of this piece, I have only watched the first half of the ESPN broadcast, and that was last night, I was tired and making some late-night snacks to eat, and couldn't really pay close attention. But being poorly informed has never stopped anyone from sharing their opinions before, so why should it now?!
First and most obviously, the Sounders scored early, which more often than not is a good thing in soccer. Continuing the early-season trend from last year, in which they scored within the first 15 minutes of each of their first three matches and stomped out of the gate to a 3-0-0 start, certainly bodes well. I thought both goals were beautiful in quite different ways.
The first perfectly demonstrated the idea of the "build-up" in soccer, and was a display of what players who are confident with the ball at their feet can accomplish. It is no mistake that the buildup involved the three Sounders who are most adept at dribbling with the ball in an attacking manner. Ljungberg collect the ball on the left, dribbled across the middle, distributed to Zakuani, who then dealt to Montero. What happened next is critical, because while some are tempted to call the play a "give and go" it really wasn't, in the sense that Montero held on to the ball, managing to keep the defender at bay with the threat of his dribbling ability just long enough to allow Zakuani to make an overlapping run. Zakuani used his impressive pace to create space -- something he did with aplomb last night and reminded the Supporters of what a special talent he may very well be. What he did next is something I think we all hope to see a lot of in the coming years out of Stevey Z, who has clearly demonstrated the potential to become the type of sublime attacking midfield playmaker that has become a talismanic presence on football clubs around the world. He "turned the corner" and sent in an inch-perfect ball to a hard-charging Brad Evans. Frankly, the set-up was so well executed that Evans had little to do but not mess up the virtual "pass" into the net and then run to the corner flag and celebrate.
I may be making far too much of one goal, in a sport where goals so often are more an element of luck than execution, but I think that this goal is hugely important in that it demonstrates exactly what the Sounders are trying to accomplish as a team, and exactly the goals they are trying to score.
First of all, much has been made by many, including myself, that Ljungberg and Montero don't work as a strike partnership, not because Freddie is a demanding veteran and Montero is a recalcitrant youngster, but because they are the same type of player, essentially.
The contemporary views on strike partnerships are that you combine a "center forward" or "target man" with a more withdrawn "playmaker" type. The "target man" will throw his weight around and poach goals, draw fouls, or generally will the ball in, while the playmaker likes the ball at his feet and wants to be a little more "creative" in how he goes about things. In the idealized Sounders world, Jacqua is to be that "target man" with Montero or Ljungberg in behind as the playmaker. With Jacqua's injury issues and the constant problem last year of who exactly is manning the right-mid position (as well as the perception among many Supporters that Jacqua simply fails to play as the 6'4" target man he's supposed to be) we saw a lot of Fred[y]die] partnered up top last season, and into this preseason. The basic idea would be that Montero would be up higher, and Ljungberg would do his thing in behind.
When you combine this with the presence of Zakuani on the left, there can be trouble. Zakuani led the NCAA in goals at Akron playing as the very type of striker that Fred[y][die] are, and has been converted into a "winger/outside attacking mid" at the MLS level. The fact you have three similar players -- at least in terms of elemental style -- on the pitch at once isn't necessarily a good thing. In the "1970 World Cup Brazil" sense, where you throw your 11 best players out and run riot, its F-ing brilliant, but in the contemporary system-driven approach it doesn't always work.
Which is all the reason why the first Sounders goal of 2010 was so brilliant. The build-up involved these very three players, working together, using their gifts as players to unlock a defense and do what playmakers do, score goals. Whether it comes off one of their boots or not is, in the larger picture, utterly irrelevant.
So lets spend a moment talking about the individual who finished the play, one Brad Evans, the player ultimately named "man of the match" last night. Let's put aside the trials as a sometime right back or midfielder and focus more on his direct role in what is among Supporters one of the more controversial Sounders' lineup issues, which also Involves Peter Vagenas.
As mentioned above, the "best 11" concept of football has been largely replaced by a more -system-driven approach, in which is best to think of a "first team" actually consisting of about 15-17 players who the manager will use situationally, depending on opponent, health, suspension, etc. It is best when there is "overlap" in this pool of players, a prime example of which is Roger Levesque, who has been utilized at both outside attacking midfielder roles and both striker roles. Another player Sigi has at his disposal is Vagenas, who is the type of hard-working central midfielder who features on many succesful clubs, including the Galaxy's cup winning club coached by one Sigi Schmid.
The unpopularity of Vagenas seems primarily tied to the fact he is one of the highest-paid players in the team not named Ljungberg or Keller, and the fact that he lacks the frantic style of Alonso, or the verve going forward of Evans. In fact, it is better to think of Vagenas as a second defensive midfielder when he is in with Alonso instead of Evans, and just like you wouldn't expect your strike partnership to be the same, you shouldn't expect your holding midfield partnership to be the same.
As to why Schmid would run out two holding central midfielders is explained by the fact that the outside midfielders are often both very attacking players, particularly when, as we saw last year, players like Zakuani or Ljungberg man those positions. Why shackle a player like Zakuani with too much defensive responsibility? 'Tis better to line up two "behind the ball" central midfielders to provide cover.
Of course, when Brad Evans is out there, it all changes. Evans does not play as a "holding midfielder," in fact he plays as one of a dying breed in the contemporary, systematized brand of football, in which midfields are now almost always split into holding and attacking bands; Evans plays as a "box-to-box" midfielder.
All this, of course, adds to the excellence of the first goal last night. Ljungberg dribbles, sends to Zakuani, who quickly touches it on to Montero, who holds the ball and the defender off just long enough for Zakuani to use his speed to get into space, receive the pass, turn is body and send it in and Evans, running box-to-box, finishes it off. This is how the game is beautifully played, and this is how the Sounders want to play it.
The second goal was beauty of a completely different variety, and to understand it you have to understand how badly the Philly defender screwed up. It is often said that "great goal scorers put themselves into position to score goals" and this is exactly what Fredy did on the play.
We all get frustrated with Montero, even last night he tried is patented "27 stepovers in space and accomplish nothing" maneuver a couple of times. I said earlier that he is a similar player to Ljungberg and Zakuani but his difference is that he has that touch of "goal poacher" in him, which is to say he is one of those unique players who can realize a chance when many wouldn't dare even try. If it goes in, as it did last year many times, it lives on Youtube for some time, and if it doesn't, we all grab out heads and wonder what the hell he's thinking.
But to that Philly defender. On the corner kick, Philly lined up defenders on either post, as is common. The defender on the near post (nearer the corner, the far post from the main camera angle) stepped out when the 'keeper Seitz punched out the ball, as he was supposed to. The defender on the far post (nearer the main camera) then drifted in behind Seitz, seemingly worried Seitz had committed himself too far out, then meekly drifted towards to other post, apparently caught in a daze of ball-watching. The fact is, he held Montero onside, an egregious mistake. You can see from Seitz's reaction to the play he was a little surprised to find one of his defenders playing so deep.
Ok, so the defender made an atrocious mistake. I've played defender most of my life, and have always said "goals come from defensive mistakes." The funny thing is, an extremely well-take goal can still arise from a screw-up at the back, because this is what goal scorers do, convert those chances you help them with. Seitz's punch out came to Alonso, who somewhat chunked his shot, and it seemed to be skipping harmlessly wide until Montero, held onside by a mesmerized defender, made the kind of athletic play that earns select men millions of dollars in places like England and Spain. It may be one of the prettiest goals Fredy has scored in Rave Green.
As for the second half, it is probably for the better that no-one remembers much of it. It was a bit of a night for many of us, as the torrential wind and rain gave the match a certain epic quality, combined with the fact we've all had far too much time on our hands for the last few months, alongside the stress of wondering if the season would actually start. I can recall a Philly defender essentially rugby tackling Zakauni and receiving a yellow for the effort (that's one I like to call an "orange card") and Keller at one point getting a little uppity with a lackadaisical defense after conceding a corner. Sigi's wisest decision of the night was getting Ljungberg the hell off the field in the 60th, and it was good to see Nyassi and Fucito get some time with the first team.
Some mentioning is deserved of Philly coach Petr Nowak's temperamental and unfortunate comments after the match, concerning what he saw as diving and whining by Seattle players and his specific calling out of one Mr. Ljungberg for what he saw as excessive whinging. I've never been much for putting too much stock in emotional post-game outbursts, but Mr. Nowak is just trying to push the same old buttons that football managers have pushed for years. The Facts are that Fred[y][die] were the two most fouled players in MLS last season. the Perception is that Fredy embellishes too much and Freddie whines too much. These arguments will rage as long as people gather together on pitches to kick a ball! Nowak's other primary complaint seems to be a specious argument about the ratio of overall fouls to cards called on his team. The fact of the matter is, the Union, like so many teams who come into Qwest, came in with the attitude that they were going to "push the boundaries" of what is acceptable physically and essentially dare the referees to make the calls. Well, the referees made the calls! A referee is actually a lot like a sports broadcaster, in that in all but the absolute rarest of instances will he genuinely add anything to the match. Generally, you're hoping that he (or she) will simply not take anything away from hit. By simply hitting your marks and letting the game tell its own story, you have usually done the job.
Mr. Nowak's real problem is getting his players to step up to the challenge of playing at an MLS level, something that few of his players outside of Seba le Toux demonstrated last night. Stahl really ought to be seen as the goat of the match, as both of his bookings came from pointless knees in the back of Sounder attackers well away from the Philly goal, whilst no real challenge was being made for the ball. Its hard to see his sending off as not perfectly justified, and it essentially killed Philly's realistic chance at a result with the match not quite half over.
So, before I mail this one in, I want to thank all the Supporters at Qwest last night for a job well done, before and during the match, on the way too and inside the stadium. I particularly want to thank my fellow North End Supporters for executing a 3-section overhead display, which was a significant step up from anything we tried last year, and was made all the more trying by the less-than-cooperative weather conditions; and I promise it is only a taste of what is yet to come from us. We will have new 2010 scarves for sale (I am told by next Saturday's match against NYRB) and we have those "Drink, Sing, Support" t-shirts for sale for $20 (all proceeds go to tifo production). We are all looking forward to a great season and a lot of fun afternoons and evenings at Qwest/RBP!