Scouting Report: Deportivo Saprissa S.A.D. v Seattle Sounders

I invited Aaron from www.7500toHolte.com to do this scouting report for the upcoming CCL opponent

Deportivo Saprissa S.A.D. are the most storied club in Costa Rica's Primera Division, having won the league 29 times in its 91 year history. Saprissa are the reigning champions of the Campeonato de Verano, the Costa Rican Premier League's Clausura tournament, which they won in resounding fashion by defeating San Carlons 7-2 on aggregate. In relative terms, this is a bit of a down period in Saprissa's history; the Clausura was Saprissa's first championship since 2008, which seems a fairly small gap until you consider that Liberia Mia's victory in the 2009 Clausura ended a run of five consecutive titles and six in seven chances. At the moment, Saprissa sit in fifth position in their six team group, having won just once against one draw and three losses.

According the the CONCACAF League Coefficient at HexagonalBlog, Costa Rica's top division rates fourth in the region behind Mexico, MLS and Puerto Rico. So, the Sounders next test in the CCL comes against a team struggling in an inferior league. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, kind of. But it's important to note a few things. The first is the most obvious; yes, Saprissa have played poorly to this point, but they've also played five games. That's a pretty insignificant sample, and while it seems fair to assume Saprissa aren't the beast they've been in years past, it's a pretty tremendous leap of faith to assume that they are one of the worst teams in Costa Rica. This is a club that steamrolled their domestic competition in the Clausura and topped the league table by five points on the aggregate of the two half-seasons. There's also the matter of Saprissa's performance thus far in the CCL; they fell 1-0 in Monterrey, but steamrolled Marathon 4-1 at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. 

The scoreline against Monterrey quite honestly flatters Saprissa, as they were dominated the entire match. They were quite clearly playing for the draw from the outset, but even after falling behind in the 25th minute they were unable to give Monterrey much trouble. Saprissa looked completely outclassed in every aspect of the game, allowing 24 shots (11 on frame) and 11 corners. If not for some quality defensive play by Yader Balladares and several stunning saves by Fausto Gonzalez, Monterrey could have made things look significantly worse. Aside from a goal called back for offside in the 72nd minute, Saprissa very rarely looked at all a threat to score, and their attempts to beat Monterrey on the counter were almost universally futile. Despite losing by a greater margin at home, the Sounders looked to be far more formidable opponents in their clash with Monterrey than Saprissa did in theirs.

Saprissa's match at home against Marathón tells something of a different story. It was a rather chippy affair, with a total of eight bookings between the two clubs and the sending off of Marathón striker Randy Diamond for a nasty foul against keeper Fausto Gonzalez in first half stoppage time proved crucial. Though the scoreline was equal at the time, Saprissa were in control well before the incident, with Marathón's goal having come under fluky circumstances; a desperate long-range effort deflected off of Saprissa captain Victor Cordero and into the net. Marathón were completely outclassed in the second half, with Saprissa dominating possession and barraging the opposition with shots. To put it simply, Marathón were played off the pitch and while the man advantage certainly contributed to the final score, Saprissa were the class of the contest from the start. While it is not especially pleasant, it must be noted that Marathón did of course defeat the Sounders, albeit under somewhat dubious circumstances.

So who is the real Saprissa then? The side that looked hopeless against Monterrey, or the one that wiped the floor with Marathón? At the risk of sounding flippant, they're both. El Monstruo Morado are a different team at home; the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa is regarded as one of the most difficult places to play in the entire region, in spite of its   capacity of roughly 25,000; good enough to make it the largest stadium in Costa Rica but still dwarfed by the size of many of the larger stadia in Mexico. La Ultra Morada are renowned for their passion, and the stadium quite literally rocks from the volume of their support. It's the type of tremendous atmosphere that I love objectively and fear from the perspective of a Sounders supporter. Estadio Ricardo Saprissa has been known in past years for its unforgiving turf, but the surface has recently been upgraded to a surface similar to that used at Qwest, something the Sounders might find to be somewhat in their favor.

While I have not seen as much of Saprissa as I generally would like when scouting opposition teams, based on my impressions they are a side that favor a strong defensive presence that leads to quick counters through the midfield and a fluid, possession-heavy attacking style in the final third. This is a squad comprised of intelligent players that are willing to be patient and wait for chances to come to them. Saprissa tend towards a fairly conventional 4-4-2, with strikers Jairo Arrieta and Alejandro Sequeira up top and Costa Rican icon Walter Centeno providing service as an attacking midfielder. Centeno is 35 and perhaps not the player he was in his prime, but is arguably the best player Costa Rica has produced since the legendary Rolando Fonseca and a creative force that the Sounders must neutralize if the hope to keep the game within reach. At the back, Victor Cordero and Gabriel Badilla are players to watch and keeper Fausto Gonzalez has impressed every opportunity I have had to watch Saprissa play.

Coming into the group stage of the CCL, this match appeared to be the Sounders best chance of emerging from an away fixture with three points. With the defeat to Marathón' behind us and even greater knowledge of the quality Monterrey are capable of, it would appear to be the only realistic chance the Sounders have of taking three points away from home. This is close to being a must win for the Sounders; a point from Monterrey seems unlikely and even with two wins at home and a draw on the road, seven points from the group stage is unlikely to be sufficient. If the Sounders hope to win, maintaining possession will be a huge factor, as Saprissa are capable of creating nightmares for the opposition once they've made their way into the final third. Osvaldo Alonso will be a key player, as he is capable of disrupting Saprissa' slow, methodical buildup in the offensive area to a greater degree than anyone else on the pitch. If Blaise Nkufo is able to play and in decent form, I can see him creating havoc against Saprissa's back line as his physical presence and ability to completely halt play in order to allow his fellow attacking players to join the fray is quite rare in this tournament. 

This is not necessarily a match that I expect the Sounders to win, but that's not to say that it is not a winnable match. Saprissa are comparable in quality to the upper tiers of MLS, and that might be selling them short, especially when they are playing at home. A lot will depend on whether Sigi Schmid sees the CCL as a high enough priority to start a full-strength side at this stage in the game. The Sounders best XI is most likely a more than formidable opponent for Saprissa's best XI, but we're unlikely to see such a matchup. The Sounders are still on the edge in terms of playoff contention and face a brutal run of opponents in the near term. And while the top level talent may very well be superior, the greatest weakness of MLS sides in the CCL (aside from the officiating, of course) is a lack of depth. The Sounders are no exception. We don't really have any way of knowing what the lineup will look like tomorrow evening, but if any marquee players are missing then things are going to go from difficult to dire in quite a hurry. And while I would understand if Sigi were to field a somewhat weakened side, a victory away from home in the CCL would be a pretty tremendous result for the Sounders, and one that I think is both attainable and worth chasing. Saprissa are no pushovers, but they're not (at least for now) El Monstruo Morado of old, either. Three points in San Jose and the Sounders are level with the rest of the group with two to play at home. This thing is still right there for the taking, and this is Seattle's best shot at staying in it.

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