It isn't that Seattle Sounders FC's defense was poor, in fact is was quite good. The team gave up only 50 goals in all 48 competitive games for a 1.04 Goals Against Average. But there were two chronic issues - a weakness on the counter and probably merely average against set-pieces. Underlying the stopping of the opposition is a desire and recognition at the club to be better playing the ball out of the back. In Sigi Schmid's final statements to the broad media he pointed out when he wants from the defense.
I think our ability to play out of the back has to get better. I think so much of the modern game deals with the balls being at the feet of your outside backs. I think the outside backs' contributions to your offensive aspect of your team becomes important... I think we have got to get more shutouts.
Getting more shutouts means more points on the table. Seattle lost 4 games by a score of 1-nil (including one to Herediano). They tied 4 games at 1-1. Three of those eight potential standings changing results were in the first three weeks of the season. Of the 7 MLS games the Sounders gave up 15 potential points. Yes, Kasey Keller had an amazing season and more shutouts than anyone else, but in some cases that was because of him. Small improvements in this element of the game would push Seattle to the top of the MLS and CCL Group D table. Those improvements come primarily in cohesion and communication on the counter.
In April Assistant Coach Ezra Hendrickson pointed out that they want a regular pairing at centerback.
It is a position where we realize that it needs to be consistent. What we are trying to do is get that consistency, but of course in the first three games we tried to rotate. But we are trying to come up with what we think will be a pairing. Have we nailed that down yet? No.
Still we are working on that. All the guys that have played, they are making it a difficult job on us. We want a pairing game in, game out consistently, but right now we don't have that.
They eventually found that ideal pairing for MLS matches in Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, but due to a few injuries they weren't locked together throughout the season, and expecting them to play 30+ MLS games together in 2012 is unrealistic. Left back featured the biggest rotation on the team. Tyson Wahl and Leo Gonzalez nearly split time evenly. Wahl made 26 appearances and 53% of minutes and Gonzalez 25 and 47%. Right back was locked down by James Riley who played 77% of possible minutes. Third on the team to only Alonso and Montero.
Having suitable substitutes that can step into starting roles is an asset that Sigi is used to having. Patrick Ianni slotted only into a center back role this season and while he didn't match the defensive skills of Parke and Hurtado he lent a bit more physical presence in his more than 2000 minutes played. Zach Scott mostly appeared as a shutdown man marker. In particular he owned Brek Shea and Sebastien Le Toux. Scott played in other games, but his insertion as a starter at either right back or center back was an indication of one of two tactical changes. Either an opponent was going to be marked out of the game, or Sigi was more concerned about giving up a quick counter than he typically is (see RSL Playoff Leg Two).
That softness on the counter featured in several practices, notably on August 1st when Sigi Schmid addressed it after the loss to the Houston Dynamo. He noted the generally strong defense through the season, but that after a turnover initial high pressure can be used to help the backline recover their shape. At that same practice Riley noted that recovering defensive shape was their biggest issue.
The origination of our defensive shape needs to get better, meaning our transition needs to get a lot better. We need to retain possession better when we do win the ball. At the end of the day it is up to the defense to make critical plays and we need to do that better.
While some of the improvement on the counter rests on immediate pressure from the man who lost the ball. It also needs to come from stronger communication from the second line of defense. Too often the fullbacks and Alonso would all be up the pitch at the same time leaving Seattle in a two man defensive posture on a long ball. If they fail to win the initial dual that leaves the team defending a 2 on 1 or 1 on 1 forcing Keller into situations where he must be amazing. Communication along that second line will help, but so would a more rigid left back rotation so that Alonso and Riley's familiarity would increase. The easiest thing to do would be to say that one less player needs to enter the attack, but that could result in fewer goals for by Seattle.
Transitioning To Offense
Seattle's worst game of the year (RSL Playoff Leg One) highlighted what can go wrong when a team turns into dump and pray. Where other teams excelled at putting pressure on Seattle through long balls, Seattle's offense was best when initiated by quick passes out of the back, through the midfield and into the potent Fredy Montero. Mixing in the long ball (see US Open Cup Final) definitely can work, but the ideal for the team is rapid passing up the pitch.
From Ezra in April;
... we've got to be better with the ball, and quicker at getting the ball to our guys in attack. Everyone plays defense and everyone gets in the attack. When we win it our transition has to be quicker so we can catch the opposing team exposed.
Right now I think we are a little too slow when we get the ball at the back. We need to get it to the guys up top so they can do their thing. That's one thing we want to improve from the guys in the back.
That's a tough balance though. The short passing from the backline need forward outlets that are ready and available for the ball. If both fullbacks and Alonso are up the pitch there is little choice but to boot it up the field. If only one is back and there is a triangle the easy pass is sideways rather than forward. High pressure can force poor passing choices, the easiest way to avoid that is to have one more option.
This easy solution is also the easy solution for the issue with defending the counter. Here's the rub, it's a less risky, more defensive possession style. Rather than 8 men up in two or three bands moving the ball around, there would be only 6 or 7. A touch of scoring may be lost, but if through these changes Seattle gives up fewer goals and more quickly transitions to attacks through short and medium passes the style doesn't just continue to be fun to watch, it wins more games.
Sure, it's more fun in the off-season to dream of quality fullback being brought into the squad, or a behemoth center back displacing Hurtado. Hope could be hung on Hurtado finally fully recovering from his knee issues and returning to the quickness and form of 2009 as well. Any of those three things could happen.
They just aren't necessary. Small tactical adjustments and a 70/30 left back split could be all that's needed to turn those 8 missed shutout opportunities into 3 more successes and a Supporters Shield.