Fredy Montero will draw plenty of attention from opposing defenses as he figures to be the main man in the Sounders attack once again in 2011
In part 1 I outlined how Osvaldo Alsonso fits in as the 5th defensive player, despite nominally being a midfielder, and how he and the 4 defenders essentially form a "W" shape to the back 5.
Soccer is of course a holistic game, and parsing players into either "attackers" or "defenders" can be quixotic. This is actually how I feel about midfielders in general, as I equate the term "midfielder" to the term "curry": a name that, on its own, doesn't really describe anything to any great specificity, and really requires more details to have any real meaning.
And such as it is with the Sounders. Trying to describe the team's basic shape as a 4-4-2 leaves one in the position of also trying to explain that there are essentially three separate roles amongst the 4 players. The Outside mids play higher and more attacking, and at times can seem to verge on becoming forwards. Alonso plays as a CDM and is, as mentioned, a 5th defender for all intents and purposes. Then, of course, there is the other central midfielder, whose job is as more of a "traditional" box-to-box player.
We also know what is not included, and that is a CAM. I have devoted prodigious word-count last November and December explaining the Sounders' past tactical approaches and pondering the playmaker role. There are two important aspects to this: the first is that the "playmaker" is most often the 2nd striker, who in our case is Fredy Montero; and the second is the de-centralization of the playmaker role, best described by the adage "the playmaker is the one with the ball."
How it all fits together is the key to understanding the Sounders attack, and why I am referring to it as the "+".
At the top of the plus is the target forward, or center forward, or whatever term you most prefer. What we know is that the Sounders seem to need one, and when there wasn't one in the lineup early last year not only did Fredy Montero earn the "lazy" moniker but the oft-questioned value of Nate Jaqua to the 2009 team suddenly couldn't be called into question any more. The man at the head of the list for this spot is Blaise Nkufo, in his final year of professional soccer. While many seemed to grow impatient with his lack of goal-scoring last year - at least until Columbus away in September - what couldn't be called into question was the results the team enjoyed when he was on the pitch. He proved very adept at holding the ball and, somewhat counter-intuitvely, swapping places with Montero to retreat into the middle third to act as distributor. He does what a good target man does, which is win the ball and hold possession for his teammates, and poach the opportunity when it comes.
O'Brian White is looking like a steal from Toronto, as his speed and size can create a handful for opposing center backs. Nate Jaqua was considered valuable enough to be protected in the expansion draft, but his missing most of the preseason due to injury has seemingly jeopardized his place on the depth chart, and it looks as though he will have to fight to get much meaningful time in League competition as it now stands.
At the other forward position is Fredy Montero, on whom a lot of the attacking burden falls. Much like Alonso in the defense, if the Sounders are to be successful this year, a lot rests on his shoulders as the 2nd striker/playmaker. He will simply have to be the team's most dynamic attacking presence...
But fortunately he should have good help, and much of it will come from the wingers, whose high pressure is a key to the Sounders attack. Last year, Steve Zakuani tied Montero for the lead with 10 goals in League play, and was second in assists to Montero as well, operating primarily from the left side as an inverted winger On the other side is Alvaro Fernandez, who came is an a midseason DP signing but never truly cracked the starting lineup, often sitting while Sanna Nyassi got the nod to start. It is pretty obvious that in 2011 the right midfield/winger spot is his to lose.
Among the players adding depth to these three spots is Mike Fucito - a fan favorite and a player for whom there seems to be a certain buzz, given his prodigious strike rate with limited competitive match time in 2010; although it seems as though his main role will be to deputize for Montero as the withdrawn forward of the combo. A slew of additional names, including Lamar Neagle, David Estrada, Miguel Montano, Pat Noonan, and Roger Levesque, all figure into the mix. Michael Tetteh, despite early indications that he might be a left back, looks to provide a "natural" left-footed left-winger option, behind Zakuani on the depth chart.
The spot at the back of the arrow is the one that is most difficult to define. We saw many a Sounder fan dismayed with the choice of Nathan Sturgis last year to fill the "other" CM spot - despite the team's success. The truth is Sigi decided to go with 2 CDM's, and Sturgis was never necessarily meant to be a true "linking" option. This year it looks as though "Sigi's Arrow" will return with the distinctive feature of "traditional" CM operating more in front of, rather than alongside of, Alonso.
Brad Evans seems to be the main man for the job, and the simplest answer as to why is that Sigi seems to just trust him more to provide the coverage he wants from the spot. It has been pretty clear in these last few preseason matches that Erik Friberg, the off-season Swedish acquisition, offers more to the attack. But we have seen from Sigi a common preference for a more defensive player in that role, and it is not as though Evans hasn't seen success as the team's box to-box man. It ought to be an interesting progression of lineup choices throughout the year, with Friberg perhaps establishing himself as the choice when more of a link-up to Montero is called for. Based on what we saw last year, Mike Seamon fits into this spot on the depth chart as well.
There is often some debate over how to exactly define the shape of the attack, as is so often the case in soccer 3-band nomenclature fails to accurately depict true tactics. Nominally the lineup contains 4 "defenders", 4 "midfielders", and 2 "forwards", rendering 4-4-2 the most popular choice. I would actually argue that the formation is closer to 4-2-3-1, but given the evolutionary path of 4-2-3-1 from 4-4-2 (in most cases of 4-2-3-1, that is) there is a lot of fuzzy middle ground, territory that the Sigi's Arrow seems to fall into.
Even though we know the target forward won't always necessarily stay put - this is soccer, a highly fluid game - but when looking at average position, he will certainly be at the top of the formation. Montero, and Fucito as well, are more "2nd striker" than "playmaker" - and this is not to diminish Montero's developing prowess as a playmaker. With the high average positioning of the wingers - and in the case of Zakuani, playing inverted, exhibiting a more central average position - there very nearly becomes a band of 3 attackers across the forward/attackign midfield layers. The "box-to-box" CM slots in behind, either as a linkup from the defense (Friberg?) or a more advanced helper for the CDM (Evans?).
But none of this matters if the team doesn't score goals, which at the end of the day ultimately is what wins games. After some concern over the lack of preseason goal-scoring from the "front 4" (Zakuani, Fernandez, Montero, Nkufo) Montero managed a brace in the final warmup, the Community Shield against Colorado. Sounders fans had best be warned, however, about relying too much on Montero. The best-case scenario for this team is that the goal-scoring burden is spread out as much as possible.
Any team will have a key man in the attack, and in our case it is certainly the Colombian, but there is also no reason that this team couldn't have multiple double-digit goal scorers this year, and Zakuani is top of my list to do so. There are times he will essentially be the highest man in the attack, and his speed has caused problems for opposing fullbacks throughout his MLS tenure. What Fernandez lacks in flash he makes up for in a certain pedigree. He will be put in a position where he will be asked to be a wide playmaker/scorer, and he needs to be reliable in that role for this team to flourish in the attack.
In their 2-year MLS history the Sounders have been only average in terms of goal scoring production - a statistic much to the chagrin of many in Sounder-land. Much of the team's success has been owed to a solid defense and ability to play a possession-oriented game. It seems to be a widely-held belief that for this team to "break through to the next level" (however exactly that is defined) then they will have to become a team that scores with aplomb. We will have to see whether this comes true in 2011.