As important as he has been for the Sounders in 2011, Alvaro Fernandez may be mis-cast as an outside player
Lost in the announcement of the new SB Nation iPhone App, and the excitement that Adrian and Mauro are talking extension was this post by jake. In it he talks a bit about one of the traits of the Sounders identity - wide midfielders who are kind of like forwards.
If we ought to have learned one thing from watching the Sounders for 2.5+ years, it is that the idea of a "midfield" is basically an abstraction. A contemporary midfield in soccer will usually consist of at least 3 distinctly different types of players, if not 4, and symmetry is rarely the norm, or even important. The most symmetrical the Sounder midfield has ever been was the second half of last year, when Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi operated as wingers who were something closer to forwards than midfielders, and Sigi compensated by playing two defensive center mids with the oft-maligned Nathan Sturgis paired with Osvaldo Alonso.
Seemingly forgotten in the shuffle was the mid-season DP signing from Uruguay, who seemed to possess the qualities of a central midfielder despite lining up - on the occasion he actually was used - as a winger. It was speculated often in the off-season he would emerge as the team's answer at the CM spot - aka the "not Alonso" position.
When the dust settled and the season started he once again seemed to be mis-cast - on those relatively uncommon occasions he was cast at all - as a winger again. And in the loss of Zakuani, when the left wing spot became open and Alvaro Fernandez was the logical choice to fill it, suddenly there emerged a palpable caveat. Fernandez wasn't much of a winger.
Fernandez, it turns out, is the rare player whose greatest assets also seem to be his greatest weakness. Zakuani was speed and flash, a menace to fullbacks whose first touch was always into space, allowing him to build up a head of steam and be moving with the ball. Fernandez was slow, methodical, technical, deliberate.
It could be said that Sigi's affair with the diamond midfield was little more than an attempt to get his most skilled player into his ideal spot. Certainly not a winger, but also not necessarily a true CM - his finesse and frame don't necessarily translate to an MLS central midfield - it made sense that Fernandez would be comfortable as the left of the two "shuttlers" in a diamond 4-4-2. As I explored previously, the two shuttlers, the nominal "outside" mids between the CDM and the CAM in the diamond, have more in common with the two CM's who operate in front of a CDM in the 4-1-2-3 version of 4-3-3, than they do with the outside mid/wingers in the common "bucket 4-4-2".
The near-crippling late-April- May injury crisis forced Sigi to scramble for solutions, and amongst the holes to fill was the one left by Mauro Rosales' hamstring issues. Rosales, as it turned out, could be a winger, and as was demonstrated when he ably filled in when Montero missed some matches with a broken wrist, he could also be a 2nd striker. In that regard, this #10 was the player that other #10 - the one from Sweden - was supposed to be.
The love affair between Sounders fans and Rosales started quickly, and it started in no small part because he did those wonderful things a winger does; he ran, he attacked, he could hit a decent cross. he played with energy and aplomb and for this he has emerged as a dark-horse MVP candidate in some circles (although this author finds that to be a stretch, quite frankly).
And together they have become the South American connection which is binding this team together, scoring goals and winning matches. Fernandez plays as the distributor, the shuttling mid that we often see more central, but on this team operates from the greater freedom of wide positions. Rosales is the creator, the hustling bustling winger, and symmetry can be dammed. Rosales' chalkboards are often a flurry of activity from half-way line to end line, right side line to goal, whereas Fernandez' tends to be neat and clustered, a more orderly pattern tucked into the left. They both have contributed well to the scoresheet: Fernandez leads the team lead in goals in all competitions at 9, with a healthy 4 assists to boot; Rosales is tied with Montero for the lead in assists with 8, and a solid 4 goals as well.
It is interesting to me that while the forwards get the headlines, and the majority of the scuttlebutt, it has often been that the outside mids/wingers are the true emblematic players on the Sounders. The same goes for this year; and while many of us will continue to wring our hands over Montero and who his partner ought to be, it strikes me that it is Fernandez and Rosales who will really decide how far this team can go in 2011.