One of the most hotly debated roster topics this off season has been whether the Seattle Sounders need to upgrade or add tactical depth to the roster at the more attack-oriented central midfield position. The discussion has often gotten bogged down in traditional soccer semantics. Many of us have expressed our desire for a more creative player by suggesting that perhaps the team needs to find a CAM. Unfortunately, a CAM or true No. 10, is a specific type of player in soccer nomenclature, that does not work simply with the Sounders' current tactical formation. Montero plays a type of Withdrawn Forward called a Trequartista. A Trequartista and a CAM utilize similar tactical space on the pitch and would get in each other's way. In blunt terms, the team does not need a CAM. But there is more to this discussion than a simple misunderstanding of traditional tactical positions. I want to take a deeper look at the issues underlying this desire and how the Sounders may address the issue coming out of training camp.
The Root of the Problem
The Sounders have been eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs for three years in a row. They have not won a Supporters' Shield. For a three-year-old franchise, neither of these things is a tragedy. But winning one of these accolades is a good goal for the team. When you look at why the Sounders have not been successful, the central midfield stands out as a potential weakness.
During the Sounders' first two seasons, the team had limited offensive weapons and the good MLS teams were able to shut down the Sounders by focusing on key players. In their third season, the Sounders were not as easy to shut down, but a combination of injuries and the particular weaknesses of the 2011 team resulted in another playoff loss.
The 2011 Sounders broke down in a very specific way. The team was able to compensate for the loss of Zakuani and O'Brian White tactically but not without cost. Zakuani and OBW constituted much of the 2011 Sounders' speed. Without them in the lineup, opposing teams were able to cheat their defensive players farther up the pitch. The Sounders were able to overcome this shift through tactical creativity, particularly in the wide areas of the field. But when Mauro went down, the Sounders floundered.
Teams were able to shut down the team by funneling the play into the central midfield and denying the Sounders the wings. The central midfield was good at holding and defensive play, but couldn't compensate creatively. They were also outmanned because of the team's lack of a speed threat. This resulted in the run of play being compressed toward the Sounders' end of the field. When the team turned the ball over in the central midfield, this compounded their vulnerability to the counter attack. On the surface, this appears to be a failure of the tactical abilities of the players used in the CM, particularly the more advanced attacking CM. But is this really the case?
The Sounders Attacking CM
The Sounders employ a tactical formation that utilizes a Box-to-Box midfielder and a Defensive midfielder in the central roles. The 2011 Sounders predominately used two players to fill the B2B position; Erik Friberg and Brad Evans. Friberg is no longer a Sounder and he was not replaced during the offseason. Which leaves the 2012 Sounders with one returning starter at the B2BMF position; Evans.
Evans has many strengths. He is good in the air. He has good tactical awareness. He plays defense. He makes good late runs into the box and he offers the team leadership. But like any player he also has weaknesses. He has been vulnerable to injury. His finishing can be an adventure and I have never heard him described as a creative passing force. This is the crux of the argument. For all of Evans' strengths, he is not a creative passing force at the central midfield. Basically, Evans gives the team a solid holding version of a B2B MF. Nothing wrong with this by itself. But having another tactical option would be nice.
But this isn't the only issue. Montero occupies the space of Trequartista, but he often uses this space to create opportunities for himself rather than to create passes for his teammates. Evans and Montero both have skills and are MLS starting caliber players. The problem is that when they are both on the pitch, Seattle does not have a play-making passer in the central midfield. The 2011 Sounders overcame this problem by using Rosales to fill the creative passing niche. When he went down, the Sounders didn't have a replacement.
One solution to addressing this tactical situation is to secure the services of a B2BMF who offers a set of skills that includes more passing service than Evans. This solution is obvious but not easy or even necessary. As many people including Dave and Jeremiah have pointed out, these players are not particularly common and they are not cheap. The Sounders going out and finding a starting caliber player with this skill set at this point of the offseason is unlikely. MLS roster rules require compromises and this is an area the Sounders appear to be using to strike a functional compromise.
The 2012 Sounders roster does offer a couple of possibilities. Sigi has indicated that the team may look at Alvaro Fernandez in this role as a tactical option. The team also has a couple of prospects who might serve here. Returning Sounder Mike Seamon may be able to adjust his game to meet this need. Or Supplemental Draft trade pick Andy Rose may step into the role. Rosales could also move here if the team finds good options at the RW.
The Big Picture and Other Options
But finding a creative force in the central midfield is not the only tactical option. The Sounders do not need to generate their offense from the central midfield. They just need to be able to not bog down in the central midfield. There are many tactical ways to approach the problem.
The loss of Zakuani and OBW, cost the Sounders scoring options, but it also cost them much of their speed. Many of the young prospects the Sounders have invited to camp offer speed as part of their arsenal. The more speed that the Sounders can incorporate into their attack, the more they will be able to force opposing teams to use formations that cover the entire pitch. If the opposing CBs and FBs are forced to respect the threat of speed, they can not move up the pitch in support of their midfield. This opens the midfield passing lanes and allows the creative players on the Sounders side the room to operate. The Sounders' FO appears to be looking seriously at speed as an option.
Transition from the Back
A second tool to address this problem is to change how the team moves the ball out of the defensive third in transition. If the team can improve the speed and quality of the transition from the defensive third into the attacking third, this will help unclog the midfield. This happens in two very specific ways. First, speed on the transition will enable the Sounders to catch the opposing teams out of shape. This in turn will force the opposing teams to guard against the counter attack. The end effect will be to allow the Sounders more room to break down the midfield and move the center of action toward the opponent's goal.
The second way that the Sounders can tailor their movement out of the back is to play to their strengths. This roster is built for technical play, not aerial play. If the Sounders can advance the ball out of the back on the ground, rather than through the air, they play to their strengths and minimize the strength of teams with more aerial tools.
Now look at the how the Sounders have overhauled the backline this offseason. Leo Gonzalez plays the ball on the ground more than Tyson Wahl did. Michael Gspurning is noted for his ability to play the ball on the ground and the speed of his transition. Adam Johannson is known for his ability to create service and move the ball up the pitch on the ground. Andrew Duran is noted for his ability to work with the ball at his feet. These moves are very deliberate and seem to indicate that the Sounders see this as an area they want to change. Whether the pieces work the way they hope remains to be seen but the activity is encouraging.
Another tool the Sounders can use to break down the defensive shape of opposing teams is tactical flexibility. 2011 showed just how valuable tactical flexibility is within the context of the MLS. Individual players within the MLS don't offer the universality of players in the top leagues. Every MLS player has a compromised skill set in the context of the global market. This combined with the salary cap, means that each opponent has tactical weaknesses that the Sounders can exploit. The more tactical options the Sounders have available on their roster, the more likely that the Sounders can shift their personnel to capitalize.
The 2011 Sounders got muscled off the ball. The 2012 training cap roster offers a number of larger bodies that play the game with physical finesse. Yes, Montero, Mike Fucito, Rosales and Osvaldo Alonso play big for their size, but a player like Babayele Sodade or Christian Sivebaek is big. Just another piece of the puzzle.
Will it all work?
Camp is about testing all of the pieces together and seeing what works and what merely looked like a good idea on paper. The jury is out on how the 2012 Sounders will mesh. But even without a more creative option at central midfield, I am encouraged by how the Sounders appear to be addressing the central issue of getting bogged down. They are taking a multifaceted approach that doesn't rely upon a single piece but instead approaches the problem holistically. It isn't the obvious approach, but it could end up being effective.