Seattle's defense smothers opposing teams like a grey Seattle rain by design. Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
Saturday the Sounders did exactly what the coaching staff asked them to do. They won a road point. The result and the gameplan were as cold and calculated as a professional foul. Sigi Schmid's roster choices, substitution pattern and tactical approach to the game were consciously designed to earn a point and potentially steal a win. The Sounders' efforts epitomized a hard-nosed, blue-collar, conservative approach to the sport. D.C. United could have been forgiven if they checked the schedule at half time to insure that they were indeed playing Seattle and not Houston. If the Sounders had taken the field for the second half sporting Dynamo Orange would the D.C. United players really have been surprised?
But DC wasn't as unsettled as Seattle's fan base. All around the Emerald City Sunday morning, Sounders fans woke with emotional hangovers attempting to wrap their minds around what they saw Saturday night. This performance didn't measure up to our expectations of the Sounders as a dynamic team that plays attacking football. Where were the team's creative options off the bench? Where is the vaunted depth? Why did Sigi play so conservatively? Things could have been worse. They could have lost. But this tie left many fans feeling as if they had to settle for kissing their sister. Please pass the mouthwash.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Seattle's vaunted depth was on full display Saturday. It just wasn't what many fans expected. Seattle did not spend the offseason retooling its offense. The team focused on a defensive overhaul and balance. The fruits of that labor sparkled Saturday night under the Capital lights. Osvaldo Alonso and company smothered the DC lineup that had hung a four spot on FC Dallas just the week before. Time and again, Seattle defenders delayed, harried and redirected DC United into ineffective positions and choked off their options. Frustration etched Dwayne De Rosario's face by the end of the game. Nick DeLeon disappeared for long stretches. Maicon Santos was exasperated.
No one will mistake Seattle's defenders for stone pillars repelling a besieging army. The Sounders' defense isn't an Iron Curtain. It's a cold Northwest rain. Drizzle that seeps under your clothes and wraps around your psyche like a miserable wet blanket. A lead sky that presses down. Endless grey winter that saps the opposition's concentration and resolve. A little taste of Seattle sunlight to darken their day.
And it works. Seattle may have only generated three solid opportunities to score on the evening, but they were better opportunities than anything DC was able to muster. There are nights when Seattle will bury those opportunities.
Ignore the Torreon game where Seattle was chasing the play and look at the caliber of the defense Seattle has fielded this season. In Seattle's other five competitive games they have surrendered 3 goals; two highlight reel efforts and a soft PK call. They shut down Dwayne De Rosario and Brad Davis. Stop for a moment and consider that feat.
Now look at the roster. Seattle has 3 box-to-box center mids, 3 defensive center mids, 3 left backs, 2 right backs, 4 center backs and 4 keepers on a 30-man roster. That's 19 defensively oriented players or roughly two thirds of the team. For all of the focus on the Sounders' offense, this team is actually built for defense.
But it's not a traditional defense. It doesn't feature tall trees and ice giants. It is a defense built in the image of its beating heart, Ozzie Alonso. Small, tenacious, determined defenders who smother the opposition in pack formation. They win the dangerous areas of the pitch and possession. They divert, impede and redirect. They cover for each other. They work as a unit. They swarm and engulf opponents like black flies and they are just as maddening.
Seattle's "second" team is the epitome of this approach. The Sounders' FO engineered the second string roster to shut down high-powered offenses. They are not a like-for-like replacement of the "first" team. They are a tactical alternative. Their function is to clamp down hard on an opponent's throat and strangle the opposition's offense. Starve it of air. Swarm, churn and grind it into oblivion. And for the last 3 weeks, that is exactly what the Seattle "second" team has done. It is a tactical option that is constructed to sacrifice offense for defense. The machine isn't broken. It is working exactly as it was designed to work.
The MLS salary cap creates restrictions and opportunities. MLS management teams have to think outside of the box in order to leverage the unique attributes of the MLS system. MLS fans need to think outside of the box as well. A traditional first, second and third team approach is built around a single team philosophy and replacement parts. The second and third teams in this approach mirror the composition and skill sets of the first team. They are simply less experienced or past their prime. It is the classic approach to roster construction around the globe regardless of a team's style of play.
But this approach has difficulties in the MLS. The salary cap is so tight that teams cannot afford to hire quality youth backups in the key technical positions without sacrificing balance. The players cost too much on the global market. One alternative is to say damn the torpedoes and find a like-for-like replacement regardless of the step off in quality. This has historically been the approach of most MLS teams. Hope you don't suffer any significant injuries and limit your focus to one or at most two competitions.
The Sounders have taken a different approach. They have looked at the roster and built it with an eye toward a technical flexibility that leverages the differing costs of specific skill sets. Zach Scott has strengths. And the value of those strengths relative to their costs represents an opportunity in the right situation. It is a compromise that makes the overall roster stronger for the same cost. It also means that the team's second string plays a different style of football. If the team can stay healthy, the coaches use this weapon to protect leads, shut down particularly dangerous players or hot teams, or to absorb the rigors of multiple competitions. It means that sometimes the coaches will use the second string tactically. Saturday was an elegant example of this principle in action.
The Sounders have started the MLS season with a non-traditional pre-season and a rash of injuries. They need time and space to heal and gel. Key players like Eddie Johnson need game minutes to build fitness, touch and rapport with their team mates. Saturday marked the first road trip of the season and the team was coming off its first MLS loss. DC United hoped to build on the momentum of their victory against FC Dallas. The Seattle second team stopped them in their tracks. Eddie Johnson got valuable minutes. And other than two unfortunate blows to the Sounders' family jewels, no one got hurt. It gave the team an opportunity to nurse its wounds and live to fight another day. Sometimes a road point may not be flashy, but it is an honest result.
A Call for Innovative Fans
We may not like the restrictions created by the MLS salary cap. Arguing for the Sounders to take a different approach to the cap is legitimate. But we should all take a long hard look at the big picture when we make those arguments. The team can not afford balance and a pure replacement for Mauro Rosales; not under the current MLS salary structure. But they can afford players like Zach Scott and Roger Levesque and what they bring to the table. Instead of discounting these players as lesser options, we can take a long hard look at what they are actually accomplishing for their cost. Say what you will about lost opportunities, this team is functional.
The 2012 Sounders roster is built for overall balance and defense. Seven points in four games is a respectable result and the team is functioning as it was designed to function. This is a testament to the players, coaches and staff. It is absorbing a ridiculous level of abuse and is still competitive. Point to another MLS roster that is functioning as well under the same duress. Sigi managed Saturday's match with professional detachment. As exasperating as that may have been, it was still professional. And it deserves to be commended accordingly. This team may not always do what we expect as fans. But that doesn't mean that they are not effective or doing what they need to do.