Sounders Struggling With Physical Play

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

There are a few teams in MLS that aren't just physical because that's how MLS is, but because that's how they succeed. They are more physical than most in the league. A quick view from 3,000 feet has these teams as Houston, Portland, San Jose and Kansas City. Not all of them are set-play teams, but all of them feature deadball success to some degree, use physical defense to throw other teams off pattern and in Portland's case ramp it up when playing Seattle.

Seattle's record in all competitions against these teams in 2012? A poor 2-4-3 with -1 goal differential with the strongest performances being early in the year against Houston and the Open Cup match at Kezar. It is not just a problem limited to this season. The first leg beat down by Real Salt Lake was also physical, also a loss. The 2009 playoff defeat also physical, also a loss even if just barely.

It's a pattern and it needs to stop. At least one and maybe two of those physical teams will be met n the Playoffs and both LA and RSL are capable of playing that way as well.

Seattle has the physical players to play this way. At forward both Johnson and Ochoa can get into it. Evans, Alonso, Tiffert, Rose can do it in the midfield. The backline is fully capable. Estrada has the strength necessary to play physcally, though he's small.

There are four players that nearly never play physical but are key components to the team - Montero, Rosales, Johansson and Zakuani. Martinez looks likely to be that type as well.

But they can and need to do it. It is not about size (see Alonso, Osvaldo). According to Brad Evans postgame "It’s just a mind-set, it’s nothing physical it’s just who wants it."

Five games and then the Playoffs. Every round is physical. Every round is about who wants it.

I asked Evans about being smaller but still winning headers and creating chances against a team that had three centerbacks, two target forwards and Wondo at right wing. That previous quote was the close. The full quote is telling;

It’s just mind set, it’s just who wants it more than you and we didn’t do that in the first half well enough. Second half I think we can play these guys more physical. That was the mind-set going into the second half that we’ll get away with some extra bumps here and there because they’re a bigger team and they kind of look down on us with that in stature. We can get away with that extra bump. And you know, any time you’re back is up against the wall in front of 35 thousand people you’re going to give that extra little bit. It’s just a mind-set, it’s nothing physical it’s just who wants it.

To compound the Earthquakes having an advantage in physicality early, they added in gamesmanship late. That creates duel concerns for a team. As the Sounders ratcheted up their effort and use of body San Jose added not-quite-flops, kicking the ball away time-delaying, pseudo-injuries and what-not.

Evans talked about that as well.

First and foremost it is a game. Different players play a different way and that's their style. Some players get away with it. Some people can sleep at night with the way that they play and some can't. I'm not a chippy player I don't think. I try to play as fair as possible, others don't. Everybody's got their own style. It is what it is.

San Jose seized the initiative in the match through their physical nature throughout the pitch. They forced poor first ball wins when Seattle won them (and they did winning 57.7% of first half duels) and not allowing easy short passes subsequently.

It's an issue for the Sounders. It is a style of play against which they struggle. But they can succeed. They did it against the Dynamo early in the season by demanding the initiative early and then matching styles of play successfully. It was a less technical lineup, but it didn't matter. It was a lineup willing to bang with bigger bodies and do so within the Laws of the Game.

This didn't happen Saturday night. The desire in the first half wasn't there. Every player and Sigi noted it postgame. Techniques they knew could work were not being used.

Schmid said of the differences between halves, "The big change was just our aggression and our attitude in the second half."

Seattle only has one opponent left that plays this style. That match is for the Cascadia Cup. It will also be better prep for the upcoming MLS Cup Playoffs than the rest of the games, despite the remaining teams actually being good and possible playoff opponents.

This last loss is significant, but is not an indicator of how the team will do in the Playoffs. How Sigi and the team adapt and use those shifts in attitude against the Portland Timbers could be the best indicator of short season success of failure.

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