Shifting Steve Zakuani to the forward was a major topic of conversation this week both online and at practice. This also lead into Sigi Schmid talking about how part of the shift was due to the way that Seattle needed to defend Santos Laguna. It was a similar structure to what was used to chase the second half of the Salt Lake match and most of leg one's loss to Santos at home.
"One of the things that we are trying to do as a team is get our balance back so we don't get exposed on the counter," Sigi said about switch Zakuani from winger to forward. "If we are going to play very offensively like that we've got to be able to hold on to the ball and possess."
It is also a bit of a shift from defending to prevent goals to defending in order to score goals. It requires a different structure and a different mentality
"Structure is certainly one part of it. But if the guys aren't willing to recover after a ball is lost if you recover late it doesn't matter what your structure is if you don't get into the right position. You're not going to be able to be organized defensively. The main thing is that you defend to win the ball back. You want to get the ball. That's why you defend well - to get the ball," Sigi explained. "You don't defend well for the sake of defending well. What you're really trying to do is get the ball back so you can play offense again. We've got a number of players who like to play offense so we have to understand that there has to be a balance so that when we lose it we get the ball back so we can play offense."
The new higher pressure may be due to game circumstances. It could also be part of what was required due to the players that were available to take the pitch. If it is a permanent shift there is an impact that goes beyond swapping a winger for a wide mid. The backline have to play differently, as well.
"Communication becomes a bigger factor there," Assistant Coach and former great MLS defender Ezra Hendrickson said after practcie. "Are we stepping up all together or are we dropping off? Is there enough pressure on the ball that I can get tight on my man? As a defender in the back four those are things you got to look for. It's your job to direct those guys in front of you. Maybe you aren't in a good position. Maybe the back four is not organized yet, so you have to tell guys ‘don't step, don't step' until you are organized and can put pressure.
"If you have three guys pressuring and the back four is 50 yards away there's just too much space between the back four and the front guys in case the team gets through. You as a defender have to communicate to the guys in front of you to make sure that doesn't happen."
One of the ways through controlling that space is Osvaldo Alonso. That's a pretty handy tool in the tool kit of counter-attack prevention. He is now joined by Shalrie Joseph in the layer between. For the most part Joseph has been stacked in that box-to-box space. Sigi has stated that Alonso has to know that since Joseph plays the ball from deeper spaces than past CMs this does not mean that the defense is soundly structured.
There are also adjustments needed during left-right switches. They are a bit more complicated when the mid is further forward trying to force poor passes than if the mids track back to reset their lines.
"The same goes when the ball switches from left to right," Hendrickson said. "Now, the right back, if you are not ready for that the right back to step up to the opponent, usually the left back with the ball, then you've got to keep him inside because if he goes and you're not shifted over yet he goes and plays to his left mid and then they're in. There's a lot of communication that has to go about when we make a chase in a game, try to get a goal, we still have to have an organization and communication is what is key to that."
Will the circumstances dictate this different defensive philosophy in the next match? We can not yet know. But we can know that it held Santos Laguna and Real Salt Lake to two goals (on 17 box shots - thanks Gspurning/Hahnemann) in the 2.5 matches it was used. If it is that effective against teams of that quality should it be the first choice going forward?