At Dave's behest there's a little role reversal this week, I'm not scouting the Timbers. Instead I'll be scouting the Sounders. This is how I'd gameplan to beat Seattle and get my grubby hands on the Cascadia Cup.
1) Pressure early
For whatever reason, the Sounders’ motor has been slow to start this season. In their worst losses they’ve been disjointed and listless through the first quarter of the match, and teams that have been able to get on them early and apply pressure have taken advantage.
Their first bad loss of the season (and their worst performance of the season, despite the final score) was in March at Real Salt Lake. Robbie Findley scored in the 8th minute in that one and Real were unlucky not to pile on more in a first half in which the Sounders looked like they were playing a man (or more) down.
In their next loss, they also looked awful when Sean Franklin scored in the 12th and Robbie Keane added one in the 24th before adding two first half PKs. Again, the team was unrecognizable to start the match.
Then, in an important Cascadia match in Vancouver Kenny Miller scored in the 4th minute en route to a win over Seattle. Then they looked uninterested and slow to the ball again in Houston last week as Giles Barnes scored two early goals to put the game out of reach.
Admittedly, these were all road games, but that has to be your template for beating the Sounders. They’ve only lost one home game all season. Whatever motivation or edge they’re missing to start their road matches is probably easier to come by at home, especially in front of a record crowd, but they still seem slow to settle into games and there’ll be an early window of opportunity.
2) Flood the offensive center
Through their entire MLS existence, the keystone of any tactical consideration of the Sounders is the question of what they’re doing with their second central midfielder. With an unrelenting devotion to playing two forwards (and a current roster that won’t allow for anything else), Sigi will be playing two central midfielders. And one of them will be Osvaldo Alonso. The best ball winning midfielder in the league (sorry, Diego) is the heart of the defense. So what kind of player will play next to him?
Until this season, Seattle has been successful using another holding midfielder alongside Alonso. Whether it was Brad Evans, Pete Vagenas, or Nate Sturgis, they started a tactically safe, possession oriented player who would stay at home and try to push the ball up cautiously to the wings or a forward who was dropping back. This has, it has to be said, driven many fans insane -- especially those who wanted some offense from the midfield and saw two holding midfielders as cowardice that could only be absolved by the addition of a playmaker like Schelotto or Morales (or Valeri) who could run the offense from the middle. What they ignored was that we already had that playmaker in Fredy Montero, who was more trequartista than forward and dropped into the attacking midfield to pick up those balls and create chances. Yes, he would often dribble into cul de sacs, but he had good vision and a great passing touch and just as often would release the wingers or his forward partner.
But now with Montero off to Colombia (and then Portugal), Seattle really does have a hole in the attacking midfield. Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson can drop back into that space, but neither has the playmaking ability that Montero had and if they’re dropping back they’re not lurking dangerously in the box. Seattle’s tremendous and expensive forwards have been starved of service. The response had been to abandon the holding pair of Alonso and Servando Carrasco and try out more creative options in the central midfield, whether that’s Shalrie Joseph, a more attacking version of Brad Evans, or Mauro Rosales pushed to the middle. And with the addition of Clint Dempsey, many are hoping (and even assuming) that he’ll take over that central midfield attacking role. But that strategy leaves Alonso on an island. An attacking central midfielder along with two wingers means that on defense the midfield consists entirely of the Honey Badger. And while he’s a great player, he’s not that good. When the Sounders have looked bad this season it's nearly always coincided with a pack of opposing players running freely in Seattle's defensive midfield. An attack that can flood Alonso's area with 3 or 4 players will find unmarked space at the top of the box.
Against Portland, I have no problems imagining Will Johnson (if he plays), Diego Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe being those three players while Ryan Johnson occupies the defensive line. And that would be a recipe for dangerous chances.
3) Bottle up Rosales
The corollary to the previous point is that if Seattle does re-commit to a more defensive central midfield (by, say, starting Carrasco, moving Eddie Johnson to a wing, and putting Martins and Dempsey up top), they’re back to the problem of the only service coming from a Mauro Rosales who’s aging before our eyes. If he’s not given any oxygen in which to work, the Sounders would struggle once again to get the ball to the forwards in dangerous places, leaving the opposing defensive line to mop up the easy looping aerial crosses that Seattle resorts to when they can’t find any other way to get the ball forward. And denying oxygen to Rosales has become a simpler task. It no longer even takes double teams. A single defender is generally enough to prevent him from getting open for a cross.
If Seattle goes with the more offensive option of Dempsey in the midfield, it takes some pressure and attention away from Rosales, but it doesn’t help matters as much as you might think. Dempsey is immune from the need for a playmaker because he makes his own plays. Or, in Bruce Arena’s words, he “tries sh#t”. But he’s not the kind of distributor who can unlock the defense for Martins and Johnson. Even if he’s in the midfield, the Sounders will need Rosales to make plays. Shutting him down will be an important step toward a Timbers upset on Sunday.
If Portland can execute on all three of those. . come out quick, shut down Rosales, and overload Alonso in the middle, then maybe. . just maybe. . they'll be able to escape from Seattle with three points and an imposing lead in the Cascadia Cup race.