Against Montreal, the Sounders trotted out their third different formation in three games, and it was one that we have not seen in a while from Sigi. The Sounders utilized a true 4-3-3, which featured Pineda and Rose playing box-to-box in front of the holding Osvaldo Alonso. Sigi outlined a bit of the reasoning behind this tactical shift after the game, saying, "we wanted to go with a 4-3-3 because of the guys we were missing and we felt we wanted to pack the middle of midfield a bit". Reading between the lines a bit suggests what the 4-3-3 offered as a tactical solution for the Sounders: a way to keep a three-man midfield without a No. 10.
Forward Line Defense
For Montreal, the key players in transition and build-up are their deep-lying passers, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello. In Montreal’s first two games of this season, they have been crucial, either in spraying passes to the channels to start counterattacks, or playing excellent entry passes to the feet of Felipe or Andrew Wenger to move the ball forward. (Though Bernier did not play against Dallas)
A major part of the Sounders plan was to limit the free time these two players had on the ball, to ensure they did not control the flow and tempo of the game. Seattle’s forward line was given defensive instructions to limit these two players specifically. Oba, Neagle, and Cooper backed off the Montreal centerbacks, allowing them to have possession and start attacks. Instead, they dropped in and looked to put pressure on Bernardello and Bernier. Though Rose and Pineda pushed up to mark Bernier and Bernardello, the defensive help from the forward line allowed them to occasionally cover Montreal’s wide players or defend zonally, occupying the dangerous space "in the hole" and shielding the back four. The help from the forwards prevented Rose and Pineda from being pulled high up the pitch. This kept the Sounders compact and prevented Montreal from playing through the middle.
In the above gif, Oba pressures Bernardello while Neagle defends against Bernier. Rose, Pineda, and Alonso defend zonally.
The downside of this tactic, however, was that it was asking a lot from Seattle’s wide forwards defensively. They were tasked with pinching in on Montreal’s defensive mids, as well as tracking Montreal’s fullbacks. As a result, Montreal continually created two-on-one opportunities in wide areas for brief periods of time while Seattle’s wide forwards tracked back.
In this play, Neagle, Oba, and Cooper all pinch in to defend against Bernier and Bernardello. Brovsky moves forward untracked, and if he had received a better weighted pass from Bernardello would have been free to attack the left flank. Cooper is forced to hustle back to defend against Brovsky.
After the game, Sigi outlined that this was part of the game plan, saying, "we were going to divert the game to the outsides for them and keep them from coming through the middle, which I think we did pretty successfully, although they were dangerous at times coming through the outsides". He also acknowledged the magnitude of the task he put on Neagle and Cooper, when he said, "Kenny and Lamar also had to drop and help us defend. It was a lot of work for them, that’s why they were the first two guys I subbed".
For the most part, the Sounders looked to create chances on the counterattack. Lamar Neagle was key in this endeavor, and he showed why Sounders fans have been clamoring to see him play as a forward and not as a midfielder. He was able to get into positions where he is at his best, receiving the ball on the run, away from the crowded midfield areas where he is much more prone to turn the ball over. He contributed to Seattle’s most dangerous moments and also had several good runs that weren’t found by teammates, as he was often looking to get in behind Montreal’s high line.
When the counterattack was not an option, however, the Seattle was comfortable in keeping possession, even when faced with pressing from Montreal. The passing and composure of Alonso and Pineda were crucial in this regard.
Sounders Switch to a 4-5-1
After Obafemi’s goal, the Sounders adopted an even more defensive posture, dropping Cooper and Neagle back and shifting to a 4-5-1. This was designed to stop the two-on-one opportunities on Seattle’s flanks. It was effective in doing this, but it increased the pressure put on Seattle’s defense. In possession, the Impact were able to push even farther up the field unopposed. A look at the locations of Seattle's tackles shows the difference in where the Sounders were confronting Montreal.
Because the Sounders were now sitting deeper, Bernier and Bernardello were given more space to control the game. In the 63rd minute, Bernier showed why the Sounders put so much stock in putting pressure on him, as he created this dangerous moment:
Frank Klopas made two changes in the 70th minute, bringing in Heath Pearce for Jeb Brovksy and Blake Smith for Patrice Bernier. Pearce was a straight swap at left back, but perhaps was brought on because Brovsky had shown little attacking ability. Smith for Bernier was most likely due to Bernier’s fitness, and Smith went in as a left sided attacker, moving Colleen Warner to central midfield. In the 78th minute Klopas brought in a forward, Santiago Gonzalez for Bernardello, meaning that Montreal moved into a 4-1-3-2 with Warner as the lone holder. Of all of the subs, Pearce had the most positive impact, as he took advantage of Seattle’s extremely narrow defending and created several very dangerous moments.
Montreal was again plagued by the same problem with which they have struggled all year: execution in the final third. However, both teams were probably unlucky not to score at least one more. The Sounders did well to execute their opening strategy and control Montreal’s method of attack, but the decision to bunker and invite so much pressure so early was questionable at best.
Bonus gif! Here’s the best of Oba’s three scoop turn passes: