The heart and soul of the Seattle Sounders offense are Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Seattle's two offensive designated players are by far the most important players in making this side hum in attack. While their skill can make our jaws drop (shortly thereafter causing our best Tom Cruise in Risky Business impersonations) at the end of the day, they are only two players. And the players who surround them are just as important to the function of the Seattle Sounders offense as a cohesive unit.
The 26-year-old attackers have shouldered the bulk of the minutes for the Seattle Sounders on the wings this season with support from Kenny Cooper. While Cooper has been a solid addition to the Sounders, most of his minutes have come with Dempsey out of the lineup. With the tattooed Texan back as a prominent fixture in the lineup, Cooper's minutes have waned some. A large part of that equation is that Cooper is much better as a pure attacker and doesn't possess the two-way capabilities of both Neagle and Pappa, so there is less incentive for his skills in the 4-2-3-1 system the Sounders play with Dempsey in the lineup. Instead it's Pappa and Neagle on the wings that are the main curiosity for this attacking lineup.
To that effect, let's look at their usage patterns this season in conjunction with Clint Dempsey's presence (or put another way, their performances in the 4-2-3-1)
- vs. Toronto - inverted winger on the left, minutes 0-65; winger on the right, minutes 65-79
- @ Portland - inverted winger on the left, minutes 60-70, winger on the right minutes 70-90
- @ Dallas - winger on the left, minutes 0-72
- @ Chivas - winger on the right; minutes 0-70, winger on the left 70-90
- vs. Toronto - inverted winger on the right, minutes 0-64
- @ Portland - inverted winger on the left, minutes 70-90
- @ Dallas - inverted winger on the left, minutes 68-90
- @ Chivas - winger on the left, minutes 0-67
Notice an interesting pattern? Pappa always slots in as an inverted winger on the left. He always takes that position over Lamar Neagle. Pappa's only foray as an inverted winger on the right was in the loss against Toronto which I think we can probably all agree was pretty bad. When they appear together, Neagle always slots in on the right and functions as a winger while Pappa slots in on the left as an inverted winger. Compare that to when Neagle is on the pitch without Pappa. He functions as an inverted winger himself on the left. It's clear Sigi Schmid sees Pappa and Neagle occupying the same space as their best position, given the choice. The problem is only one of them can play at a time.
In this clash, Pappa brings a more deliberate playmaker-style role. In many ways, Pappa functions directly as Mauro Rosales functioned last year for the Sounders just mirrored across the field. But where Rosales conflicted with Dempsey, Pappa allows Dempsey the ability to interchange moving into the left side of attacking midfield; a zone where Dempsey has enjoyed great success in his career and is a more natural movement for him. We saw exactly this in the Dallas game.
Directly opposed to Pappa, Neagle brings greater pace and more directness to the Seattle attack by helping to stretch the distance between opposition defensive lines, giving Dempsey and Martins more space to operate in the center of attack. Neagle being a primarily right-footed option means his actions present a legitimate goal scoring threat in the process of inverting and something opposition defenses have to take very seriously
But what happens when Seattle wants both on the pitch at the same time? We know trying both as inverted wingers failed badly once. Although I think it's something the Sounders should experiment with, Schmid probably doesn't think so given his failure to field this arrangement since, despite multiple opportunities. He's chosen the option to play Neagle on the right as a standard winger. That move comes with a noticeable drop in his performance.
However, this also comes with a cost to DeAndre Yedlin. Yedlin's ability to overlap on the outside, with space, is hampered when playing with a pure winger rather then an inverted one. This primarily necessitates him playing deeper, or overlapping on the inside. Inside overlaps from fullbacks are just as viable a strategy, but they come with the price of being more difficult. The main goal of a fullback overlap on the outside is to pull the opposition fullbacks and center backs away from their primary marks, disrupting the structure of the backline. Overlapping on the inside only challenges the center backs and doesn't easily cause backline disruption. With a double pivot, or highly structured defensive midfield, that central attack becomes even harder.
We have Seattle's two more potent offensive pieces requiring the same space to be optimized for Seattle's offense. We have one playing out of position with some potential interference on the ability of a key attacking piece to join in the attack. Pushed even more so by Kenny Cooper's attacking acumen and the return of Brad Evans (in conjunction with Gonzalo Pineda's good run of performances in holding midfield), might it be time to consider playing just one or the other at a time?