Sounders fans who watched last night's Western Conference final matchup between FC Dallas and the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center will no doubt be a little troubled by what they saw. In both legs of the previous series, the Galaxy pretty effectively neutralized the attack of the Sounders, a team that was at the time the hottest squad in MLS and a dark horse candidate for Cup favorite among the pundits. And yet last night they looked defensively hopeless at home against an FC Dallas side that was frankly lucky to escape from its two matchups with Seattle with two draws (thanks to a late Ferreira wunderstrike and an atrocious 94th minute penalty call from Terry Vaughn). What happened?
Leaving aside the vagaries that can decide any soccer match — lucky bounces, slips, bad calls, etc — a major factor is that Dallas and Seattle just play different styles of soccer, and LA matches up against one better than the other.
It's been clear from the outset of his tenure with the Sounders that Sigi has been building around an offensive philosophy we affectionately refer to as Speedonthewings. It's a philosophy that he used to turn around the Crew when they went from 9-11-10 in 2007 to winning the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup in 2008. In a league as physical as the MLS with refs as reluctant to make calls as they are, the midfield can be a meatgrinder where good attacks go to die, a phenomenon we saw often enough when Freddie Ljungberg tried to penetrate. One solution is to simply go around the midfield on the flanks. And if you can go around it fast enough you can deliver the ball into dangerous positions before the defense has time to recover. With the Crew it was Robbie Rogers blazing around defensive backs and delivering the ball to Schelotto to make plays. With the Sounders, the hope was that Zakuani would be the distributor to Ljungberg as playmaker. But Freddie's problems were what they were, and after he was shipped out to Chicago the formation lost its advanced playmaker and became what we call the Bucket. Both central midfielders play a holding role and distribute to the flanks, where the wingers get behind and distribute to the two forwards up top. In short, it's an even more total commitment to speed on the wings as the offensive threat.
And what we saw from the two playoff matchups with LA is that if you can take away the wing play, the Sounders struggle to generate offense. With Donovan and Beckham heavily committed to defensive duties, Zakuani and Nyassi were starved of the ball and starved of good attacking opportunities when they had the ball. With Alonso and Sturgis too far back to effectively provide penetrating attacks for the forwards, it was Nkufo and Montero tracking all the way back to midfield to try to get possession of the ball, leaving just the other forward advanced in an attacking position and easily covered by the LA defense. When the wingers did get the ball and get an accurate cross in (which was rare enough), the dominant Omar Gonzalez swept up anything in the air.
FC Dallas, on the other hand, had a more balanced offense. While they do generate attacks on the wings (mostly through Brek Shea on the left), most of their attack comes straight down the gullet from MVP candidate David Ferreira. And LA once again was effective in neutralizing the wings, as Shea made very little contribution to the game. But their central defense was exposed time and again by Ferreira's speed and ability to distribute to Chavez and Atiba Harris. For every goal Dallas scored, there was a golden sitter that they missed. They could have left with 5 goals and not been considered fortunate. The Hoops had exposed the Galaxy's weakness: their soft underbelly. They had no defensive midfield presence as Magee and Juninho are not sufficiently defensive, and Omar's strength is not on his feet.
But it was a weakness that the Sounders couldn't exploit, because we don't have an attacking central midfield to exploit it. Alvaro Fernandez might have those skills, but he was sacrificed on the bench to preserve Nyassi's speed on the flank. Evans might have those skills, but he's lost for the season to injury. Ljungberg certainly had those skills, but he's busy in Chicago, likely looking for a ticket back to Europe. And the Sounders were left fighting to get the ball to Nyassi and Zak so they could fight through double teams to get their crosses comfortably headed away by Gonzalez. And left on the outside of the MLS playoffs looking in.
Looking forward to 2011, the Sounders most pressing need is to become less one-dimensional tactically and develop the ability to generate attacks from multiple areas on the field.