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Defense takes center stage

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Leo Gonzalez's play on the back line was one of the major factors in the Sounders having their best defensive game of the season.
Leo Gonzalez's play on the back line was one of the major factors in the Sounders having their best defensive game of the season.

The Sounders of 2009 vintage were essentially defensive standard-bearers. With a .97 goals-against-average, the unit was tied for the stingiest in MLS. Sounders keepers were forced to make just 81 saves, second fewest in the league, and their 10 clean sheets were tied for second best.

Almost no matter how you choose to measure defensive success, the Sounders of 2009 were among the best.

Such has not been the case this season.

Prior to Saturday's game, only four teams had given up more goals per game than the Sounders, though the defense was still doing a decent job at stopping shots on goal (essentially middle of the pack).

So it was with much relief that the Sounders of yesteryear finally showed up on Saturday, surprisingly enough on the road against a team that had been perfect at home entering the match.

"Obviously anytime you pick up a win it picks up everybody's spirits and so from that standpoint it was very important," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "But it was a little bit of going back to basics, rolling up our sleeves. I thought we did a better job marking inside the 18-yard boxes."

Shutting down the Red Bulls in the 18-yard box, though, was really just the tip of the iceberg. The Sounders also did an impressive job of keeping the ball off the feet of New York's main offensive threats, did an outstanding job of making sure neither Joel Lindpere or Juan Pablo Angel got the ball in space and limited the number of set pieces the bigger side was able to run. 

The results were rather impressive: New York got only one shot on goal, was limited to three-and-a-half dangerous set pieces (meaning corner kicks or free kicks in the offensive third) and Angel and Lindpere were rendered so ineffective that neither player rarely even threatened to be dangerous.  I counted a total of six scoring opportunities for the Red Bulls, none of which materialized into anything that was particularly noteworthy and only one of which actually resulted in a shot on goal.

The back line of Leo Gonzalez, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Tyrone Marshall and James Riley deserve a big chunk of the credit for that effort. All four players had numerous highlights, with Gonzalez in particular, having one of his best games ever in Rave Green.

Gonzalez was constantly kicking balls away to safety, making slide tackles to break up Red Bulls runs and generally creating havoc in New York's offensive third.

"We knew going into the game that it was going to be tough and a complex game," Gonzalez said through a translator. "We prepared ourselves to get ready for that and the way the coach told us to play was 11 defending and 11 on offense and that was how we played. That was our strategy going into it."

The Sounders defense was especially stout after Fredy Montero's goal gave them the lead in the 85th minute.

Lindpere and Angel were each limited to one touch in the offensive third after that point. It actually came on the same sequence and served as a near-perfect summation of the way the Sounders forced the Red Bulls to run their offense through their lesser playmakers.

In the 4th minute of stoppage time, Lindpere got the ball just outside the penalty area and was immediately marked. He was able to get the ball to Angel, who tried to get off a quick shot from the top of the arc. But Hurtado and Marshall immediately collapsed on him and the ball was scooted away before it was ever a real danger.

That was pretty indicative of a match in which Lindpere and Angel were each allowed to touch the ball once with space (meaning they able to face the goal and make a move without a defender impeding their progress) in the offensive third.

The Sounders' play in the final 10 minutes or so of the game was in stark contrast to the last three games in which Seattle had late leads. In the Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas games, the opponents were able to tie the score with stoppage time goals. In the Kansas City game, Keller had to make a diving save only seconds after the Sounders had scored a stoppage time goal of their own.

"The difference here was that we stayed really focused and stayed really concentrated the whole game," Gonzalez said. "In previous games we've let our concentration slip in the final minutes where they've gotten some goals. So this game was just staying concentrated the whole time."

The change at the end of the game was also strategic. In the Dallas match, for instance, the Sounders tried to hold the lead through more of a bunker mentality. Although the tying penalty kick was probably not deserved, the fact was that Dallas was allowed to attack the goal in the final minutes.

"We wanted to make sure we extended our line of pressure," Schmid said. "We had a couple combinations. We almost picked up a second goal there off the one where Ljungberg gets in and the defender gets there just before Zakuani gets there. A couple good runs from Zakuani to hold the ball in the corner. That took a little steam out of it. I thought we did a better job of continuing to apply pressure to the ball and not letting them just serve balls into the box."

Another part of the gameplan was limiting the number of set pieces New York was allowed to run. The Sounders have allowed seven of their 12 goals either directly or indirectly off set pieces -- three on corners, two on penalty kicks, one off a free kick and another one two quick touches after a throw-in.

On all three of the corners, the Sounders have had trouble matching up with the bigger players on opposing teams, of which New York has an abundance.

Aerial aptitude was actually the reason Patrick Ianni got the start over Nathan Sturgis in the midfield. As it turned out, though, the Sounders gave New York just two corner kicks, one free kick from just outside the area and another from more than 50 yards out (that was the half set piece I referred to earlier).

Of those, Angel's free kick sailed high, but it appeared as if Keller was well positioned to stop it anyway; only one of the corners found its target, but didn't even get on goal; and the Lindpere free kick from far out was never dangerous.

"Off the run of play, we hadn't been giving up that many goals," Schmid said. "So we needed to make sure we concentrated on the set pieces and I thought we did a better job of marking on the corners.

"I thought we did a better job of slowing them down. I thought we were more compact defensively. I thought our lines were pushed up higher. So we were able to put more pressure on the ball, and they weren't able to settle and get into a good passing rhythm or passing routine."

In all, this game was a huge departure from the Galaxy match in which mental lapses helped contribute to three of the four goals. If this is the Sounders defense we see the rest of the year, making the playoffs won't be much of a concern.