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Sounders Midfield Depth Provides Opportunity For Tactical Rotation, Role Shifting

Alvaro Fernandez' adjustments to MLS play provide Sigi Schmid with more options in his crowded 2012 midfield.
Alvaro Fernandez' adjustments to MLS play provide Sigi Schmid with more options in his crowded 2012 midfield.

If there is one thing learned in 2011 it is that the Seattle Sounders staff knows how to find and utilize midfielders. From a defensive midfielder who grew into more, to MVP quality play from a minimum salary player who bought into the phrase "trust us" the team is stacked with talent in central third. Talent that nominally operates in two and a half bands. While the forward tandem blunted the Arrow, in the midfield despite rotation and injury still looked like a giant Y with a CDM, CM and two Wingers more responsible for attack than defense.

If those wings were Steve Zakuani and Alvaro Fernandez, or Lamar Neagle and Mauro Rosales all played higher than a typical wide midfielder in a nominal 4-4-2. Nearly 3rd and 4th forwards their skills all tend to the offensive side of things. Behind them there rested a Central Mid roaming from box-to-box. Brad Evans and Erik Friberg weren't the point of the attack nor were they stoppers. Instead they worked as engines, controlling pace of play, pushing the ball wide in the attack and making late runs to threaten goal. Lurking in the back Osvaldo Alonso turned from a typical holding or defensive midfielder into a 6-to-6 player whose strong defense stopped many in opposition, while his strong development in passing and more accurate shooting contributed to the offense.

These seven men, and their backups provide many options for 2011 both in rotation and shape and may contain the keys to unlocking an even better 2012. This off-season will form not just a potent team for next year, but maybe extend the window of success to 2013 as well. Sigi Schmid and Adrian Hanauer hold choices in their hands, and what they do will determine much about Seattle's goals of two major trophies in their next campaign.

Seattle's lack of use of the CAM, or traditional #10, in a diamond shape may limit their options a bit. Rosales ball control would seem well suited to that shape, but with the other three primarily wide midfielders being so strong in width, in ball control and diagonal runs, forcing them to be narrow shifts the Sounders away from what they did so well. It would also greatly reduce a few of Mauro's assets - speed on direct play down the flank and his ability to one time cross the ball accurately.

Instead of changing the shape of the midfield, the focus should be on how to get the most talent on the field from the strong core of midfield players while possibly opening up salary room. With a million dollars of cap space in those six players, plus a large hit certain for Rosales there is salary pressure from the crowded midfield that in some ways indicates that a trade is needed. In Sigi Schmid's final day of media availability he noted that.

It could be crowded. That’s something we’re talking about now. We also want to improve ourselves in some areas so that might require some changes also. Sometimes if you have to make trades or you have to make changes, sometimes you give away from an area that you have some depth in order to acquire something from an area that you don’t enough depth in, so that’s where we’re at.

Most of that depth is on the wings. If Steve Zakuani can recover to even a Neagle level of talent Seattle goes beyond having three-man tactical rotation options like they have at forward, but into the realm of too much depth of starting quality. That would be true even without further developments by young players such as Micahel Tetteh (who could still wind-up at left wing), Servando Carrasco (CDM), Mike Seamon (CM/CDM) and David Estrada (RW, CAM, RB?).

Alvaro Fernandez' limited, but successful, times as a central midfielder intrigue many fans, including several writers here. His passing ability and vision are better than both of the other CM options, no matter how you rate them. Over the past season plus Flaco has demonstrated an ability to adjust to the physical nature of MLS, and is clearly succeeding. There is though another option, rather than go inside, could he go up top? His recent interest from the Uruguay national team listed him as a forward, though he does seem more suited to that role in a 3 forward system. Schmid has indicated that an outside player may find their role shifted.

Guys from outside could end up going forward. Guys from inside could go backward. We have to look at how we can make our team just a little bit better to get over the hump and get ourselves a Supporters’ Shield and a MLS Cup. That’s our goal for next year and if we can take the Champions League along the way we’re certainly not going to turn that down. It’s something that we’re going to discuss. It’s what we’ll be doing as a coaching staff, as a technical group, as an ownership group, looking at what are the options available to us that can take us that next step.

Alvaro said that any questions about his role should be directed to the coach. "Wherever he puts me I'll be happy to play and I'll do my best, and I think I'll be fine."

There are two central players that could make the backwards transition. One from the ranks of starter, and the other from the young backups. Sigi experimented with several unnatural defenders and converting them to a right back over the past two seasons. Roger Levesque even started a handful of games there. Moving Levesque would not change the fortunes of the First Team. Moving Brad Evans or Carrasco might.

Evans time there isn't impressive so far, but he has yet to start a training camp with learning that role as his goal. So far his successes there are due to strong tactical awareness and tenacity, not education. Where James Riley offers speed and crossing ability, a trained Evans at right back could improve tactical posture and aerial defensive abilities. Moving Carrasco would strengthen overall defense. He's the least likely to get forward in the group and could improve protection on the counter.

For a team stacked in the midfield, oddly there are only two assured starters in their familiar roles. Alonso and Rosales seem certain to be on the team and dominating their roles again. How the rest of the four man midfield works out is an unknown. While Seattle may lose a player (expansion, trade, declined option) from this element of the core, changes in use seem certain. How things change is unknown.

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