The Academies played California's Arsenal FC this morning in the cold drizzle at Starfire, and I thought I'd swing by to catch the U-18 match, which turned out to be a tale of two halves. It was a good showing from the homem side, with about 20-30 ECS (complete with drum and some flags) and about 20 other miscellaneous supporters along the sideline. I should also point out that I'll have to guess at the identities of a few of the players, since they seem to switch numbers and positions pretty routinely and the roster on the official site isn't always accurate. But I'm getting to the point where I can recognize most of them.
First some notes on the opponent. It'd be too easy to look at the authentic Arsenal red and whites — complete with Fly Emirates sponsorship — and assume that they'd play a short passing possession game that attacked through the middle. But in this case the easy assumption is the right one. The short passing sequences didn't always come off, as they obviously don't quite have the skill of their namesakes, but it was clear that they've been coached to play in that style. They had an attacking mentality, but were pretty happy to move the ball up incrementally and were rarely reduced to the big ball over the top. And if volume were rated as a goalkeeping tool (and it is by some) the Arsenal keeper would rate at about a 9. He was routinely berating his forwards for being out of position from 80 yards behind the play. He needs to pace himself, though — he started losing his voice about halfway through the second half.
But on to the game. As I said, it was two different halves. In the first, the Sounders weren't coping well with Arsenal's style. They were playing basically a 4-diamond-2 with a typical back 4, Troy Peterson in the defensive midfielder role breaking up plays, Jamael Cox in an attacking midfielder role, and Yedlin roaming the right sideline. Darwin Jones was paired up top with (I believe) Glen Paden as the target man, which he certainly has the size for.
But the forwards didn't see much of the ball, and neither did Cox in the middle. The Sounders had maybe 30-35% of the possession in the first half, and what attacks they did make were counterattacks up the flanks (mostly through Yedlin, but the left sideline also looked good — didn't catch his name or number) that weren't able to center effectively. Okoli's training with the senior team in Arizona, and it's possible his absence was being felt. Jones had a few nice touches in the right corner but the only dangerous development was a shot towards the end of the first that hit the post (didn't see who took it). I'd say the players of the first half were Herman, who had a tremendous diving save on a wide open shot from the top of the box, and the two centerbacks (Brockway and #23 — White or Robichaeu maybe?). They were well positioned all half and did an effective job clearing a way a lot pressure. The half finished 0-0.
Despite not making any tactical or personnel changes (that I could see), the Sounders came out of the halftime break like a different team. They did seem to be pressing more, but whether it was conditioning, a better mindset, more pressure, or just moving the other direction, they took Arsenal completely out of their game and had the better possession and chances through the rest of the game. Arsenal did get one clear chance halfway through the half, when a forward got though on a breakaway to go one-on-one with the keeper, but Herman did a great job coming out to cut the angle and spread-eagled to deflect the ball away with his knee.
Other than that it was all Sounders. The attack was still primarily up the flanks, but Cox was getting much more involved in the play to good effect. The deadlock was broken early in the second when he dropped a free kick in perfectly from about 30 yards out and it pinballed around the box before getting scrambled in (by someone. I didn't catch the scorer). That opened up the game even more for the Sounders as Arsenal started pressing and couldn't keep possession. Dominique Dismuke — who had subbed on for Paden midway through the half — was running rampant through the Arsenal defensive midfield and had three tremendous through balls that put Jones clear, but between some shanking of shots and good stops by the Arsenal keeper, none made it into the net.
The Sounders continued under little threat from Arsenal until the dying minute, when a hard foul on either Cox or Yedlin just outside the Arsenal box setup a free kick. Jones took it and steered it perfectly through the Arsenal wall into the side netting for a 2-0 lead, which lasted the few seconds remaining in the game.
For the game I'd say the most impressive players were Jones, who worked tirelessly all game and could have had 3 goals if he'd taken his chances better; Dismuke, who didn't have much time on the field (and was benefiting from an Arsenal team that were pressing) but looked very good on the ball; Herman, who had two big stops and distributed the ball well all game; and the centerbacks, who kept the Sounders under control in a tough first half.
Their next match is tomorrow at home versus the RSL Academy team. Then in two weeks they play two more away in California. And then they're off for a very long spring break until late May, when they pick back up for their last 5 matches well into the MLS season.