The lineup was unchanged from last weekend, but for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado returning and sending Patrick Ianni to the bench. 4-3-3 was hinted at, but the formation was also the same as last week, with Mauro Rosales in the 2nd striker/playmaker role. Early returns indicate that #10 is the player that Freddie Ljungberg was supposed to be: a pedigreed play-maker useful as both a withdrawn forward or right wing/mid.
O'Brian White led the line and the good news is he is showing he is useful as a striker who can work in different types of partnerships, as his work with Nate Jaqua, who came on for Rosales in the 64', clearly demonstrated. Jaqua adopted his usual target man role, allowing OBW to play as a striker in the classic sense of the term: a forward who wants to run into space and peel off defenders rather than post them up. His size and hustle facilitate his abilities to be both this and the nominal "target man" in the formation.
In the center of midfield, if it is not clear that Brad Evans - a rare, and true, box-to-box midfielder - has clearly won the spot next to and in front of Osvaldo Alonso, I'm not sure what else needs to happen. The debate seems to only exist in the minds of some fans, and by now it should be clear from over two years of watching this team that in this system, attacking mids will take up wide roles. Steve Zakuani is a lock on the left; and it has been said here before and it will be said here again that he can do things on the ball that no-one else on the roster can do, and few in MLS seem capable of. He is not a shuttling, box-to-box left mid, but an attacking player who can unlock defenses: sometimes frustrating, always entertaining.
Erik Friberg, on the right, is a solid option - and starting calibre for sure - but at this point looks to lack the pedigree of Rosales - who likes to go right himself - and may lose his spot when Fredy Montero returns, but we shall see. This is not and should not be seen as a knock on Friberg, who had another worthy effort yesterday.
The lock that Leo Gonzalez and James Riley have on their respective fullback positions is due somewhat to lack of depth - more so in Gonzo's case, however, as again yesterday Riley was the better of the two as a defender. Both men did what they needed to in the attack, with Gonzo particularly contributing well.
Jeff Parke and Hurtado gave a mostly undramatic performance as center backs, which in the parlance of describing that position is actually a good thing. Hurtado was steady and rarely out of his place. I had initial concerns about the porosity of the Sounders back 4, but re-watching the match on TV showed me that midfield breakdowns are more often than not the cause for alarm, and not the defense per se. Good attacks will unlock even the best defenses, and the Sounders are no different.
In the 81', holding a late 1-goal lead, Sigi seemed to switch to a 4-3-2-1 when he brought on Servando Carrasco for OBW. With Jaqua as a center forward, Friberg and Zakuani formed an amorphous band of two attacking mids in front of the three holders of Ozzie, Evans, and Carrasco.
The Sounders played a sparkling first half and it got going almost from the off. In the 5' a Rosales flick-on became cause for concern to Chicago's Corey Gibbs due to OBW's pursuit, but his chance was collected by Sean Johnson.
Shortly thereafter, Zakuani one-timed a loose ball out of the air to Rosales in space on the right. Rosales used a run up the line by Friberg as a dummy, freezing the defense long enough to hook a cross into the box. OBW, who was calling for the ball, beat two Fire defenders and headed it with power and precision from 16 yards out just inside the right post. Johnson didn't even dive for it... the header was that good. The Sounders were up 1-0 in the 7'.
Then they immediately set about giving it away. Just a minute later, Zakuani tried to force a pass that was easily intercepted at the half-way line. Alonso found himself facing up to two Chicago attackers, Patrick Nyarko and Gaston Puerari, and couldn't stop the pass from the latter to the former, then having to scramble back to try to help cover. Puerari sent it through for Nyarko, and Gonzo was little more than a moving traffic cone, which allowed Nyarko to send in a dangerous low cross. Parke fell down on the play - I never got a good look as to why or how - but this gave Diego Chavez the opportunity to expertly slot it into the far corner, giving Keller no chance.
But the Sounders kept pounding away, and we began to see some good interchanges between Zakuani and OBW. Evans was getting active in the box and winning headers, one of which created a corner. In fact, the Sounders were getting periods of sustained pressure and winning corners regularly, and in the 20' Alonso expertly shut down a Chicago counter after one such sequence.
In the 23' Zakuani found OBW up the left line, but he soon found his progress blocked and turned back to drop it off to Gonzo, who then sent in a cross which was won and flicked on by Rosales, setting up Friberg to knock it into the open net. Every person in Qwest seemed stunned when it was sent over the bar, and a glorious opportunity went begging.
Fortunately it wasn't long before Zakuani and OBW hooked up again. Just a minute later Ozzie intercept a pass near the half-line and found Zakuani on the left, who then held off two defenders before splitting them with a pass to OBW. Under-pressure, OBW sent a one-timer vertically up the pitch with the outside of his right boot, and Zakuani beat Jalil Anibaba to it, keeping the defender on his shoulder as he steamed goalward. For a moment, he looked to have Friberg open in the middle, but a quick reaction by Johnson to slide out took this away, and instead Zakuani slotted it left footed right by him and just inside the near post.
The Sounders continued to be the better team as the half wore on. At one point, a service from Friberg and another header won by Evans in the box resulted in another corner, which Parke nearly converted with a well-won header, albeit straight to Johnson.
In the 44', another Chicago counter nearly caught the Sounders defense out, but Chavez headed over the bar, and the deserved lead was preserved for half-time.
Last week against San Jose the Sounder team which built a 2-1 halftime lead never really returned for the 2nd 45'. Yesterday, however, this was not the case. From the off, the Sounders continued creating, Zakuani sending a chip across the goal mouth, Evans continuing well-timed runs, and Rosales shifting and providing from the right with regularity. At times it did look somewhat 4-3-3, with Rosales on the right wing and Friberg as a roving attacking mid.
It would be Keller's turn to step up with 3 great saves in a 10-minute span, the first coming in the 58' when a Fire free kick was fired into the wall, resulting in a series of deflections which eventually resulted in the ball landing at Chaves' feet. His shot forced Keller to lay out to his left and push wide before being hustled over the end line. The next came in the 61' when he was quick off his line to close down on Puerari, who had been sent in on a through ball which pierced the Sounders defense. In the 66' Keller was on the spot as a deflected clearance attempt nearly led to disaster.
Despite that flurry of Chicago chances, in the midst the Sounders still had the better of play. Ozzie cracked a 35-yarder which looked just wide but nonetheless forced Johnson to deal with it and created a corner. Evans should have won a free kick just outside the box, and the sustained pressure eventually ended when Riley sent a poor attempt well over the bar. Jaqua entered for Rosaless and immediately flicked a header into the path of OBW.
The Sounders continued their positive play, with a rare Chicago advance in the 74' seeing Nyarko dribble his way into nothing. The free haircut certainly looked likelier than a Fire equalizer as the half wore on.
In the 75', Jaqua sent a long diagonal pass floating over the head of Logan Pause and dropping into space for Zakuani in full flight. A less than ideal first touch took away some of Zakuani's angle and allowed Pause to regain a step in coverage. Zakuani nevertheless turned him, and appeared to have OBW available but instead sent it wide of the far post. On the whole, it seemed as though the chance could've been better, and Zakuani may once again have been guilty of the one-to-many-touches-in-the-box syndrome. Enough can't be said of the service from Jaqua, however, who has a bit of a pedigree of such passes and demonstrated his unique target-man play-making ability.
OBW and Jaqua were working well together until the gassed OBW was brought off for Carrasco. Even in a more defensive shape the chances continued, with Jaqua feeding Carrasco who shot wide. There was some end-to end as Chicago dug for the equalizer, and the Fire earned a free kick just outside the box on what may or may not have been a foul by Gonzo, who's bad card luck continued when he was shown a silly yellow (one wonders when such things will be reviewed and cards perhaps amended after matches). Fortunately, the chance was completely wasted.
As stoppage time started Carrasco may have been fortunate to avoid a straight red for a reckless over-the-ball, studs-up challenge on Nyarko. One wonders what thinking went through the mind of referee Hilario Grajeda, who had watched Nyarko go to ground a bit dramatically before during the match.
The final touches saw Ozzie win a ball at midfield before embarking on a dribble which resulted in a cheeky chip attempt from distance, but sailed over the bar.
The Sounders finally got the result they "deserved." They did enough...
It was the first win since October 15th, and three points at home - although expected - should always be enjoyed.
It is worth noting that both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas started last year with 4 points through their fist 5 matches, and both could quite rightfully be said to have finished the year among the League's three best.
It appears that this team has turned a corner, and we can hope an extended unbeaten run - or at least a 2+ PPM run for a month or so - may be in the cards, and we have reason to do so.