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The Mike Fucito Conundrum: No Such Thing As No Cost Upgrade

Mike Fucito may not be the biggest player, but he's shown an ability to match physicality with some of the better defenders in MLS.
Mike Fucito may not be the biggest player, but he's shown an ability to match physicality with some of the better defenders in MLS.

There might not be a segment of the Seattle Sounders fanbase more excited about Mike Fucito's recent coming out party. Almost as long as Sounder at Heart has been following a MLS, we have been signing his praises. And while it may seem counter-intuitive to question the gospel of #churchoffucito, I do feel compelled to take a tiny step back and ask: What's the cost of making Mike Fucito a full-time starter?

If you listened to Nos Audietis this week, you probably know where I'm going with this. We talked somewhat at length about whether or not Fucito should start this week against FC Dallas. Along the way, we discussed how best Fucito fits into this team.

Just to back up a little, I want to make it clear that I believe Mike Fucito represents the Sounders' best option as a second forward. In lieu of a clearly better option -- and no matter what you think of the other guys who are both healthy and have started there recently, I think we can agree there is no clearly better option -- I feel as though the payoff of using a forward tandem of Fucito-Fredy Montero is worth the costs.

But let's not pretend there are no costs.

The biggest and most conspicuous cost that comes from Fucito getting more playing time is the lack of a true ball-winner at forward. Admittedly, of the three other players who are apparently in the mix at this position, only two of them are real "ball-winners." In any case, as much as we may point out that Fucito has very good jumping ability, he's just not a big guy and watching him play, I don't think anyone can reasonably claim that he's winning a lot of duels. 

That said, in looking at the five games in which he has started, the Sounders only won less than 50 percent of the duels in one of them. In the two games before he got his first start and the three after -- I basically just wanted to look at games around the same time he was playing -- the Sounders won a very similar number of duels (51.6 with him as opposed to 53.4 without him). Obviously, five games is a ridiculously small sample size, but at least we can say that simply having Fucito on the field does not doom the Sounders to ceding an inordinate number of 50/50 balls.

There is one rather significant asterisk when talking about those games, though. In four of them, Brad Evans was patrolling the central midfield. In the one he didn't, the Sounders won just 47 percent of the duels. As it so happened, Evans did not play in any of the five other games I looked at. Again, we're talking about an absurdly small sample size, but I thought it was worth noting.

A somewhat related statistic is possession percentage. It seems a reasonable argument to make that as long as you're holding more possession, you can afford to win a few less duels. Here we see a perfectly acceptable tradeoff, as in the five games Fucito started the Sounders held an average 54.6 percent of the possession, as opposed to an average of 51.8 percent in the other five games. In the one game where Evans didn't start along with Fucito, though, the Sounders held just 44 percent of the possession. That was a road game at Real Salt Lake, though, so it's hard to say how much of that was tactical.

The other area where it would to be a tradeoff to have Fucito on the field is on set-piece defense. Interestingly, this has not borne out. The Sounders have not surrendered a set-piece goal in any of the five games in which Fucito has started and they actually have a better goals against average in those five games (0.80) than in the rest of their games this season (1.10). Small sample-size caveat obviously goes with these stats as well.

While we're looking at all these numbers, I should also point out that the Sounders offense was not particularly good during the five-game stretch that Fucito played. We do however have goal numbers from his two other starts this season, against the Kitsap Pumas in the U.S. Open Cup and, of course, Comunicaciones in CONCACAF Champions League. If we factor in the six goals the Sounders combined for in those two games, we have the Sounders scoring 11 goals in seven games or an average of 1.57 per game or slightly more than the 1.52 the Sounders average in all their other competitive games.

There's no question that we lack anywhere close to enough data to make any kind of definitive statements regarding Fucito's effect on the overall team. Looking at the information we do have, I'm tempted to say that the Sounders are better of with someone like Brad Evans in the central midfield than Erik Friberg if Fucito and Montero are your forwards.

We're feeling pretty good about our projection that Fucito will start on Saturday. Considering Evans is still coming back from an injury and just went 90 minutes on Tuesday, it seems a bit much to ask for him to play again so soon. Maybe Sigi tries to get a little more out of Alvaro Fernandez by playing him against Dallas and Monterrey, but that seems unlikely.

More realistically, we expect to see a lineup that features an attacking core of Montero, Fucito, Lamar Neagle, Friberg and Mauro Rosales. There's not a light of size there. There is a lot of speed and technical ability, though. This would be a new look for the Sounders, but when you belong to a church, sometimes you need to just have faith.

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