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Living and dying with the cross

A look at Seattle's newfound affection for attacking via deep crosses from the flanks, and whether it only works when one particular player is on the field.

Otto Greule Jr

Here Lies Speedonthewings

b. 2009 - d. 2011

Through the short history of the Seattle Sounders in MLS, they have had two offensive strategies: 1) rely on Fredy Montero's magic and 2) something else. Montero is a wizard on the ball, has one of the best shots in the league — both in the box and from distance — and can be deadly on free kicks. But he also has limitations, which is why he isn't playing in La Liga right now. He's not big, he's not fast (especially on the dribble), and his overconfidence in his own ball control encourages him to routinely dribble into packs of two or three defenders, which inevitably leads to lost possession. Plus he's occasionally injured or unfit (although one of his other great traits is that both of those are very rare. His ability to play game in and game out is woefully underappreciated by Sounders fans). So we need that something else.

For the first two years in the league, that something else was affectionately referred to as speedonthewings (spoken very fast for effect). With Steve Zakuani on the left and Sanna Nyassi on the right, Seattle routinely burned opposing fullbacks on either side. The look of horror on a rookie right back's face when Zakuani lined up with the ball and started accelerating was one of the great joys of the 2009 and 2010 seasons. And once one of the wingers got by the first defender into space near the backline, there were an array of options. They could cut into the box to threaten their own shot, they could cut the ball back to the top of the box to a player that's been left open by a panicked defense, or they could drop a short cross to the other side of the goal. Once you're hanging out in the opponents box without a defender on you, lots of good options open up. It was a strategy with limitations, however. In the 2010 playoffs Seattle was completely shut down by the LA Galaxy who were able to cut off service to the wingers and bottle them up. The Seattle central midfielders were ball winners and holders and weren't likely to generate any offensive threat on their own, so the forwards were left isolated and Seattle failed to score a goal in the series.

In the 2011 preseason Seattle lost Nyassi in the expansion draft (after being left exposed, it was believed, to protect James Riley and Mike Fucito) and they got a golden opportunity to sign Mauro Rosales on the cheap. I doubt there was an intentional strategy change, but if a player with Ajax and River Plate on the resume drops into your lap for barely above the league minimum salary, that's a move you make. But Rosales is not fast. His value is in service, and so the right wing became a source for crosses into the box. Shortly thereafter, Brian Mullan broke Zakuani's leg in a horrific tackle. And while Alvaro Fernandez had some evasiveness and speed on the left, it wasn't at the level of Zakuani so speedonthewings began to surrender to cross-from-the-wings as the offensive strategy of choice. That transformation accelerated in 2012 when Adam Johansson was added at right back and Marc Burch at left back. Both were offensive minded defenders known for their crossing ability. And when Fernandez was let go to make room for Christian Tiffert in the middle and the left wing speed was completely abandoned, the transformation was complete. Speed on the wings was dead and now the Seattle offense, when it wasn't relying on Montero, was relying on pumping the ball into the box from the flanks.

Punting it in from the wings is an offensive strategy that has a solid pedigree, especially in England. Unfortunately for Seattle, it has two components. First you need accurate crossers from the flanks. With Rosales, Johansson, Burch, and even new addition Mario Martinez, the Sounders have that in depth. But at the other end, you need players who can win headers in the box.

Tall, Dark, and Handsome (Dark and Handsome Optional)

The hunt for a target man in Seattle after Nate Jaqua started to fade in 2010 is a depressing, comical tale. Clearly even with speedonthewings in full force, Sigi wanted a big man in the box to take pressure off of Montero and add another attacking dimension. In mid-2010 that led to a DP contract for Swiss international Blaise Nkufo, another legend in the Dutch league (he has a statue!) who was fresh off playing in the 2010 World Cup. But the relationship was rocky and in the 2011 preseason he was released from his contract literally minutes before the start of the season — I learned about it over Twitter on my smartphone while waiting for the national anthem to start in the season opener — completing his career with Seattle with only 11 league appearances.

Fortunately (or perhaps with some foreknowledge) Seattle had picked up O'Brian White in an offseason trade with Vancouver, who had selected him in their expansion draft. After showing promise in a handful of early appearances, his tenure (and likely his career) was cut short by a seemingly minor injury that revealed a blood clotting disorder. Jaqua was still on the roster but increasingly ineffective and the hunt continued. Cillian Sheridan, a 6'5" Irish international, trialed for the club in midseason but never made the roster. In August, Seattle picked up US youth international Sammy Ochoa in the allocation draft, but Ochoa arrived out of shape and wasn't ready to consistently contribute in the 2011 season. The playoffs were once again a failure, though more for defensive than offensive reasons.

In the 2012 preseason, Seattle stumbled onto another diamond when they picked up Eddie Johnson, fresh off of European football but with no suitors. Johnson is not traditionally a target man. Earlier in his career, including on the US national team, he was a speedy forward who beat defenders on the dribble. But Seattle wanted a target man and Eddie had the athleticism to give it a go. And it went. He was a revelation for Seattle, as all of those accurate crosses from Rosales and the fullbacks suddenly had a target who could rise up and connect with them. And it continues to work well enough, when Johnson is playing. But that obscures an underlying problem, which is that Seattle shifted more and more of their offense to a strategy that only worked when a single player was on the field, and even then only occasionally. Ochoa dominated Cup play, but for whatever reason he couldn't replicate that form in the League. Thanks to a long term injury to target man prospect Babayele Sodade, the forward depth after Ochoa is David Estrada and then. . Rosales? Cordell Cato? There are no more target men.

That fact was on shocking display in Carson on Sunday. Seattle deployed a 4-5-1, presumably to clog up the midfield with depth and prevent Galaxy possession in the midfield. It worked well enough in the midfield for a while, but a professional soccer team can't function if it has no threat on goal, and the decision to deploy 5'9" Fredy Montero as a lone forward against Omar Gonzalez, one of the most dominant aerial center backs in the league, was an enormous risk. And it was only going to work if the offense adjusted to avoid high crosses. They did not. The team attempted 16 non-corner crosses in the game, of which 3 were successful. One was a switching ball across the box. Another was a Martinez chip from inside the box in the last seconds of the match. During the run of play Seattle connected with 1 cross from the wing into the box, despite trying 12 times. In contrast, the team completed two (2) through balls. This is with 5 midfielders on the field, most of whom are very offensively minded. The Galaxy completed 32 passes in the offensive third. Seattle completed 8. Five of those were backwards. That's right. In the entire match Seattle completed three forward passes in the offensive third. The offense was a failure.

This didn't work.

Warning Signs

The success of the Eddie Johnson experiment has obscured the fact that the Sounders newfound reliance on crosses has potentially harmed the offense overall. Last season, even without a target man for most of the year, Seattle scored 56 goals to lead the league. This season, they scored 51. Part of the problem is that the rest of the offense in the league got better — 51 was only good for 5th in the league in 2012 and even last year's 56 would have been 4th. But a bigger part is that Seattle's offense got marginally worse even though there's no good reason based on personnel. Montero continues to grow and finished with 1 more goal this year than last. Eddie Johnson was pure upside who more than made up for the loss of Fernandez' for half of the season. Rosales got a little older but he only dropped off by 2 goals. The problem wasn't the players, it was the tactics. According to Opta, Seattle scored 10 run of play goals off of crosses. That's a good total, third behind only Sporting's 12 and San Jose's 13. But they scored only 16 off of 'Regular Passes'. That's 13th in the league, tied with Portland and behind such offensive luminaries as the New England Revolution (22) and Colorado Rapids (23). Goals from midfield disappeared, presumably because midfielders don't have time to get into the box when the offense is based on early crosses from the wings. We quietly transformed into a Punt 'n Pray team.

Here's some data via the Opta stats. The raw data is shown in the table for your perusal. Seattle took over 15% of its shots as shots off of crosses in the run of play. That's substantially higher than the leaguewide average of just over 10%. Meanwhile, non-cross run of play service created just 56% of shots compared to 63% for the rest of the league. You can see the attraction. League-wide, the strike rate for shots off of run of play crosses is 14% versus 9% for shots generated off of other kinds of service in the run of play (meaning we're leaving out corners, free kicks, penalties, throw ins, etc). And Seattle does better for both types, with a strike rate of 10.5% for non-crosses and 15.4% for crosses. That's the kind of increased production that encourages teams to build around that strategy. But the Sounders' problem is that it only works with one recipient of those crosses. Eddie Johnson has scored 6 goals on 25 shots generated from crosses for a stellar 24% strike rate. But the rest of the team has scored 4 in 40 for 10%. That's pretty bad. It's much worse than league average on crosses and on par with shots generated from non-crosses. And without doing the digging, I suspect that a number of those came with Johnson on the field drawing defensive attention, and that our average without EJ even on the pitch is even worse.

MLS Seattle Eddie
Shots 8180 427
From Crosses 844 (10.3%) 65 (15.2%) 25 40
- Scored 119 (14%) 10 (15.4%) 6 4
Other Service 5156 (63%) 239 (56%) 32 207
- Scored 467 (9%) 25 (10.5%) 4 21

And besides being a strategy deeply dependent on a position where we're one deep, it's one that can be countered by teams with dominant center backs who could maintain air superiority. Against Real Salt Lake, featuring Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers, Seattle scored precisely 1 goal in 5 matches this season. That goal was a big one, earning the Sounders' first playoff series victory, and it came from an entry pass to the top of the box that Montero flicked out to Mario Martinez — notably not a punted cross from the wing. Against San Jose featuring their newfound titan Victor Bernardez, Seattle scored 3 goals in 4 matches (including their 1-0 USOC win). None of them came on crosses from the wing. Against Los Angeles and Omar Gonzalez, Seattle seems to have found more luck with two home wins. But the first 2-0 win came when Gonzalez was still out injured and the 4-0 win came on only his second full game back from injury. In the final meeting of the regular season, Seattle was shut out.

Admittedly, these are very good teams (and perhaps the correlation between having a dominant center back and being a very good team is something to pay attention to). Any team would struggle to score against them. But Seattle has intentionally repositioned itself as a team that will founder against them. There are teams in MLS that can pump the ball into the box and score reliably, even against good defenses. Those are teams with height across the front line. Houston with Will Bruin, Brian Ching, Cam Weaver, and (in previous years) Geoff Cameron was a team noted for it. Sporting KC with CJ Sapong, Kei Kamara, and (on set pieces) Aurelien Collin is deadly in the air. San Jose can do it because they have Alan Gordon as a like-for-like replacement for Steven Lenhart (except in douchiness). Seattle is not those teams. We have exactly one player who's consistently good in the air, and yet we organize our offense as if we were loaded with them.

This Sunday we'll have Johnson back. And we'll likely have Rosales back. Those plus a whole lot of luck would give us a chance to climb out of the massive hole we're in against Los Angeles. But the fact that we're so reliant on crosses is something that needs to be dealt with for the long term success of the team, either by making sure we have significant depth in both crossers and cross targets or by making sure we have alternative routes of attack and that the players understand when lobbing in crosses from the wings isn't working and they need to try something else.

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