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Converting an Impressive Loss into a Learning Opportunity

The Sounders are generally going to come up short when they attempt to win an aerial duel at midfield.  Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE
The Sounders are generally going to come up short when they attempt to win an aerial duel at midfield. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

Yes. I was impressed by the Sounders' performance last Saturday against San Jose. Fielding a starting lineup cobbled together out of spare parts and held together by bubble gum and bailing wire, Sigi Schmid and the Sounders put in a noteworthy effort against San Jose's first team Starting Eleven. When Jhon Kennedy Hurtado went down at halftime, the Sounders were without the services of 11 men on their 30 man roster. Six of their opening day eleven players were not on the pitch. Five games into a new season, over one-third of their team was unavailable. A lesser quality side could have been decimated. Yet, if not for an extremely soft penalty call, the Sounders would have earned a draw. At no point during the evening were the Sounders ever out of the game or outclassed. They remained dangerous, defensively sound and generated offensive opportunities up to the final whistle.

Contrary to many opinions, the Sounders did not look ugly -- they appeared disjointed. Those are very different things. The LA Galaxy's 3-1 loss at home to the New England Revolution was ugly. The second half performance in Torreon was ugly. Saturday's gutsy performance was not ugly. It demonstrated the quality of the Sounders' depth and character. The mistakes the Sounders made on Saturday can be rectified with time and subtle adjustments. Good teams have off nights. The LA Galaxy are a mess, but the lineup the Sounders fielded last week can work with a bit more time together.

The Sounders should not be content. They lost the game. But they should not cower in shame, either. Saturday's performance has the hallmarks of a champion's loss; no MLS team was ever going to finish the 2012 season with a 34-0-0 record. There is too much parity, particularly within the Western Conference. Expectations that the Sounders will ride roughshod over any team in this league are unrealistic. Expectations that the Sounders will control the run of play for 90 minutes every game are naive. Their opponents are proud professionals with quality skills, and a hard fought 1-0 loss allows for learning and growth. It is a coachable moment. Break it down and the caliber of this team shines.

The first issue of the night was the goal. Marc Burch had a mental lapse. He knows it and freely admits it. Steven Lenhart plays a psychological game. The Sounders were warned to guard against his antics, yet Burch still fell victim to Lenhart. In a game of inches, small lapses matter -- Saturday's loss of points codifies this fact. It is an elegant reminder to the team that their concentration can't waiver. Whether the penalty will generally be awarded or not is irrelevant, it was awarded and within the rules of the game. The manner in which Sigi and Marc Burch accepted responsibility for the issue speaks to the caliber of the team. A lesser team would have taken the conveniently marked exit. The Sounders did not. They made a mistake and learned from it.

Saturday also demonstrated that the Sounders cannot play an aerial duel in the midfield. Their game relies on ground possession. Osvaldo Alonso, Servando Carrasco, Fredy Montero, David Estrada, Mauro Rosales, Alvaro Fernandez and Alex Caskey give up too much height and mass to be consistently effective winning aerial contests near the midline. Brad Evans compensates for this somewhat, but the simple fact is that the Sounders will be far more effective advancing the ball on the turf. San Jose won the aerial contests at midfield and when they did they controlled possession.

The central midfield also struggled because Carrasco and Ozzie need to adjust their game relative to each other more effectively. Up until Saturday night, the two usually find themselves on the pitch together only as a late game defensive tactic. In Saturday's game they drifted into the same space too often and effectively cancelled each other out on occasion. Neither player looked bad individually. The comments that Carrasco had a bad night are not accurate. The issue was how the two men work together when they are asked to work as the starting central midfield pair. This is coachable. Interestingly, the solution might actually be to move Ozzie forward into the more Box-to-Box Midfield role, rather than Carrasco. Ozzie's experience and skill set would probably be more effective in the B2B role than Carrasco. Yes, Ozzie is the better Defensive Center Mid, but as a pairing they might work best with Ozzie in the B2B role.

Fortunately, Saturday's game demonstrated that this experiment may not be necessary. Alex Caskey has displaced Michael Seamon on the depth chart and Saturday he showed why. For the second game in a row, Caskey made the 18, and on Saturday he made his MLS debut when he was substituted on for Carrasco. Caskey is a more offensive-minded center mid and his creativity and touch became readily apparent. Late in the game he dropped a gorgeous curving pass forward into the box to create a Seattle scoring opportunity. The pass was notable for a number of reasons. Unlike much of Seattle's traditional attack, the pass came from the central midfield and had a strong vertical element. It was deftly feathered into the run of the attacking player. And it showed great creative vision. It was also a pass that we never saw from Erik Friberg. Caskey will not displace Brad Evans when Evans is healthy. But suddenly the Sounders appear to have more depth at the central midfield then we thought. With the quality of this team, finding depth at their weakest position in the third game of the fledgling MLS season bodes well for their championship aspirations. This may very well be the shiniest part of the silver lining in Saturday's loss.

But it wasn't the only shiny thing on display Saturday. Christian Sivebaek got his first MLS start and again showed why the team went out of it's way to secure his services. His combination of speed, crossing ability and size caused problems for San Jose from the outset. When he blew around the San Jose LB early in the game, his speed came to the forefront. San Jose ultimately had to reconfigure their defense to double team him to compensate. Carrasco wasn't able to capitalize on this shift, but Caskey and Evans will make teams pay for that level of attention. Sivebaek still needs to round out his game tactically. He currently defaults to dribbling and speed down the outside. In order to be more effective he needs to learn when to change tempo, cut inside and quickly pass the ball. But again, this is coachable. The skills are definitely there.

Marc Burch and Zach Scott were effective if not necessarily pretty. Burch is holding up his end of the bargain on defense and has brought another element to the Seattle offense that Tyson Wahl simply didn't possess. Burch is capable of facilitating the Seattle transition game because of the quality of his passing and service. In particular, his arsenal includes the ability to curve passes around defenders at midfield and release the Seattle Left Mids into the attack. Flaco is taking full advantage of this situation and so is David Estrada. Burch is proving to be a subtle upgrade rather than a straight swap for Tyson Wahl.

No one will mistake Zach Scott for Adam Johansson, but he did have arguably his most complete performance as a Right Back on Saturday. In the wake of Saturday's game, I've heard a ton of griping about his lack of offensive skills. But I can't help feeling that these complaints had more to do with how people expected him to perform than in how he actually performed. I caught myself early in the game screaming, "OMG! What's he doing up there?!" But then I actually stopped and watched what he was doing. Is he a stellar offensive full back? No. But he did more offensively on Saturday than I have ever seen him do and he did it respectably. He joined the attack and he contributed to the attack without sacrificing his defensive responsibility. That is a good thing. He is a back up full back and yet his performance Saturday was comparable to many MLS starting-caliber full backs. Having Zach Scott be a more rounded option off the bench is good for the hopes of the team.

Flaco, Fredy and Estrada all had decent games. Flaco continued to show the caliber of play that he has brought to the 2012 season. And he did it without the histrionics that have plagued his game from time to time. I was very happy. Fredy was snake bit and couldn't buy a goal on the night. Some games are like that. Fredy is a streak player. If he continues to put himself into those kinds of positions, he will start racking up the goals. David put in another dogged performance. He got a little shot happy, particularly with the long range attempts, but at least he tries to put the ball on frame. A little more patience and a bit more build up are easy things to coach and David will listen. Even Sammy Ochoa started to show some signs of life. He chased balls into the corner and even managed to save one pass from crossing the touchline. That play set up a Sounders scoring opportunity. Is he there yet? No. But if he can continue to work his way back toward the lineup, he will give the coaches another valuable asset on the bench.

I chalk Saturday's loss up to the cobbled nature of Seattle's lineup rather than a failure of effort or tactics. No team expects to have 11 players down five games into their season. And due to the CCL build up, the Sounders were unable to use preseason to test multiple player combinations. This team simply hasn't had the practice time together to overcome all of the lineup changes yet.

But it is early in the 2012 campaign. As Sigi pointed out last week, you would rather have these problems at the outset of the season and learn what tools you have in the cupboard. Necessity is the mother of invention. This wierd set of circumstances is giving the Sounders an opportunity to gain valuable insight into how they will function as a complete roster. Saturday's loss is part of the cost of this investment. But the potential dividends could mean substantial rewards down the line. Rewards that would make Saturday's loss a small part of something better. And that would be beautiful.

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