Yesterday Dave talked about the fact that the Sounders new roster leaves them with a very flexible Ideal 11. I want to take a moment and drill down into the roster and examine some of the possible line ups and how they might be used.
A Traditional 11
Dave laid out a solid version of the team's obvious Ideal 11. It includes Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson up top. Mauro Rosales, Christian Tiffert, Osvaldo Alonso and a rotating corps of Left Wings. The likely candidates are Alex Caskey, Mario Martinez and Steve Zakuani. In the back we have Michael Gspurning, Adam Johansson, two of the team's top Center Backs (Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado) and either of the rotating Left Backs (Leo Gonzalez and Marc Burch.)
This level of flexibility and depth is impressive in it's own right. At least four of these players are not going to be starting on any given night. The left side is a bit weak, particularly until Zak or Martinez are fully integrated, but given the nature of MLS, this is a solid lineup.
As discussed earlier, subtle shifts in this arangement enable the team to emphasis offense or defense. The team has also shown that by bringing in both LBs late in a game, they can lock down a lead. Burch plays the advanced position and Leo plays behind him.
But as the competition heats up down the stretch even this group of players offers Sigi additional intriguing possibilities. Imagine for a second what happens if both Mario Martinez and Zak are able to go full bore on the Left side. What happens to opposing defenses if Sigi can ask each player to go full throttle for a half? Suddenly, instead of having a passive, low pressure LW like Caskey or Alvaro they are forced to deal with two skilled players sprinting for the Full 90. Opposing RBs will curl up in the fetal position near the corner flag. Teams will be forced to commit more resources to their right side and the Sounder's right sided attack will run amok.
With this Ideal 11, the Sounders still have an incredible bench. In addition to the four players above who aren't starting the team also still has Brad Evans, Andy Rose, David Estrada, Zach Scott, Servando Carrasco, Cordell Cato and Sammy Ochoa in reserve. As well as three additional Goalies. That's a full 11 man second roster with significant experience. If Brad Evans plays RB and Zach Scott plays CB, then you have a complete line up that can be used in any competition and can rest the entire Ideal 11. It is a bench that can actually hold its own against most MLS lineups. The biggest issue with this group is creativity and technical skill. This is a group without a DP caliber player, but it's a group that would play team soccer and be solid defensively. The Sounders injury woes have led to these players being vetted and blooded. We shouldn't kid ourselves. Many MLS teams would like to have a first string unit that was this functional. This is as solid a bench as you are going to see in the current version of MLS.
But the real strength of the bench happens when the coaches start to mix the two groups. Let's look first at a variation that Sigi stumbled upon during the Kezar stadium USOC win. One of the biggest challenges the Sounders have faced this year is finding offensive service when they employ an extreme defensive posture in the back four. We saw the latest version of this during the USOC final in KC. The back line struggled to connect with the forward players and the offense bogged down. Part of the issue was schedule congestion and fatigue. But with a healthy roster and fewer games, the Sounders now have alternatives.
One alternative that we have seen work is shifting Mauro into the WF role along side of EJ. This does sit Fredy, but it also shifts the team's offensive service away from needing to advance up the right flank. Sigi can play someone like Cato or Estrada on the RW with Evans at RB. Rose or Tiffert can play the Advanced CM along with Oz. Leo can play LB and Scott can team up with Ianni in the center. If the team puts a runner like Mario or Zak on the LW, then the team is a lockdown force with strong counter punching capability. Fredy is lying in wait on the bench if needed. The midfield becomes a wasteland for the opposing team and the Sounders have their hardnosed players locking down the back line. It also forces opposing teams to prepare for this possibility. When protecting a lead, Burch can come on for the LW and one of the CBs can enter for Cato. Evans moves up to RW and then Scott shifts over to RB. We know this lineup will work. It already has.
Bunkering may not be pretty, but if it helps the team win a critical road leg game in the playoffs, who cares? The key here is that the above option isn't just cobbled together. It's a legitimate line up using the tactical flexibility of the deep Sounder's roster.
As the team gets used to working with Christian Tiffert and Mario Martinez, other options will present themselves. The same holds true when Zak and Estrada rejoin the lineup. The addition of Tiffert frees up Brad Evans to become a critical sub and adds an entirely new dimension to the team's service. The obvious difference is that service will now come from the middle of the pitch as well as the flanks. But stop and think about this from a timing standpoint. Imagine that Johansson and Mauro break through on an overlapping give-and-go down the right side. This creates service into the box and EJ gets a shot on goal. The opposing keeper or one of the defenders clears the immediate danger up the field to the area just outside of the 18. Historically this ball is corralled by Oz, Rose or Evans. Now the ball is tracked down by Tiffert and he feathers a pass to the trailing LB or Wing or perhaps Fredy while the defense is still out of shape. Or perhaps he or Mario Martinez launch one of the long distance shots that we have seen on video. The strength of a player like Tiffert isn't just in what he brings to the initial attack. It is what he brings to successive waves of attacking play. It is in how he frees up other players on the roster to assume roles as critical substitutes. Adding Tiffert shored up the team's depth at RB.
Getting Zakuani and Estrada back present even more options. Buried in this plethora of skilled players are new, functional groups. Fredy looked incredibly dangerous early in the season playing off of David Estrada. Being able to rest EJ in a way that unleashes Fredy is not a bad thing. The thought should make us all giggle with glee.
I fully expect that Sigi will use a few basic variations of the Ideal 11 that Dave outlined. But the incredible depth of the 2012 bench will enable him to have some interesting options with more than a reasonable hope of success. As long as this team stays healthy, there is much to be optimistic about on the immediate horizon.