This past offseason the Sounders promised more "direct" play, but as the season unfolded, the Sounders attack proved to actually be quite miserable. The Sounders only scored 42 goals on the season, below the League average of 44.7. We can speculate on all the reasons for that, but what the Sounders certainly didn't do was play direct soccer.
In the MLS this season, teams averaged 23.2 successful passes per shot attempt. The Sounders averaged 26.5, a somewhat high number. Chicago were the League's most "direct" team, averaging a shot every 15.9 successful passes, a number well below the next lowest of Columbus at 19.9. Chicago led MLS in total shots and shots on goal, despite being the worst passing team in the league, with a percentage of 72.7 (vs a League average of 76.9) and by far the fewest total successful passes with 8,041 (vs a League average of 10,039). It's worth noting that Chicago's uber-direct style didn't necessarily work, with them missing the playoffs and conceding 52 goals, tied with FC Dallas for worst in the league besides teams who were complete dumpster fires (those being Toronto, DCU, and Chivas).
Putting Seattle's number into context, the League's highest total of 27.3 belonged to RSL, who were the League's best passing team, at 80.4% and 12,259. RSL managed to score the 2nd most goals, however, with 57 - just one behind NYRB's league best. DCU were 2nd worst at 27.1; it's worth noting that DCU were 4th in the league in possession (behind RSL, SKC, and Portland) but only managed 22 goals this season. NYRB, by the way, averaged a shot once every 26.6 successful passes. What all this says is although the Sounders lacked "directness" to their attack, it certainly wasn't anything extraordinary.
This brings us to the next number, which is total shots taken per goal. The MLS average in this department was 10.2; meaning for every 10.2 total shots a team took, a goal was scored. Seattle were slightly below average, with 9.79. It should be no surprise that NYRB had the League's best number at 6.97, and next up were RSL with 7.88. While this metric is hardly a panacea, it does give a hint as to the quality of chances those teams were taking. To give this a little context, Chicago's number was 10.74, and by far the worst were DCU at 18.18 - well ahead of next worst San Jose at 12.54.
Fourth-best on that list lies the Portland Timbers, with 8.24 shots per goal. The Timbers were the League's 2nd best passing team in terms of percentage - 79.2 - and total - 11505. But there is another interesting facet to this metric. In terms of goals allowed per shot allowed, Portland was the League's best at 13.0, well ahead of Vancouver's 11.5 and NYRB's 11.1. This is a pretty telling statistic, but it all makes perfect sense when you consider that Portland boasted the best goal difference in MLS with +21.
Although a lot of this probably has to do with Portland's employment of Donovan Ricketts - my personal choice for MLS 'keeper of the year - it also speaks to the Timber's defense not allowing a lot of quality shots. And herein lies the key: quality.
The idea of a possession-based approach is basically all about pressure. This comes in many forms, but one of those forms of "pressure" is on opposing attackers to try to make the best of what chances they have. The best defense is possession, keep the ball away from your opponents and limit their chances. This can force your opponents into impatience, and impatience in soccer generally leads to a decline in quality.
The Sounders come in as an above-average passing team (77.6 and 10,883) with well below average shot totals. In fact, Seattle had the 2nd-lowest total shots to NYRB among non-dumpster fire teams, and with only 129 on target were THE worst among non-dumpster fire teams. However you interpret the numbers, it hardly speaks to the Sounders being a "direct" team this season.
I may be guilty of making sweeping generalizations revolving around a relatively small numerical piece of the bigger picture. The Sounders, after all, are basically re-inventing themselves for these playoffs, but we can take from the regular season and make some course corrections for the Playoffs. The Sounders can take their new diamond in a couple of directions: they can use it to try to win the midfield battle, play Portland at their own possession game and use the diamond to squeeze quality chances out of Portland, or they can actually try to play "direct," and try to force the issue with quantity of chances, and use the shape of the midfield to keep Portland from dominating the ball.
The former probably requires much more preparation than the Sounders have, as it is the more system-driven approach. Seattle, instead, is likely to adopt the latter, a more player-driven approach.
In their September 2-0 win at home against RSL, the Sounders had 44% possession to RSL's 56%. Seattle managed to outshoot RSL with 10 total and 5 on target, vs 9 and 3 for RSL. Teams need a certain amount of possession, if for no other reason than to take some of the pressure off their back 4. You don't have to WIN the possession battle, but you have to compete in the possession battle. This is where my 40% rule comes into play. I believe that a team needs at least 40% possession to stay competitive in a match. Yes, there are several examples of teams basically bunkering, earning far less than 40% possession and winning, or at least getting the desired result. However, more often than not these occurrences are 1 out of 10 flukes, or teams playing ultra-bunker in the 2nd leg of a 2-legged knockout round.
Against SKC way back in May Seattle had 42% possession, and managed to poach a late game winner. That match was a perfect example of the 40% rule. Although SKC clearly won the possession battle - as they did for most of the year - Seattle was never overwhelmed and overly swamped. They held their own and never spent too much time on their heels. Against L.A. in September, Seattle managed 41% as they hung on for dear life to the 1-1 draw after taking an early lead.
One key for Seattle in these next two games is to stay competitive in the possession battle. A good goal would be 45%. This will largely be the responsibility of Ozzie Alonso, the Fullbacks, and Evans and Moffat. These players have clearly demonstrated an ability to play decent possession soccer. But they will also need to force the issue, Dempsey, EJ, and Neagle will need to take their chances, get off their shots, keep pressure on the Portland defense, and they will largely need to do it using their own wit and creativity. Moffat and Evans will get forward when they can, but Seattle mainly needs to use their midfield shape to keep Portland from controlling the game.
Given Portland's 4-3-3, a big key will be how far forward Seattle's fullbacks will be able to play. The 4-3-3 uses a narrow midfield - maybe even more narrow than Seattle's diamond - and width comes from wingers dropping back OR fullbacks stepping forward. Seattle's options for width are a little more limited, and traditionally the diamond relies on marauding fullbacks for its width. If Portland's wingers can pin back Seattle's fullbacks, Seattle may find themselves on the back foot far too often, struggling in that possession battle and too desperate with their chances up top.
The Sounders' players need to flat out be better than Portland's to advance. It's that simple. Smart soccer tactics try to avoid one-on-one battles from deciding the flow of the match, but instead getting a team to work together to become more than the sum of their parts. This is what Portland's system has allowed them to do. The Sounders will need to win a majority of individual battles and demonstrate superior technical ability. If we all believe that Seattle has better talent than Portland, this is quite possible. Otherwise, this may be a very difficult two games for Sounders.