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Forecasting the Tactical Future of the Sounders

Looking back at the few minutes the Seattle Sounders' main attacking threats spent on pitch together and looking forward to the tactical prospect's of next season

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago the Portland Timbers unceremoniously dumped the Seattle Sounders out of the 2013 MLS playoffs.

Writing that sentence is awful. Pardon me while I go throw up.

With the off-season now in full swing and our collective attention turned toward both a) the offseason and b) cheering for people to wipe the Timbers off the face of the earth, it's a good time to look back and look forward to the 2014 iteration of the Seattle Sounders.

Despite what the numbers aid, the 2013 Seattle Sounders were one of the more defensively sound squads of the last few years and it was their offense that was the most in flux as injuries and national team call-ups conspired to limit Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and Mauro Rosales to only 14 minutes of combined regular season play together. In addition, those same conditions conspired to produce only 15 minutes of combined regular season play forMartins, Eddie Johnson, and Dempsey. To top all that off, the Sounders' four biggest offensive threats spent a grand total of 0 minutes combining to work their magic on the pitch in the regular season. It's no wonder this team looked the textbook of disjointed for large stretches of the season. Their first appearance as a group came for the last 35 minutes in the aforementioned ignominious match.

Now that offense faces the uncertainty of an off-season that like most of those that have proceeded it, bumps ominously up against the constraints of the salary cap. This team is in flux but Adrian Hanauer has made it clear that the core of this team will be the focus of their retention policy. The real question is who should compose that attacking core? As a reminder here are the players who are already the core of this team in attack moving forward:

  • Clint Dempsey
  • Brad Evans
  • Obafemi Martins (at this moment, I'm operating off the principle that he's not going anywhere)

With those future factors in mind, let's cast our eyes back to the tactical composition of this team during those times when the full complement of this teams attacking talent played together.

Sept. 14 vs. Real Salt Lake

With the introduction of Dempsey into this match in the 61st minute the Sounders played their 14 minutes of the 3 post-mid-season designated players. It certainly wasn't pretty. While the 2-0 win over RSL was good during these 15 minutes, RSL were their most dangerous during the entire match as the Sounders struggled to control the game.

This was down to two root causes:

  1. The interchanging of Dempsey and Martins
  2. The central drift of Rosales

The interchange of Martins and Dempsey in the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid that the Sounders ran in that match after the introduction of Dempsey was of great benefit in putting both players in positions to exploit time and space to unlock RSL. Unfortunately, the addition of Rosales left the entire right side exposed as he picked up possession and drifted centrally in the attempt to facilitate the attack. Ultimately, the end result was the compaction of the RSL diamond midfield and a numerical disadvantage in the Sounders attack that turned the ball over and gave RSL it's only real spell of aggressive play in the entire match.

At times, Rosales and Neagle swapped flanks in an attempt to bring the 32-year-old Argentine more fully into the attack by disincentivizing his tendency to drift centrally. That was unsuccessful as well, for without the threat of the immediate cross, Tony Beltran was free to play Rosales in a manner that eliminated his ability to cross and left him isolated with limited support.

That problem was alleviated with the substitution of Johnson for Rosales in the 75th minute which saw the American international slot in at right midfield and function as an inverted winger. The re-introduction of width stretched the RSL diamond and once again the Sounders were on the front foot as they hammered RSL for the last 15 minutes.

Nov. 8 @ Portland Timbers

Down 5-1 on aggregate, the Sounders introduced Martins and Rosales into the inhospitable atmosphere of JELD-WEN Field in what was a hybrid diamond 4-4-2 / 4-3-3 formation, which was about as awkward as it sounds. While it did produce two goals and brought the Sounders close, it also ended up being a tactical mess and one that cost the Sounders a number of possessions.

This was down to three root causes:

  1. The interchange of Dempsey with both strikers
  2. The central drift of Rosales
  3. Lack of width and the inability of Rosales/Evans to transition from the diamond into attack

Just as occurred in the RSL match, when deployed on the right, Rosales drifted inside compacting the field and allowing Portland to cram ludicrous numbers into the center of the pitch, which is the advantage of being up 5-1. This was immediately corrected by switching Rosales out to the left hand side where he once again faced the exact same isolation issues, and the inability to cross effectively, as in the RSL match. Only in this scenario with the outrageously high, yet effective, advances of DeAndre Yedlin, the supporting fullback in Marc Burch was almost never able to even begin to support Rosales and the compact defense of Portland limited Rosales' central options even with a two-striker set.

The interchanging movement of the two strikers with Dempsey was effective in generating enough space to receive passes, but was enough uncoordinated movement from teammates that clearly didn't know each other as well as they should have, that it generated little quality possession especially under the pressure of the Timbers.

The final and most critical problem of the night was the lack of width in defense and in transition play. Rosales as the left midfielder attempted to transition from his role as the left winger in a 4-3-3 into a defensive roles in a hybridized system somewhere between two banks of four defense and a bank of four and bank of three. It was clearly a role that caused Rosales to tuck in centrally causing spatial congestion with Evans/Alonso, narrowing Seattle's defense and allowing the Portland fullbacks to bypass the midfield and pin the defense back unimpeded.

Tactical Takeaways

Of course, I've yet to address the really truly huge elephant in the room in that we're basically only looking at about a combined total of 75 minutes of soccer. The phrases "small sample size" and "game context" shouldn't just be lit up in front of you on giant 35-story neon signs, but should also be being screamed in your ears by banshees from the ninth circle of Hell. This is 75 minutes of soccer. Check. The Sounders were losing to the Timbers 5-1 on aggregate. Check. That means we should tread carefully in adhering to any takeaways from these matches.

The main issue we're seeing from these moments of combination between what was supposed to be one of the greatest collections of attacking talent assembled in MLS history, is the inherent requirement to play Rosales out of position. His propensity to drift inside ends up shifting him out to the left hand side where his greatest skill, the in-swinging cross of golden goodness, is effectively neutered. It's even more neutered considering the step he has lost over the last two years and has a decreasing ability to break down defenders on his own to generate the space necessary to send in a cross. While Rosales still has the skills to be a very powerful piece on this team, he's now ever more reliant on his teammates to generate the space rather then being able to create those plays himself.

In addition, Rosales' propensity to cut in centrally and dictate play from a right central midfield space, put him directly into spatial conflict with Clint Dempsey whose best skill is moving, interchanging and generating space in conjunction with his strike partners. That's not the best foundation upon which to hope to build an attacking partnership moving forward into next season.

With the likelihood that Johnson departs for the kind of greener pastures you can only easily find inside a US Mint, the reality is that the Sounders are in all likelihood not going to be as an aerially dominant team going into next season as they've been the last two. This really even further brings into question Rosales' ability to be a useful piece to the Sounders moving into next season.

The second issue we're seeing is that with a lack of width the Sounders struggle mightily due to requirements of having a player like Dempsey who excels with space. Bringing Evans back into the fold should be a big part of what Sigi's plans are going into next season. While Evans has the tactical nous to play virtually any position on the field, his best position is operating just off the Sounders newest designated player, and that should be his default position moving forward. Armed with those key pieces of information, the Sounders should be looking for world-class wingers to add into the attack; those that hug the touchlines and allow players of the truly great skill that both Martins and Dempsey both possess to do what they do in the attacking midfield.

The Sounders already have three players who can fill that role: Lamar Neagle, Steve Zakuani and Phillip Lund. Be on the lookout for one more to swell those ranks this off-season.

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