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Initiative lost, now what?

Early in the season the Seattle Sounders were generally an aggressive side. They would score first in their draw and the two losses prior to Saturday's were on counters. But, against Real Salt Lake, they lost the initiative, both statistically and mentally.


In the broadest of senses match tactics are either proactive or reactive. A side either forces the opposition to adjust or does the adjusting. The most identifiable reactive tactic is the counter. This staple of soccer is winning games for clubs both great and small. But there are many ways to counter - direct play, rapid short passing, speedsters bull rushing the goal, etc. Aggressive tactical sets are a bit more varied from the full field defense of 2012 Sporting KC to possession sides that manage matches through their ability to keep the ball their are dozens of options. The particular tactics are unimportant. Coaches generally lean one way or the other on a spectrum from initiative to reactionary.

To put a chess metaphor on this, some coaches prefer white (they get to go first) while others prefer black. Masters can win games with either style. Sigi Schmid uses a mix of the two, nor really prone to extremism in either case. Against "better" teams the full bunker has popped into use. Against the "sides" initiative grabbing reservists get pummeled.

In the last week the coach indicated that the goal was towards continuing the initiative grabbing of the first four MLS matches with a mix of the opportunism that his team speed allows.

From last Tuesday;

It hasn't been where we haven't been in games, or haven't been right there at the footsteps so I think our finishing needs to be better certainly and our play in the final third needs to be better. I think at San Jose I was happy because we grabbed the initiative early. We took the game to them. We opened ourselves up in the back a bit by doing that, but I was happy with the attitude we played with. That's what I'm looking for. The attitude's been good in training and we try to adjust things in training so we're a little more aggressive in training.

Fom last Thursday;

We've really got to see how the opponent reacts and that will show us what we can do. If they play a high line we can use the speed to our advantage. If they drop off because they don't want to get exposed speed-wise then we have more space to play in front of them. I think we have enough quality to do that. So we can do whatever they gives us. That's always the key in soccer. You've got to be able to beat a team at what they give you. You're not always going to be able to get the same thing every week.

Both of those require slightly different attitudes from the players. A few players may be more suited for different mental approaches to the match. When sitting back waiting to respond a player must not just observe themselves, but watch every single opponent and get read to pounce. It is not a passive mental mode. Instead it just waits for the ideal moment to pounce.

Real Salt Lake grabbed the initiative early. Then they capitalized on it when Robbie Findley scored so early. Unlike Seattle against Portland, Salt Lake kept their pressure up and tried to bury the Sounders under a barrage of shots. The opportunities were few and the attitude, something most staff at Sounder at Heart are so leery of judging, waned.

Coach Sigi Schmid called it out in the full interview that traveling media had. It is a bit different than the release sent to those that do not travel to see matches.

On moving forward

"Maybe some is changing personnel. Some of the stuff going forward is continuing to improve how we play. I thought we made a step forward in the San Jose game. We played with decent effort and intensity and vigor and we were involved, and today we're standing there. There was one play in the second half where you got two guys raising their hands for a ball out of bounds, and the ball is in bounds by two yards. It's because they want to stop playing. Those were two guys who compete and fight very hard for us, but it's a disease right now that's infecting all of us, and we've got to take a major antibiotic."

What Sigi Schmid has is not a debate about whether to bunker&counter, to use more 1-2s, to find the creative central player or any other tactical concern. He sees a larger issue with a few players. He may even call them out in the media if they do not respond, but his history is only to do that after trying back room measures first.

Most victories came from instantly exploiting your enemy's stupid mistakes, and not from any particular brilliance in your own plan. - Bean, Ender's Shadow

Seattle can be a very good reactive team. They have the long ball service, the speedsters capable of 1-2s to break down any MLS defense. Most importantly the defense is generally stout and able to withstand beatings (just look at the match at UANL Tigres). But the players need to commit to this and execute.

The enemy's gate is down. - Ender, Ender's Game

Sounders FC can also be a very good team with the initiative. They pounced upon Portland early. With crisp movements and passing sequence they've displayed on both goals they can keep up a tempo that dictates matches. But the players need to commit to this and execute.

They can not be a team caught in between the two end points while they mentally unwilling to play the style of choice for the particular match. Whatever the reasons for the disconnect the players felt from the game plan, and Sigi laid out many disconnects (here's that link again in case you didn't read the first time), those can not occur in the next two matches or last year's 7-3 aggregate is going to feel like victory.

One could posit that there is no worse time for the Seattle Sounders to be mentally off. They do not have time to lick wounds or refocus their energy. There is no rest.

But this could also be the best time for the team to be going through this. The lack of time to dwell could mean that they act on the instincts that the high quality players on the roster have. They are at home, but can not be comfortable. With a trophy just a few decent matches away they can set aside failure and focus only on what defines them.

When the regular season resumes Seattle Sounders FC will need to respond as well. They've last the intiative for the league season. Dallas, Montreal, Chivas, LA and Houston all took the early season to burst out ahead of the pack. Seattle currently lags behind all but lowly Chicago.

The initiative on the season is gone, but that does not mean the season is lost.

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