After a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference semi-finals, the Seattle Sounders came into the second leg of the tie with the away goals advantage. A clean sheet by the Sounders and they were through to the finals - no conditions or caveats. Their defensive gameplan was a direct product of that fact and full credit goes to the Sounders for crafting a tactical plan that mitigated the biggest attacking threats from Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas.
The Seattle Sounders played in their usual 4-4-1-1, while Parjea opted for the conventional 4-2-3-1 for Dallas. The two formations are spatially nearly identical, with tremendous amounts of balance. However it's what each side opted to do with specific catalytic talismans that came to define the tactical battle in what ultimately ended up being a 0-0 draw that saw Seattle through to the conference finals.
The midfield battle from both sides came to be one of the key hallmarks of the match as Victor Ulloa and Michel matched up against Clint Dempsey while Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda did the dirty duty of taking on Mauro Diaz. On the Sounders side of defense, both Alonso and Pineda maintained a structured shape and paid specific attention to limit Mauro Diaz. The Argentine playmaker was continually forced to drift to the edges of the midfield in an attempt to dictate the game. The lack of playmaking ability in central midfield, along with the deep backline of the Sounders, led both Dallas defensive midfielders into being more aggressive than normal in an attempt to bring a modicum of offensive impetus into midfield for Dallas.
This had a two-fold effect for the Sounders. First, with Mauro Diaz moving wider this left the Sounders able to shrink into a more defensive posture as they needed to contain the attacking threats of Dallas wide. However, the second part of the equation was that with Dallas having to commit men to attack, this forced both Victor Ulloa and Michel into trying to pull double duty between marking Clint Dempsey and attacking Seattle. Neither Michel nor Ulloa were good in transitioning between these roles and it frequently became an either/or proposition for Dallas. This opened holes for the Sounders to exploit that were unavailable in both the first leg in Dallas and in the two matches against LA.
Containing Fabian Castillo
However, more than containing Mauro Diaz, the Sounders specifically worked on limiting the impact of the very dangerous Fabian Castillo. With Leo Gonzalez playing a more attacking role recently, the defensive onus for the Sounders became a revolving trio of Gonzalez, Zach Scott and Osvaldo Alonso. The trio spent the entirety of the first half isolating Fabian Castillo when he was in possession, limiting him to outside runs and curtailing his ability to cut inside.
It was an effective strategy, as Castillo spent much of the first half generating poor chances and was unable to link up with teammates. In the second half, Castillo was moved into a more central and mobile role as he interchanged frequently with Diaz. However, by that juncture the Sounders were starting to set up a deeper defensive line, a trend that continued even with Michael Azira's substitution for the injured Osvaldo Alonso. With Castillo in the middle, both Azira and Pineda adopted of strategy of man marking him, forcing him to interchange or drift wide to find effective attacking positions.
Even when Dallas added the versatile Andres Escobar for Blaz Perez, a move designed to increase the mobility of the Dallas attack, the Sounders defensive structure proved an insurmountable wall.
Neagle's introduction forces Dallas to save changes for very late
When Osvaldo Alonso went out shortly after halftime, the dual introductions of Michael Azira and Lamar Neagle gave the Sounders a different impetus. With Neagle's pace and propensity to push high alongside Obafemi Martins, the Sounders opened up a significant amount of space in transition and between the Dallas centerbacks. Their attack took on a new ferocity as the Dallas defense struggled mightily, relying on Chris Seitz's shot stopping ability more than once as the game rolled on.
With the Sounders finding so much space in transition, Oscar Pareja was unable to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Sounders. There was no freedom to pull defenders or defensive midfielders to add attacking talent. It wasn't until the 85th minute that the Sounders were forced to bunker down as Pareja subbed on both Walter Zimmerman -- remember, tall centerbacks and Michel's cultured (unlike his hair) left foot -- and David Teixeira to add offensive impetus to a Dallas offense stagnating against a compact Sounders defense. Even at that point, the Sounders hit hard and fast, with all of Martins, Dempsey, and Neagle causing issues for the Dallas backline when the Sounders did relieve pressure.
Monday's win was another in a string of staunch defensive showings from the Seattle Sounders. With their last 4 games all belying a focus on defensive structure and creating space in transition and on the counter, the Sounders seem to have found their niche against other top sides. Despite assertions to the contrary, this is a team that is fully capable of taking down any other in the league with a defense first or attack first approach depending on the scenario. While much may be made that Dallas dictated the tempo, flow, and enjoyed the lion's share of possession, it was the Sounders who were in control. With defensive structure and a specific gameplan, the Sounders were the superior team over both legs of this tie and that's something we've never really been able to say about them in a playoff tie before. Bring it on LA.