Recently, we have seen Seattle act as the tactical bully. For the most part, Sigi Schmid has marched out his talented 11 and taken a proactive approach, intending to play to his team's best abilities instead of focusing on limiting the opposition strengths. The opposition has mostly obliged by assuming the reactive role, adjusting their tactics to stop the Sounders. However, this week, with a limited roster, Schmid and company altered their approach as they deferred to the strengths of the Whitecaps.
Seattle's Defensive Setup
First off, I'd like to give credit to Sidereal for his most recent Scouting Report. Predicting soccer tactics is one of the most difficult things to do, but he was spot on with this one. Seattle's main concerns going into this game were containing Vancouver's speed and stopping their attack through the middle of the pitch. As foretold, Seattle organized defensively with deep lines to limit Vancouver's speedy attackers. In transition Seattle dropped the line of confrontation, and the defensive line was often running backwards to ensure they weren't beaten by a Whitecap running in behind. They were successful this regard, as Vancouver only got in behind once, and because the space was limited enough, Frei was able to come out and smother the danger before a real chance was created.
Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda sat very deep in order to reduce the space through the middle and between the lines, and they had aid in this endeavor. Marco Pappa played an important defensive role as he tucked in slightly and helped defend against Vancouver's central attackers. Four of his nine attempted tackles are against Pedro Morales, and his six completed tackles were the game's highest.
However, this extra defensive cover through the middle came with a downside. With the Sounders sitting so deep, they struggled to mark Vancouver's holding midfielder, Matias Laba. As a solution to this problem, Sigi instructed Kenny Cooper to drop into the midfield and track the deepest midfielder, similar to his role against Sporting Kansas City at the beginning of the year. At halftime, Sigi said "[We were] trying to get Kenny Cooper to sit in the hole behind Oba defensively so he can help with Laba or Koffie."
The results from this tactic were also reminiscent of that first game, as this decision again caused problems for Seattle's midfield. Cooper is not a natural midfielder, and his instincts are to play as a forward. While he did drop into the midfield often, he struggled with the dual duties of playing as a forward in the attack and as a midfielder in defense. Adding to his problems was the fact he often defended like a forward, as he often moved towards the centerbacks to close down passing lanes instead of sitting in and tracking Laba. The Vancouver centerbacks could simply play one or two passes and get the ball to Laba to move the attack forward, as seen in the gif below:
Just prior to this sequence, Cooper had been tracking Laba, switched to track Koffie, and then left them both to cut off the passing angles available to Jay DeMerit. DeMerit can play a simple ball to Laba, who finds himself with a remarkable amount of space to start the attack. The ease of build-up led to increased pressure on Seattle's defense. This contributed heavily to Vancouver's midfield dominance and the Whitecaps outplaying Seattle in the first half.
Interestingly, when Laba did find himself with this freedom to move forward, he usually preferred to pass instead of carrying the ball forward. He showed excellent positional discipline as he chose to sit deep and shield the defense instead of joining the attack. This freed up Gershon Koffie to join the attack at will, and he responded by performing as the game's best player. He had eight shots, including the goal and several other close misses. He completed 92% of his passes, many in the Sounders half. Most impressive, though, were his five out of five completed "take-ons". He initiated attacks from good positions with his powerful runs through midfield.
It seemed that Sigi emphasized to Cooper the importance of dropping into the midfield at halftime, as Cooper was much more disciplined defensively in the second half. He tracked Laba much more effectively, ensuring he was no longer so free to start the attack. Vancouver no longer had a free pass through midfield, and had to use longer passes out of the back more often. This helped stabilize the match for Seattle in the second half.
Seattle Attacks Directly
While the Sounders did have long periods of possession, they did so mostly as a defensive measure as they often chose not to commit men forward to the attack. Instead, Seattle often attacked directly, possibly to guard against Vancouver's speed on the counterattack. Often this meant Obafemi and Cooper moving out wide to the channels where they could find space. This was a major change from previous weeks, as Seattle has been trying to attack through the middle for most of the season. Comparing Obafemi's heat map against Vancouver to his heat map against New England (the most recent game where he paired with Clint Dempsey) portrays this change of approach:
Cooper's heat map is similar, but less involved. Apart from the goal, Seattle struggled to create chances through this tactic.
One other approach Seattle attempted was to look to spring Obafemi in behind the defense with direct passes over the top. Marco Pappa was often the source of these direct passes. Though never connecting, Seattle nearly created several chances via this method and it was a form of attack that protected Seattle from the counter.
While Dempsey is off on international duty, Seattle might want to look at alternatives to the 4-4-2, as this formation concedes space through the midfield. Though the midfield problems were exacerbated against Vancouver because of the deep defensive lines, they will persist to some degree, because Cooper is not a natural midfielder. With Dempsey, the trade-off was worth it as the two-striker setup put Dempsey and Martins in good positions to combine with each other. Seattle's offense could win these high-paced games. Though getting a couple starters back may change things, Seattle's counterattack is much less dangerous without Dempsey and the Sounders might want to alter their approach.