The most intriguing tactical aspect of this game was the formation that D.C. employed. They came out in an extremely narrow formation, similar to the 4-2-2-2 that has been applied by the likes of Manchester City and Villareal in recent times. The 4-2-2-2 differs from the 4-4-2 by the compact nature of the wide players, as they consistently look to move inside into the center of the pitch. As a result, this formation is reliant on the fullbacks providing attacking width. D.C. did not employ a straightforward 4-2-2-2 however, opting instead to use an arrangement resembling a 4-2-2-1-1. Luis Silva, nominally listed as one of the strikers, regularly dropped deep into the midfield to pick up the ball and initiate attacks.
Seattle Overloaded in Midfield
D.C.'s 4-2-2-1-1 succeeded in its intended purpose as they completely overloaded Seattle in midfield, allowing D.C. to attack with short passing through the center of the pitch. Rolfe and DeLeon continually moved inside from the flanks, while Silva often dropped deep to start the attacking move. Even Eddie Jonson dropped into the midfield regularly to combine with teammates and involve himself. This image mapping the actions of D.C.'s front four shows how much they played through the middle (Seattle's front four for comparison).
Alonso and Pineda struggled to cope with the numbers D.C. flooded them with, and were repeatedly forced into difficult decisions about who to defend against. They usually opted to step up and pressure the deeper player, but as a result conceded space in the hole for D.C. attackers. The gif below illustrates this.
To start the play, Luis Silva drops deep and collects the ball, drawing Osvaldo Alonso up the pitch. Gonzalo Pineda is now in a tough spot and is forced to decide between pressuring Lewis Neal or staying deep to shield the Sounders' backline. He pushes up on Neal and Nick DeLeon can easily collect the ball between the lines and attack. You can see the narrow nature of United's front four, with only the fullbacks providing width.
However, Seattle's defense wasn't entirely undone by D.C. overloading the midfield for a couple of reasons. The first was Jalil Anibaba's play. He's taken some deserved criticism in the past for overly-deep positioning, but he was excellent on Saturday. He intelligently stepped into the midfield at the right times to help Seattle cope with the overloads, and did so in ways that did not expose gaps in the backline. The above gif is a good example of this as his timely challenge on DeLeon halts the D.C. attack.
D.C. Lacks Incision
The main reason D.C. struggled offensively despite their midfield dominance was their lack of incision. With so many of their attacking players looking to overload the midfield, they had no attackers left to make dangerous direct runs. Silva and EJ were dropping off the backline, not running at it. DeLeon and Chris Rolfe were attempting to move in between the lines. Perry Kitchen and Neal were not confident enough to make third-man runs as they were needed for defensive stability. In this regard, D.C. sorely missed Fabian Espindola, as he could have provided this direct threat. It was a bit surprising to me that EJ did not try to fill this role more, as it is very much in his skillset. He got in behind the Sounders line once, but otherwise did not spend much time on the defenders' back shoulders.
Ben Olsen looked to an uncommon source to attempt to get in behind the defense, as he gave this task to his fullbacks Sean Franklin and Chris Korb. Franklin and Korb pushed up extremely high into the attack and looked to get on the receiving end of through balls. Take a look at how high up the pitch the fullbacks are in the previous gif above, and how much space is available for a through ball. Another good example comes around in the 11th minute:
Again, Sean Franklin and Chris Korb are two of the furthest forward players. Notice how similar this play is to the previous. Silva drops deep to initiate the move. Alonso is marking one of the centermids while Pineda is forced to pressure Silva, leaving a gap behind him. Rolfe moves into the hole with Kitchen this time, and the fullbacks find space for through passes.
At halftime, Sigi acknowledged that United's attack between the lines was a problem, saying "our problem has been with their overloading midfield. We've got to do a better job of getting numbers in there and making it more difficult for them to play through midfield". It appeared that at halftime Sigi gave instructions to Ozzie and Pineda to sit deeper, protecting the backline but giving United's central midfielders more time and space on the ball. For D.C. the end goal remained the same as they still looked for chances to service their fullbacks with through balls, but now these passes came from deeper positions.
Alonso and Pineda, keen to protect the backline, are now sitting much deeper, giving DeLeon plenty of space in a deeper position. He has time to pick out a streaking Korb behind the Seattle backline. This gif also shows one of the problems D.C. encountered by relying on their fullbacks for such important attacking roles, as his first touch completely lets him down and ruins the chance. Though D.C. created a good chance here because of the space Seattle conceded to DeLeon, the halftime adjustment generally worked. Sitting deeper forced D.C. into attempting more difficult passes, and decreased the danger Seattle faced from United's attacking moves.
Though most of the tactical intrigue of this game came from D.C.'s setup, Seattle's attack also displayed some interesting wrinkles. Because of the attacking nature of the United fullbacks, Seattle found space in wide areas to counterattack. However, the United players recovered well to prevent any danger via this method. The most striking feature was the inside-out nature of the Seattle attack. Because Barrett and Cooper are comfortable on the flanks and Pappa and Neagle can play through the middle, all four players were able to interchange often. Though Seattle's attack was mostly unsuccessful, this move led to the corner that was soon followed by Barrett's goal.
Cooper's run into the channel gives Pappa the opportunity to come inside and find Barrett on the opposite flank.
D.C. United's narrow 4-2-2-1-1 meant they were able to play through midfield but lacked the verticality necessary to truly break Seattle down. The Sounders were additionally able to shut down D.C.'s Plan B of crossing to EJ. Thanks to an impressive defensive performance, Sigi's halftime adjustment, and a bit of luck, Seattle was able to escape with three tough road points.