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Sounders vs. San Jose Tactics: What's wrong?

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A look at tactics during the Seattle-San Jose game as well as a brief assessment of the Sounders' offensive woes.

Anibaba fouls Wondolowski challenging for an aerial ball.
Anibaba fouls Wondolowski challenging for an aerial ball.
Thearon W. Henderson

Djalo Struggles & Wondo vs. Anibaba

Apart from the goal, the Earthquakes offense did not pose too much of a threat in the first half. Atiba Harris was very quiet throughout the game, but San Jose’s biggest problem was the poor play of Yannick Djalo. He deserves credit for scoring the game-winning goal, but was putting in an awful shift between the lines, repeatedly getting tackled off the ball and playing very poor passes. Osvaldo Alonso and Co. completely dominated him in the midfield zone.

A majority of San Jose’s quality attacking moves came from a surprising source: the hold-up play of Chris Wondolowski. Wondo’s reputation states that he struggles with his back to goal, but he was excellent in that capacity here, winning 100% of his aerial duels. He was aided in a large way by the poor defensive showing from Jalil Anibaba, who was instructed to mark him throughout the game. Anibaba consistently displayed a lack of physicality, and won exactly 0% of his aerial battles.

Though Squawka only shows three, I counted seven times that Anibaba was held off by Wondolowski. This was a huge problem, as Jalil was seems to have been instructed to follow Wondolowski wherever he went. This would have been fine if he was putting in good, physical challenges and winning the ball, but he was not. Wondo was able to drag Anibaba out of position and get the pass away, putting the Sounders in dangerous spots. The most obvious example of this is on the goal, but it was a consistent trend throughout the game.

Sounders Go Around

The Sounders were the better team for the first half, but not by much as they struggled to create chances. San Jose made sure to clog the center of the pitch, so Dempsey, Martins, and Co. needed to find a way around. Seattle targeted San Jose’s left-side channel, looking to attack Shaun Francis and Victor Bernardez. Marco Pappa repeatedly tried to beat Francis, and he created several quality opportunities for cutbacks this way. Seattle additionally used Pappa to draw Francis up the pitch, then used inside-out runs from Dempsey and Martins to exploit the space behind him. The purpose of this was to draw Bernardez out to the wing where he was less comfortable defending and try to take him on one-on-one. Bernardez, however, did not look too uncomfortable on the wing as he defended the one-on-one battles well.

On the other side, Seattle tried to circumvent the San Jose defense by using DeAndre Yedlin in an even more attacking role than usual. Several times during the game, Yedlin was Seattle’s furthest forward player, and he got into advanced positions earlier in the build-up and transitions. In response, Brad Evans played a more conservative role, often hanging back to cover for Yedlin’s attacking runs. He tucked inside, drawing San Jose defenders infield to open up space for Yedlin, then rotated back behind DeAndre in covering positions.

What’s wrong with Seattle’s Offense?

Though the Sounders managed to create some decent opportunities, this offense does not appear to be clicking like the well-oiled machine that we’ve seen earlier this season. This is most likely due to a multitude of factors, including execution and regression, but tactically the Sounders are missing a facet of their game that has helped them be so prolific. These past couple of games, they have been missing the quick transitions and direct build-up play that has resulted in the Sounders having the second most Possessions per Game and allows Clint and Oba the opportunity to attack transitioning defenses on the run.

This is at least partially due to poor distribution from the back. Anibaba is statistically the worst passing center back out of the four, and though Zach Scott is normally a decent distributor, he has posted a dismal 72% passing percentage the past two games. The biggest missing piece, however, is Chad Marshall’s ability to precisely place his clearances, which allow the Sounders to transition extremely quickly. Better distribution from the back means Alonso and Pineda can play quickly through the midfield to the attacking four, and can get the ball to the feet of Dempsey and Oba with space to turn and combine.

Another factor that is significantly affecting the Sounders' transition speed is the absence of Lamar Neagle and the use of Brad Evans in his stead. Evans is one of the best players on the team and a very good wide midfielder, but his playing style is not ideal for a team that needs to build directly and quickly. His style stands in stark contrast when compared to Neagle, the Sounders’ most direct wide player. Evans plays the wide mid position like a third central midfielder: tucking inside to battle in the midfield, providing defensive cover, making safe passes to keep possession and control the game.

Neagle, on the other hand, plays the position like a third forward: playing directly, taking up advanced positions, and looking to get behind the opposition backline. This is what the Sounders have been missing, and is what Sigi was hoping Yedlin could provide. Asking your fullback to provide a consistent threat to the backline is quite demanding, and Oba and Dempsey lacked forward passing options because of this.

Sigi realized this in the second half, and sent Kenny Cooper on for Marco Pappa. Cooper provided much more directness than Pappa and consistently attempted to get into scoring positions. Barrett came on later, and the Sounders used an amoebas front three of Barrett, Cooper, and Oba with Dempsey in the hole behind them. Dempsey was able to have a bigger impact on the game from this position, but was not able to create an equalizer.