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Sounders must commit to its attacking midfield

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Improved control of the central third on both sides of the ball fueled the Sounders' 3-1 win over RSL.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

One of these games is not like the other, and the difference played a significant role in Seattle's dominant win over Real Salt Lake to close out the season.

The three chalkboard images from mlssoccer.com show successful tackles, interceptions, and recoveries from Seattle's last 3 games - the pictures roughly summarize run-of-play situations in which the team gained possession of the ball. Against Los Angeles, Seattle won the ball (or otherwise received it) in the offensive half 6 times, and only 1 of those possessions fell to a midfielder (Osvaldo Alonso; this is an important distinction, given what it tells us about the game situation the play is made - say, a defender recovering a clearance from the penalty area or a forward cleaning up a loose ball). Against Houston, Seattle took offensive half possession 8 times, twice to a midfielder (again, Alonso). Against RSL, Seattle started its attack in the attacking half 19 times... 14 beginning with a midfielder.

Remember these plots whenever someone brings up the repeatedly-debunked argument that Marco Pappa does not play adequate defense by the standards of his position.

I have recently criticized the team for relying too much on long service from the central midfielders and backline, suggesting the team needs to work through more advanced midfielders comfortable with significant distributional roles. Erik Friberg and Marco Pappa clearly addressed that need on Sunday, and their job was made much easier (and the opposing defense thrown as much more off-balance) by winning the ball in advanced positions. The performance was still more encouraging coming from a wide midfield pairing of Pappa and Andreas Ivanschitz some had considered too offensively-minded. However, Seattle's improved performance also came at the expense of a RSL team missing its key defensive midfielder (Javier Morales attempted to make up for Kyle Beckerman's absence by fouling everyone he could reach) along with its star goalkeeper, and having nothing to play for but pride. Can we be confident a similar approach will work as Seattle takes on the LA Galaxy with the opening of the MLS Cup playoffs?

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Seattle adjusted tactics to emphasize defensive play in head-to-head games against Los Angeles late in 2014, narrowly securing the Supporters' Shield and still more closely falling out of another playoff series. Even if we were to ignore the changes to the Sounders, we should look at the role charts above and see the 2015 Galaxy as a very different team than last year's rival. The plots show the shares of team passes and defensive actions for individual players in a typical starting 11. For 2014 and the top 2015 plot, the 11 players chosen are those who have received the most playing time in their respective roles, while the bottom chart reflects the incorporation of LA's midseason acquisitions (notably including Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard, and shifting Gyasi Zardes to midfield).The middle plots show the change in player roles from 2014 (color coded Green: GK; Red: Fwd; Black: Mid; Blue:Def).

The 2014 Galaxy, which had an outstanding defense by MLS standards, saw the six advanced players ahead of the backline receive ~44.85% of the team's defensive actions. Those same six positions at the end of 2015 account for 30.85%, though some of this reflects Zardes' use as a forward and the difference will be slightly reduced over time. With Omar Gonzalez suffering an erratic season, this is not a good defense. When Dan Gargan starts, it's worse. The Galaxy have chosen to build a truly dangerous attacking corps at the expense of defensive indifference in the midfield. Seattle must commit fully to its attacking game (and its creative midfielders) in response.