Earning a solid 2-1 win against FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semi-finals, Sigi Schmid's side was set up specifically to contain the Dallas counterattack.That focus was put on containing Mauro Diaz and Fabian Castillo. It was an effort built largely around possession, utilizing two sets of Sounders midfielders
Exploiting Dallas from wide positions
For the first half the Seattle Sounders were specifically set up to attack FC Dallas wide, forcing their fullbacks and attacking midfielders to play more conservatively. The main impetus behind that effort was Marco Pappa as he and Tyrone Mears combined along the right side. That effort was centrally designed to force Castillo to retreat deeper in defense and limit his ability on the counterattack, or force Diaz to the left side in an effort to work with Castillo. By limiting the side, the Sounders could use the speed of Scott and the positioning of Mears to contain the Dallas attacks. It was generally successful, one slip up after end-to-end counter attacking withstanding.
For the Sounders' part, their offensive gameplan in the first half worked when they played with the requisite width. Forcing Castillo and Barrios to either track back, or stay high and allow the Dallas low block to be drawn out of position with zone overlaps on the right or the speed of Oniel Fisher on the left. But with Pappa and Andreas Ivanschitz, two players with a predilection to drift centrally, the Sounders often found themselves going more directly at the Dallas low block in the middle. To their credit, with the play in front of them, both Ulloa and Cirigliano were more than effective at shutting down the Sounders. To their detriment when they were turned, their positioning and defensive structure fell apart like wet paper.
On Dallas' side of the ball, Diaz found the most danger when drifting wide as Barrios and Castillo pushed high off the back shoulders of the center backs. But for all his ability, Diaz was hampered in the first half by the defensive efforts of Andy Rose and Erik Friberg and in the second half by some stellar defensive play from Ivanschitz. Add in the way Chad Marshall took David Teixeira out of the game, and Barrios' relative inability to exploit Fisher due to the indifference in speed (at least on his own) and the Dallas attack took on a mostly one-dimensional vibe with Diaz and Castillo being the only effective partnership.
Clint Dempsey's new role
Last Wednesday against the LA Galaxy, Clint Dempsey showed a new side of his play. Moving into left midfield, he played a deeper playmaking role for the Sounders. That role allowed Nelson Valdez to maintain the Sounders press up front for longer and gave the Sounders another big body to match up against the LA Galaxy center backs. On Sunday, Dempsey slipped into that role again but for an entirely different reason.
With the impetus on wide creative play, and stretching out the Dallas defensive midfielders, Pappa and Ivanschitz were uniquely suited to opening up those positions. Swapping in Valdez wide would have likely opened up too much space in transition for Dallas to exploit, but by controlling possession wide with Dempsey and Ivanschitz late in the second half, the Sounders were able to continue to contain the Dallas counterattack.
Looking forward to Leg 2
For all of the plaudits that are laid at the feet of Oscar Pareja, this game really showed a significant lack of tactical depth from the Colombian. Faced with several different plans over the course of the 90 to limit his attacking options (in so much as is possible with players as talented as Diaz and Castillo), Pareja never showed any effort to mix up his tactics to strengthen his two best players' abilities, or pull the rest of his offense into the game. He seemed content to let Schmid dominate the tactical battle in this match.
With Je Vaughn Watson as the more attacking fullback, there were options and opportunities to swap Barrios and Castillo and provide Dallas a more direct and potent offensive attack. That kind of tactical combo from Pareja could spell huge trouble for the Sounders, either with the inexperience of Fisher or the age of Leo Gonzalez in the second leg. But Pareja never took that opportunity in this match. And for a Sounders team with a very weakened defensive midfield and a backline corps of less than ideal choices, Sunday may have been the best opportunity Dallas was going to get against the Sounders.