With a clicking offense and a patchwork defense Seattle Sounders FC enter leg two against FC Dallas with a simple route to qualify for the next round of the MLS Cup Playoffs - win and advance, draw and advance, score two goals and lose by only a goal and advance. Since Seattle hasn't been held scoreless in more than two months Oscar Pareja knows that his side needs at least two goals to get it done, with Dallas pushing the action can Obafemi Martins breakout of his playoff-scoring slump? Which side will adjust better to the successes and failures of leg one?
Waccz from Big D Soccer answers Three Questions.
SaH: Based on the first leg should Dallas fans rest their hopes in the attack on Castillo or Diaz in leg two?
BDS: I've been mulling it over, and I can't definitively come to a conclusion whether more pressure is on Castillo or Diaz. They are part of the same system. That system changes drastically without the complementary half. Sure, Michael Barrios can swoop in from the wing to pick up Diaz through balls but not without Castillo drawing defenders to the other flank. On the flipside, without Diaz, service is choked off from the midfield, and Castillo is forced to dig deeper into the midfield to start his runs, often dribbling against onrushing defenders.
Both players are considerably stronger with the other on the field. Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, Michael Barios, and David Texeira were the top 4 goal scorers on the team this season with 9, 8, 7, and 6 apiece, respectively. While this team is significantly better with Fabian and/or Mauro on the field rather than not, the team's success is not entirely dependent on one of them.
Without Diaz, we have seen Oscar deploy a flat 4-4-2, relying less on wingers and more on forwards for shots on goal. Without Castillo, the margin of error for Diaz decreases dramatically. No other player has the speed and skillset to maintain possession through multiple defenders and get off a shot or pass in the box.
I hope that Mauro has been working on his set piece service this week. Corner kicks have been pretty terrible opportunities for FCD since Michel played himself onto the bench and Cirigliano played Acosta out of the midfield. Diaz in particular seems to shoot every corner directly into the first defender, leaving almost no chance for FCD to have a scoring chance of that set piece. Although, none of the other starters seem to be stepping up to take over corners, either.
SaH: How will Pareja adjust to Seattle's success generating offense from wide players driving into central positions?
BDS: I would think that he has probably been talking to Victor Ulloa and Ezequiel Cirigliano about shoring up those midfield lines and paying special attention to Timbers diving in from the flanks. If he was really unhappy with Dallas' midfield position, he may be ready to replace one of them with Kellyn Acosta. Ulloa and Acosta were a very successful midfield duo prior to the acquisition of Cirigliano. On the other hand, I don't know how much time Acosta and Cirigliano have spent together, if any. Oscar is old school; he holds player selection cards very close to his chest, cautious to ever spill info on tactical decisions for the next match. There is very little information coming from the club this week to tell us if any changes are coming. Ulloa spent a little time in the doghouse this summer, so we know that he will bench a player that he is unhappy with.
SaH: What match this season showed FCD at their best? Which showed them at their worst?
BDS: The worst, without a doubt, was the home loss to Colorado Rapids on April 10th. The Rapids traveled to Frisco carrying an 18-game winless streak and 600 minute scoring drought. They broke that drought in the second minute, and Dallas never looked up to the task of retaking the lead. It was the first chip at FC Dallas' early season success that kept fans and critics alike waiting to call the inevitable nosediving slump that we've seen follow the team's burst out of the gate. Matt Hedges missed that game as a health precaution, and it showed just how crucial the captain is to FCD's backline.
I'm going to split the other half of my answer into 3 defining moments of the season to be optimistic:
1. The June 26th victory over Houston at home was vital to keeping the season from going off the rails. Prior to that match, FCD went winless in 6 games, drawing NYRB at home before embarking on a depressing 5 consecutive-game roadtrip which earned the team 2 measly points.
2. The 3-0 away win at Columbus on September 6th showed that this team is capable of earning a statement victory against solid opposition on the road, despite massive failures to do just that earlier in the season. While Dallas stumbled defensively last weekend in Seattle, that Columbus win gave us hope going into the game that Dallas could have come away with a better result.
3. The 1-0 win over RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium on October 17th showed fans that Oscar Pareja is capable of winning ugly in a critical moment - something necessary to keep FCD in the race with NYRB for the Supporters' Shield. Winning ugly has been something that hasn't come easily under Oscar. FCD can look like world beaters when the team is firing on all cylinders, but this team also implodes in colossal fashion when there's a hiccup. See: 3 four-goal losses this season, 2-0 shutout against Chicago ... Chicago!
Projected Lineup: Gonzalez; Hollingshead, Hedges, Loyd, Watson; Ulloa, Cirigliano, Castillo, Diaz, Barrios; Texeira
Tex struggled to get off too many shots against Seattle. I could see Oscar swapping him for Blas Perez to start the game. Whether Tex starts or not, I expect to see him on a lot shorter leash if he isn't able to deliver offensively early.
BDS: In 581 post season minutes played so far with the Sounders in 3 tournaments, Obafemi Martins has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. As a casual Sounders observer, he seemed to be pretty quiet to me in the first leg. Is there something preventing him from making an impact in the playoffs? What does he need to do differently, if anything, to make his mark on the second leg in Frisco?
SaH: In the last two matches we've seen a bit more of Obafemi Martins the target forward. Despite being just 5'7" the Nigerian is great at hold up play and winning headers. He handled Omar Gonzalez and didn't struggle against FC Dallas in that aspect. He's also getting quality shots off, so the future looks bright. With 12 shots, five on goal, Oba should have a couple goals at this point. If he threatens Sunday like he did in leg one he will net something. If all he's doing is giving defenses trouble through hold-up play and by forcing saves that rebound to Dempsey's feet Martins is still quite valuable.
BDS: FC Dallas was able to earn a goal and frustrate the Sounders during the first half last weekend, but the second half shifted in Seattle's favor as they set up residence in Dallas' half and scored 2 goals. What do you think Sigi told the team at halftime, and what tactical changes do you expect to see from the start of the second leg this weekend?
SaH: Those first 20-25 minutes when Seattle tried to keep pace with Dallas were a disaster. Seattle needed to do two things to give themselves a chance. First they needed to slow down the players, as these older bodies really only have two speedy guys (Martins and Fisher). Second they needed to speed up their possession/ball-movement. There are quality technical players scattered throughout the field and pure long ball and sprint ignores the ways that Dempsey, Martins, Ivanschitz, Pappa, Valdez and Friberg can beat a team. There were flashes of what could work in the rest of the first half, but the biggest change was probably getting Pappa off the field. He wasn't the creator he needed to be and his pace of play is ponderous.
By getting players with more urgency towards goal, but through passing the Sounders looked like the team that they are at their best. They are capable of lulling teams to sleep with long moments of possession in the defensive or central third as they look for the killer quick strike. When that strike comes the opposition fullbacks or defensive mids are weary from non-productive movement and then out of position.
If Seattle plays like that for a full game they are unbeatable. It's the way they started the year looking like the best team in the league and the way they ended the season with an 11-match unbroken record.
BDS: Is there any additional pressure on Sigi and his staff to win this year? The Sounders have won US Open Cups and a Supporters' Shield; as many pundits have espoused already, Seattle may be starting to feel like it's time to win an MLS Cup. Do you think the front office is considering a coaching change if the Sounders fail to win this post season?
SaH: If there is additional pressure to win an MLS Cup that does not come from timing, but instead that Sigi Schmid has a new boss in President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. Garth may not be compelled to let Sigi go, but if the team flops out of this round or the next a change could be desired just so Lagerwey gets his man in place rather than go with the system and structure that brought Seattle more wins and trophies since 2009 than any team but the LA Galaxy. This is not like 2013 where the reasons for the late collapse could be laid at Sigi's feet. A coach is ultimately in charge of the locker room. The massive swath of injuries and international callups that coincided with a couple significant suspensions were not Schmid's fault and the team certainly recovered from them with a wonderful winning streak.
The squad is in a good place now. It should take a massive failure in this game or next for Sigi to get the ax. By beating LA Schmid earned the chance at an MLS Cup and cleared the field for anyone to make a run for the title. There is no better year for him to flush the "Sigi out" question by winning the only league hardware absent from Seattle's cabinet.
Projected Lineup: Frei; Fisher, Marshall, Scott, Mears; Ivanschitz, Rose, Friberg, Pappa; Dempsey, Martins