There are several ways to start off a new MLS season ranging from nervy last gasp 1-0 wins to solid offensive performances punctuated by deflating counterattacks. On Sunday, the Sounders opted for neither of those options and instead steamrolled their way through New England to a comprehensive and exhilarating 3-0 win.
Countering the 3-man midfield disadvantage
With the Sounders in their traditional 4-4-1-1, the New England Revolution came into Sunday's match with a tactical advantage that they could exploit in their 4-2-3-1 formation, at least on paper. It was the Sounders who held the upper hand once the game started as Sigi Schmid opted to use several different tactical adjustments to counter the Revolution's advantage.
Formation images generated with this11.com
With play on the right at the feet of Marco Pappa and Tyrone Mears, the Sounders used Leo Gonzalez who pushed up into midfield alongside Michael Azira while Gonzalo Pineda operated as the box-to-box midfielder. It wasn't a particularly sexy midfield trio, but it did the job of restricting space and preventing the counter. In juxtaposition, when play was down the left wing at the feet of Lamar Neagle, Pappa would drift into the center of midfield as Tyrone Mears pushed forward aggressively from the right fullback spot. In that modality, the shift from DeAndre Yedlin to Mears may have the greatest impact. While Yedlin drove forward with gusto and pace at whim, Mears tends to pick his spots operating directly off the role the Guatemalan adopts rather then using his own pace to create attacks. It's a different style of offensive play and one that may see the Sounders get the best out of both Pappa and Mears at the same time.
The last method was a more classical model wherein Dempsey or Martins dropped deep into midfield to facilitate linkup play while Neagle pushed high and wide on the left. That was by far the least used method the Sounders employed and that came mostly prior to the penalty in the 24th minute and the Sounders taking the lead. At that point, one of the defensive midfield partnership of Andy Dorman and Steven Caldwell had to take a more proactive approach in possession which opened room for Dempsey and Martins in transition play through the middle.
Neutralizing Diego Fagundez
Without Lee Nguyern or Jermaine Jones, New England has a creativity problem. While players like Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, and Teal Bunbury are very good attacking threats none of them are particularly effective creative types. Keyln Rowe shows the most ability in that regard but it is still a far cry from the ability of New England's two main playmakers. This left the main brunt of the offensive drive on the shoulders of Diego Fagundez, the 20-year-old Uruguayan youth international who is a dynamic force in New England's midfield. Much of the Seattle defensive effort on the right included excising Fagundez's influence with a combination of Mears and Azira marking along with secondary pressure from Marco Pappa. This had the effect of limiting Fagundez's contribution, stalling the primary creative conduit for the New England attack as the Sounders man marked him into oblivion (it also necessitated Heaps shifting Fagundez to the right to start the second half where Leo Gonzales promptly rendered him invisible too).
It was a masterful strategy as the Sounders eliminated Fagundez for vast stretches of the game. The stretch from the 10th to the 20th minute when Fagundez had one touch and then again from the 31st minute through the end of the first half where Fagundez had no touches stand out in particular. In total, for about 25 minutes of the 75 he played, Fagundez had zero effective influence on the game. With Fagundez out of the match, this left Rowe and Agudelo to shoulder the entirety of the New England offense. Given their relative inexperience with each other, it's no wonder that the Sounders defensive foci in Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, and Michael Azira combined for a total of 18 interceptions on the evening. That duo also had little help from Bunbury who had an off night himself in addition to being the focus of a physical defensive effort from Gonzalez and Neagle.
Kobayashi shifts the attacking balance to New England, but not without consequence
Early in the second half Jay Heaps realized the limited effect his midfield duo of Caldwell and Dorman were having in aiding his stagnating offensive line. This lead to the introduction of Daigo Kobayashi and a shift to a 4-1-4-1 from New England. It immediately gave New England some attacking life as Kobayashi took over the bulk of the creative duties while Rowe operated as a withdrawn forward making runs off Juan Agudelo. While it worked better in possession, it also opened more space for Martins and Dempsey in the middle.
That space around Steven Caldwell was what Martins, Dempsey, and Pappa exploited to incredible effect as they overloaded the zone all at once, tore the defensive line asunder, and we all got to watch Clint Dempsey walk the ball into the goal in the 66th minute. And that wasn't the only situation that arose from that as the Sounders performed the same style of maneuver just minutes later and almost netted a 4th.
Ultimately, the Sounders pushed Daigo Kobayashi deeper into midfield in a response to the threat posed by space surrounding the single pivot. Despite Heaps' continued attacking substitutions, it was just too late for New England to mount a threat that would break down a strong defensive shell and a 3 goal Sounders lead.