Coming into the match on a high note following their comprehensive 3-0 win over the New England Revolution, it was the Seattle Sounders turn to taste the bitter pill of being exploited as they fell to the San Jose Earthquakes 3-2.
It's a rare occasion that the main tactical theme of a game comes down to a single weakness, and it's even rarer that the situation isn't addressed quickly by the head coach. While those matches do exist, they tend to end in one of two scenarios; a) a blowout or b) a shootout. Saturday's loss to San Jose was the latter, helped as it was by a red card to Victor Bernardez in the 51st minute and a dynamic substitution from Brain Schmetzer in the second half.
The 4-2-3-1 vs. the 4-4-2
One of the predominant themes of the match was the three-man Earthquakes midfield of Falia Alashe, JJ Koval, and Martin Perez Garca against the two-man Sounders midfield of Gonzalo Pineda and Michael Azira. That man disadvantage is an inherent part of the the matchup between the two formations and while last week the Sounders addressed that problem against New England by dropping an extra man into midfield, in this match San Jose prevented the Sounders from occupying the center of the field with their pressing strategy. This dearth of central control ruined the Sounder ability to create through the middle.
The press and man disadvantage had the effect of removing Michael Azira from the game entirely. The Ugandan had a grand total of 30 passes in his 60+ minutes on the pitch which is atrocious for a team built around a hub of Osvaldo Alonso. The main source of that force was Matias Perez Garcia who had an incredible game for San Jose both on and off the ball. Perez, along with Sanna Nyassi and Innocent Emeghura formed a formidable pressing trio that isolated the Sounders defensive corps from their offensive corps.
With the center removed, this left Brad Evans and Chad Marshall shouldering most of the deep playmaking duties in this match. On the wings Leo Gonalez and Tyrone Mears, themselves the targets of aggressive pressing from Nyassi and Emeghura, were forced into either forward passes in disadvantageous positions (this creates midfield turnover opportunities) or into recycling possession back into the centerbacks. Aiding Emeghura was Perez Garcia and with both targeting Tyrone Mears, Marco Pappa was forced to remain wide as an outlet rather then drifting into the middle.
When San Jose was able to earn possession back, they immediately swarmed the midfield as JJ Koval played in an aggressive attacking posture diving into attacking midfield while Perez Garcia operated as a false 10. The Earthquake's central hub would swing out wide left double teaming Mears with Emeghura and drawing Azira out onto the wing. That pattern of play was used alternatively with a straight interchange between the San Jose DPs, opening swaths of space for both Koval and Emeghura to run into in the middle simultaneously.
However, the San Jose high press came with a cost. When the Sounders were able to bypass the press, they found themselves running with space against the San Jose defenders. With 5-on-5 attacks it was equal odds for either side as Pineda and Pappa attempted to push the Sounders attacks forward into Dempsey and Martins. For San Jose it was a frantic effort to clear balls and stop attacks in time to reset the defense. By the time Victor Bernardez was sent off in the 51st minute, San Jose had already accounted for 20 clearances (on a night they went on to record 46) and 15 dispossessions.
Chris Wondolowski ties up Brad Evans
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Brad Evans in this game. While the Sounders centerback has been almost universally admonished for his shift in this match, it's worth noting just how difficult this game was for The Sheriff.
Chris Wondolowski is at his best when he's free to move and exploit space. His quintessential skill is dragging defenders out of position with odd runs, ghosting off space as his teammates occupy and re-move the defenders, then popping up to find the ball or poach the rebound after an attempt on goal. That kind of player demands a special type of defender; one who's tactically astute and reads the movements of the players in front of him extremely well. In short, a player of the experience of Chad Marshall.
Unfortunately for the Sounders San Jose didn't let Marshall body up on Wondolowski and instead stuck the striker on the shoulder of Evans and left him there for most of the game. For all his skill, Evans may simply just lack the experience at the position to respond to this type of player. Both of Wondolowski's goals in this game came from direct exploitation of space around (the first) or from his proximity (the second) to Evans.This game was an education for Evans and a trial by fire. Hopefully he learned enough for the next time these foes meet in June.
Bernardez red card, Paulo Renato's injury, and Andy Rose
At the 51st minute, there was no doubt that San Jose had the stranglehold on this match; then Victor Bernardez gave the Sounders a lifeline with an idiotic challenge on Azira that saw the Honduran see straight red. That red card ruined the entire approach San Jose had taken in midfield up to that point. Forced to sacrifice Perez Garcia for centerback Ty Harden, the San Jose press collapsed into dysfunction. Just minutes later though, San Jose's other centerback Paulo Renato went off injured. Now without their two primary centerbacks the Sounders introduced Andy Rose for Michael Azira.
With a replacement centerback in Harden and midfield JJ Koval pressed into emergency centerback service, the Sounders clearly took an offensive gamble as they pushed both Rose and Pineda into the attack.They paid for it almost immediately as Innocent Emeghura made a fool of the entire Sounders defense en route to scoring San Jose's third. While the Sounders paid the price, they did get a large boost in attack as Rose was integral to creating the Sounders second goal in the 86th minute.
The loss on Saturday was yet another example of a game where the Sounders struggled with a fast intense press. Though the games where this is utilized against them are few and far between, their susceptibility to this tactic might be their biggest weakness. While the Sounders do have a toolbag of tricks for responding to sides that use this tactic, they have shown a propensity to be caught by surprise by it over the last several seasons. Hopefully this was their wakeup call.