In the 23rd minute of the Seattle Sounders 1-0 loss to the LA Galaxy on Sunday, the Sounders put on a clinic in how not to defend a set piece. As the match wore on though, the Sounders rectified their set piece issues eventually finding a happy defensive posture midway through the match.
In this, I'm only going to look at the set piece defending from set plays from wide positions in this match. While many of the core principles of defending corners (ie zone marking vs. man marking) also apply to wide set pieces, the setup and defensive represents a fundamentally different approach.
23rd Minute: Bogus set piece defense leads to LA's goal
In the first set piece defense of the match, the Sounders opted to structure themselves in a hybrid setup using seven-men. Those seven were split between zone defense and man marking the most aggressive aerial threats. That setup was composed of Chad Marshall, Cristian Roldan, and Osvaldo Alonso on pure zone marks, while Lamar Neagle operated on a zone mark addressing the potential of a secondary run from Dan Gargan. Brad Evans, Andy Rose, and Tyrone Mears set up for run marks on Omar Gonzalez, Alan Gordon, and Gyazi Zardes.
That's a solid setup for dealing with most set pieces except for one glaring issue: why in hell is Brad Evans marking Omar Gonzalez? Brad Evans is a good aerial defender and 99% of the time this is probably the best defensive option for the Sounders. There are two mitigating factors in this case though: Juninho's propensity for delivering a set piece on a dime: and the fact that putting Brad Evans in an aerial duel against Omar Gonzalez is like asking an ant to battle Godzilla.
Upon the play's start , Gonzalez peels off towards the back post gaining the easy advantage on a back pedaling Evans. With Evans blind to his opponent's position, this gives Gonzalez extra space to get forward momentum, winning his header with elementary ease that allows him to completely dictate where the header should be. That it's a perfect pass to Gordon should not be surprising in any way.
Speaking of Gordon, the other major failing in this play was the set piece defense of Andy Rose. As the play starts, Gordon easily beats Andy Rose's marking and makes a beeline for the backpost. That original run from Gordon leaves Rose high and dry scrambling to recover. As Rose sees the ball move past him he drops into zone mark for the clearance as Marshall and Mears do the same.
In an ideal circumstance, the turn and zone mark is exactly the correct move from Rose as addressing the second ball is paramount from this position. It should be that Rose is in a position to mitigate any threat on a ball headed to his runner. Yet with the space already opened by Gordon's run that beat Rose, there is too much space, hanging the Aussie to dry in no man's land while Gordon gives LA the lead.
40th Minute: Fixing the Weakness
17 minutes later the LA Galaxy got their second bite at the apple with a set piece from wide left. The setup from the Sounders was the same as they once again opted for a hybridized defensive approach.
Yet one massive change was made as Chad Marshall was set to mark Omar Gonzalez while Brad Evans adopted the former's position in the zone defense. Though this time with a right footed threat on the left the of potential curling the ball into the near post had to be addressed meaning Evans and Marshall lined up on opposite sides of the box.
Marshall proved enough of a physical and aerial threat to contain the run of Omar Gonzalez, but once again Alan Gordon proved far too elusive for Andy Rose arriving just a second too late on his run. Luckily the use of Stefan Ishizaki over Juninho, a better direct threat but far less accurate, by LA allowed Stefan Frei to gather the set piece easily.
51st Minute: Proper set piece defense
Shortly after halftime, the Galaxy had their final set piece from wide areas as Juninho whipped in yet another ball towards Omar Gonzalez. Unlike the first set piece, Juninho under-hits the ball as Gonzalez tries ghosting off the back of Marshall. Unfortunately Marshall had a far better read on the ball then Gonzalez and easily won the header despite the late attempt to climb over his back.
Another highlight here is that despite the fact that this is an out-swinging set piece, Brad Evans is again on the near post. One might surmise that he'd have taken up Marshall's position on the back post identical to the similar set piece in the 20th minute. This suggest that rather then a role swap and minor angle change -- as we saw in the 40th minute -- the Sounders re-organized their entire set-piece zone mark structure after the first goal.
This is also Andy Rose's only occurrence of staying with his mark. While Gordon does get open some space when he uses Lamar Neagle and Dan Gargan as a screen, he reads the play wrong as Ishizaki doesn't take the free kick. This early run from Gordon could possibly be construed as an attempt to gain a yard of advantage and allow his teammates to beat the offside line. However, given the fact that every other Galaxy player stays pat until Juninho acts, it's more likely Gordon just screwed up. Either way, he isn't able to elude Rose on this play while the rest of the Sounders defense does their job and the Galaxy threat is repelled.
Overall there's not a lot of 100% clear cut takeaways to draw from the Sounders set piece defense. Andy Rose had trouble with Alan Gordon in two of the three cases but there's also a reason why Alan Gordon has been able to create a viable MLS career for himself despite a relative lack of other skills. He's very good in exactly these type of scenarios. Perhaps the Sounders would have been better served using Brad Evans to mark Gordon rather then Andy Rose but then the Sounders lose the advantage of having a defensive aerial presence in the zone mark. That's perhaps a far bigger issue over the course of 90 minutes.
What should be the biggest takeaway is that while Chad Marshall is the best player to monitor and clear from the zone mark, against a certain subset of opponents he needs to be man marking. Ideally it would be those opponents who combine dominating aerial threats with pinpoint set piece delivery: Michel and Blaz Perez in Dallas: Kaka and Aurelien Collin in Orlando: Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in Toronto: Juninho and Omar Gonzalez in LA. In those circumstances, Chad Marshall needs to be the player responsible for 1v1 marking.