The Sounders traveled to Columbus over the weekend riding a four-match winning streak. Rather than continuing that run of good form, they instead were outfoxed and outplayed as the Columbus Crew defeated them 3-2 on the evening.
It's becoming a hallmark of Seattle Sounders games to see how the Sounders square off against a three-man midfield this season and it has been a repetitive theme over the last few tactical analyses I've done. Despite the fact that Gregg Berhalter ostensibly lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1, none of that midfield spatial control battle was to be found in this match. Recognizing the strength of the Sounders in the midfield and their weakness in wide positions, Berhalter and company viciously attacked en masse down the wings.
Columbus' favorite engines of war were Federico Higuain and the fullbacks Waylon Francis and Hector Jimenez. Higuain spent 90 minutes showing off just how deadly a false 10 can be when combined with two modern attacking fullbacks, as the Sounders found themselves overloaded on both flanks. Their main attacking avenue was down the right-hand side of the field as Finlay and Higuain combined with Jimenez to target Dylan Remick and Marco Pappa. It is Seattle's weaker defensive side, but Remick and Pappa put in some valuable defensive work in conjunction with Osvaldo Alonso to limit the damage.
Columbus setup in attack
The right side of the field was a different matter. With Remick and Pappa pinned back, this left Andy Rose and Tyrone Mears as the attacking outlets for the Sounders. Against a fullback with the speed of Waylon Francis, this is like being the Staypuft Marshmallow man up against the Roadrunner in a dead sprint. The Sounders rightly had zero attacking impetus down that flank without hyper-aggressively pushing both Rose and Mears. The final heat map of the evening showed just how imbalanced the Sounders formation was, and it cost them many attacks and generated quite a few turnovers during transition.
Furthermore this act came with a cost as it left the Sounders with only Mears capable of recovering. Combining Francis and Justin Meram's speed with the intricate play of Higuain gave the Crew ample amounts of room and time to create dangerous attacks down the left. Both of the Crew's first two goals were created this way.
However, the Sounders also found themselves with no valid pressing plan in this match. Defensive midfielder Mohammed Saied dropped deep between the Crew centerbacks to address the counterattack potential, while Michael Parkhurst and Emmanuel Pogatetz split into far wide positions. With three deep targets and only two pressers, this left the Sounders without the ability to defend from the front. Whenever they did push an extra presser into attack if left the Sounders short-manned in defense as Meram/Finlay and Higuain combined with the fullbacks to overload the Sounders and rip apart the Sounders' low block. Overall, It was a strategy that was extremely effective.
60 minutes of defensive hell
Overall, the Sounders were a decent attacking team on Saturday for the first 60+ minutes, but they were a team being torn apart defensively. That they only conceded three goals is a hugely positive sign for the entire defensive line and for Stefan Frei. Part of that is certainly the fact that attacking fullbacks are an extremely potent offensive force and the Sounders did not have the technical ability in this contest to match up against their biggest weakness. For the first 65 minutes of the match, the Sounders only notched six shots while Columbus combined for 19. That shot disparity was incredible, especially when you consider just four of those came from outside the area and six were blocked for Columbus.
Then Sigi Schmid substituted on Lamar Neagle and Chad Barrett in the span of four minutes.
The shot counts for the next 25 minutes is 6-6 with the Sounders generating all within 6-10 yards, mostly off sustained pressure, set pieces and corners.
Exploiting the space behind the Columbus fullbacks
With the pace and direct play of Lamar Neagle and Chad Barrett, the Sounders offense suddenly found themselves with the ability to exploit on the counter. The Columbus fullbacks, who were forced to recover now rather than stopping the Sounders attacks, began conceding throw-ins and corners. With real space for the first time in the match, the Sounders were finally able to mount compelling spells of possession as they worked the ball around the area. It's a shame that their most potent force in these situations -- Marco Pappa -- was already done for the night.
It's not really a performance you can mince words on as Sigi Schmid clearly got his tactics wrong from the first minute -- and admitted as much in the postgame. The Sounders game was built around controlling the midfield and perhaps with a Wil Trapp-led Columbus side, this likely would have been another convincing win. But it's also easy to understand in that the Sounders had a very quick turnaround for this match, flying from NYC to Seattle on Monday before a flight to Columbus on Thursday.
Losing two days of practice is a huge blow, especially when you're adapting between two teams who play vastly different styles of football and require fundamentally different defensive approaches. This may have been a match that the Sounders simply weren't going to be able to cope with well, based on the travel conditions of MLS. But Schmid waiting 60 minutes before making a substitution that was plainly necessary from minute 20 was something that compounded the Sounders struggles in this match.