The Seattle Sounders put together a rather unusual performance on Saturday, focusing on maintaining possession and stretching the Vancouver Whitecaps defensive lines rather then engaging in their customary run-and-gun high tempo approach. It's a trend that we've seen in several matches now, but this was their best showing with a possession-first strategy so far this season.
The Whitecaps' speed on both flanks coupled with a strong ball winning holding midfield and a pass-heavy attacking midfielder in Pedro Morales meant the Sounders couldn't go toe-to-toe with Vancouver out wide. Keeping Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa wide to overload the wings was never going to be a viable offensive strategy nor was using Remick and Mears as aggressive attacking fullbacks. The speed Vancouver can bring to bear from any number of their young attackers would have made opening holes in the back to attack forward tantamount to tactical suicide. Conversely, that ultimately necessitated having numbers wide in defense.
But neither was going directly toe-to-toe in the middle against a strong holding midfield pairing of Matias Laba and Russell Teibert a viable strategy. Especially with the problems Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda have had in recent matches of getting sucked too high into the midfield and pushing play through the center would have exposed space for Morales between the Sounders defensive lines in transition. The Chilean attacking midfielder is deadly with the ball at his feet and is very adept at picking out targets on the run.
To solve both problems Sigi Schmid needed Marco Pappa to have one of his best games in a Sounders uniform -- a standard to which the Guatemalan delivered.
Cutting into the midfield from the left wing, Pappa was instrumental in adding an additional pressing target in Vancouver's main defensive zone, as Clint Dempsey dropped off the lone striker as well loading up Laba and Teibert with four targets as the Sounders. In conjunction, Sigi Schmid pushed Chad Barrett very high where he sat between the two center backs. With Barrett staying high and the aggressive pressing of Laba and Teibert, this opened up space in midfield between the normally compact lines of the Vancouver low block. When the defensive lines became sufficiently stretched, the Sounders would aggressively advance using through balls into Chad Barrett or Lamar Neagle as the primary targets before the center backs could close the distance and bring the backline up in support.
After two early goals from Barrett put the Sounders way out in front, what originally began as an attempt to stretch and open holes in the defense eventually became a valuable possession strategy. As the second half wore on -- with the Vancouver press exhausted and ineffective -- the Sounders were able to out possess Vancouver in the middle with minimal effort. Stringing together extremely long spells of possession, the Sounders whiled away the rest of the match as Vancouver sought to reimpose their pressing on the match with little effect.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are one of the better teams in MLS. Their high-tempo soccer, utilizing both high pressing and a solid defensive structure, is a great hallmark of their play and a solid viable strategy against most teams. Along with a growing contingent of young South Americans and a young and very promising coach, there's every reason to expect that this season's Western Conference title race will involve them. But for now the Sounders have their number and they've given everyone a blueprint for how to defeat them.