Winter has arrived. As we outlined late last week, the Seattle Sounders are likely to be without the services of Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, and Marco Pappa for the forseeable future -- injury, suspension, and Gold Cup callups. While the Sounders will have Pappa through the month of June, they will lose him come the start of July. The Sounders' match against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday was the first look at how the Sounders will be able to adapt to life without their best players.
Playing most of the last two seasons in a 4-4-1-1, the Sounders shifted into a 4-2-3-1. However, rather then using Marco Pappa in a central attacking role or playmaking from the center, the Sounders instead opted to use a shifting three-man midfield to facilitate play, while both Thomas and Pappa operated as mobile playmakers. Both of the Sounders' creative types swapped sides, shifted into the middle and were given unfettered roles. While there were predominant sides to their play, with Thomas mainly operating on the left and Pappa on the right, the creative freedom was a big piece of what the Sounders tried to do. While Pappa had an excellent game, Thomas' performance was decidedly mixed.
However, the real crux of the Sounders' play was the reliance on the support the midfield trio of Andy Rose, Cristian Roldan, and Micheal Azira provided. Rather than playing in their a static 3-man midfield, the Sounders actually played in an inverted mobile 3-man style. In offense, Roldan would drop into the backfield facilitating buildup play while Azira and Rose would push forward. Rose was the operating CAM shifting wide onto both flanks to support and combine with both Thomas and Pappa. Azira was ostensibly tasked with doing the same, but he more closely resembled a lost child wandering aimlessly around the field.
But neither were the Sounders locked into that setup. If play was fast, Roldan would easily transition into a more attacking role, leaving Azira in the distributive role, while Rose could do the same. In many ways, it was a solid offensive setup for a fast fluid midfield designed to bring support to whichever playmaker needed it.
On Saturday, it worked in so much as it was effective at putting the Sounders in positions to form effective quick passing attacks. It didn't work in so much as San Jose pushed Seattle off the ball with double teams and extreme physicality all game when they couldn't push the ball forward to Lamar Neagle or bring the fullbacks into the attack.
Rather than defending in their normal 4x4 defensive banks, Sig Schmid instead opted for a straight up 5-man midfield with Roldan/Azira forming a double pivot while Pappa, Thomas, and Rose filled the bulk of the pressing needs. With the mobility expected of the Sounders in the attack, this left Azira as the main defensive option often caught high up the field and moving back into defense far out of position. When Azira was left low, he was defensively sound winning quite a few tackles and placing himself in good positions to address the incoming attacks. Without a partner, however, this movement and aggressiveness left large holes that San Jose frequently found ways to work around when the Sounders weren't able to win the ball.
Similar in result to their performance against Sporting Kansas City, the Sounders use of Lamar Neagle as a lone striker was hit or miss. Either Neagle was pulling wide to combine with the playmakers and leaving the box completely vacant of targets or he was stuck in the box surrounded by Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez, unable to work with his teammates. It was definitely a frustrating scenario for the Sounders and it's one reason why they resorted to long shots in the opening stages of the match as Neagle dropped deep to exploit the space off the back shoulder of Fatai Alashe. That open space didn't last long before the Earthquakes made the adjustment.
Lessons for the Coming Weeks
The Sounders need Osvaldo Alonso back. The combination of what Micheal Azira and Cristian Roldan combined to do on Saturday is what Osvaldo Alonso is everyday. The mobile three-man midfield can certainly work for the Sounders but being able to match distribution and defensive skills was exactly what the Sounders needed to make sure their support of the attacking threats is effective. Without Alonso, though, the Sounders should plan on leaving Azira pinned to the zone above the center backs rather then using him in a more aggressive role -- adding extra duties to his plate doesn't work. Without Alonso, the Sounders are sure to need a 3-man midfield using a combination of the three and Pineda which likely means Thomas will be on the wing again.
Moving forward without Pappa means that the creative role will likely fall to Thomas -- whose abilities are admittedly still a mystery. Ultimately, missing Pappa could be a blessing in disguise if it shifted Thomas to the middle in a withdrawn striker role. That would fix the isolation issue Neagle faced while also freeing up a role on the left for Aaron Kovar. The homegrown player was a very direct force for the Sounders in the last 30 minutes on Saturday and his combination with Dylan Remick was impressive. The number of dangerous balls they put into the box that just rolled through the area bordered on astronomical, putting more emphasis on potentially shifting Thomas into that area. It's also more akin to the Sounders' normal 4-4-1-1 setup and would likely suit many of the younger guys who likely don't have the tactical acumen to deal with different formation subsets yet.