Finding themselves with their third game in eight days, the Seattle Sounders' 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls was a tough match against an high-pressing opponent. Once again the Sounders' struggles against the high press showed up but with staunch defending (and let's be honest, poor attacking play from the Red Bulls) and some late heroics from Clint Dempsey, the Sounders were able to claim all three points.
With just minor changes from their 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids mid-week, the Sounders came into this match with minor lineup and tactical changes. Rookie Cristian Roldan again earned the nod over Lamar Neagle on the right wing while Marco Pappa dropped into the midfield with Andy Rose and Osvaldo Alonso. Similar to that Colorado match, the Sounders aimed to push play through the right side of midfield, using Roldan and Mears as the key conduits combining with Rose, Pappa, and Dempsey to transition play forward.
On the Red Bull side of the equation, their 4-2-3-1 formation high-pressed relentlessly through the middle pushing Mike Grella and Lloyd Sam high to counter the Sounders' ability to play possession soccer through the middle. It was generally an effective strategy as the secondary press of the Red Bull midfield picked apart possession frequently on the afternoon. It was a huge struggle for the Sounders to maintain control in this match and the to-and-fro nature of the match spoke to that fact.
Lloyd Sam's game to control
The biggest piece of the Red Bulls' system was Lloyd Sam who in addition to his pressing was the key defensive cog of Jesse Marsch's tactical plan. With Marco Pappa diving into the midfield, Sam also abandoned the left wing and tucked into the middle himself adding an extra body to create a man-advantage. Combined with the high press, the Red Bulls forced the Sounders to play a possession game through a highly congested midfield. This limited the Sounders ability in transition play and ensured the Red Bull defense was in the proper position to limit the ability of Martins, Roldan, and Mears to overload the right flank. It also led to a heavy turnover count.
Attacking the space behind the Red Bulls left fullback
For the Sounders' part, their gameplan rested on two general ideas: 1) exploit the space behind the forward advances of Red Bull rightback Kemar Lawrence or 2) withstand the high pressure long enough to engage Felipe Martins and open the space around Dax McCarty. However, the disciplined play of the Red Bull defensive corps gave them ample opportunities to slot in and shut down the opportunities the Sounders had in advancing play through the middle. Combining that with a generally poor game from Dempsey and Martins and the Sounders lost or squandered many attacking chances.
This left Roldan's and Martins' attacking runs behind Lawrence as much of the source of the Sounders offense in the first half. But where the Sounders excelled on Wednesday -- using Roldan against the slower Marc Burch -- the recovery speed of Lawrence left the Sounders with a neutered ability to push play through the right. While it was a strategy that occasionally paid big dividends (especially when Felipe Martins was caught high in press and McCarty was shuttling off to the wing, exposing holes for Dempsey).
Second Half Switch
With the Sounders not finding much luck through the middle, the Sounders pinned Pappa out to the left wing upon the introduction of Lamar Neagle mid-way through the second half. Neagle's speed allowed the Sounders to finally target the space behind Lawrence as they unleashed Tyrone Mears to pump longballs into Neagle before switching play to Pappa on the left. With the Sounders rapidly shifting sides, the Red Bull high press was forced to work harder and while it was still a successful tactic, Dempsey and Martins began to find pockets of space around McCarty and the centerbacks with increasing regularity.
Overall, Sunday's win was not a reassuring game, despite how sweet stoppage-time goals are. The Sounders struggled against a high press for what feels like the ump-teenth time this season and while their possession game was on point enough to mitigate it, that approach is not a long-term solution. It's not an ideal strategy (unless you have the technical quality of Bayern Munich or Barcelona) and it's one that can potentially explode in your face. That's not to mention the amount of frayed nerves it's going to create.
On the flipside, it's not like there's a simple solution to that issue: use Neagle or Barrett to exploit space behind the opposition backline in transition and you lose the ability to build out of the back in half the field. Use Roldan or Rose and you get the inverse effect. It's going to be a give and take affair for the Sounders in this regard though because the kind of player who combines both the speed and the technical ability to this effect is likely to require a DP slot. Until that kind of player comes in, it's going to be on Sigi Schmid to make sure he plays his cards in the right order in responding to opposition lineups. So far, he's doing it right.