On Saturday, the Seattle Sounders lost 1-0 to the Chicago Fire after Jason Johnson buried a stoppage time counterattack goal in the 92nd minute. While the Sounders did themselves no favors on the evening with a myriad host of attacking issues, their defense had done just enough to keep Chicago off the score sheet for 90 minutes. Given the the problems the Sounders face right now, that in itself might be considered a victory, but all that went for naught in stoppage time when Micheal Azira hung the Sounders defense out to dry -- twice -- in the span of one play.
Fundamental Defensive Theory on Counterattacks
When defending against the counterattack, there are several key rules that need to be followed by any defender. Some of them are the fundamental basics of defending: others are specific to the numerical disadvantage posed by a counterattack.
- Keep yourself between the man and the goal. This is fundamentally the first rule of defense whether a man has the ball or not. It's so simple that sometimes you forget it exists. And it extends beyond just the man in possession but to all players on the field. If an attacker is in your zone, you need to be between him and the goal.
- Only challenge when cover is present. Cover is the fundamental concept that if you fail a challenge or the opponent overloads a zone, the space in behind the defender can be manned by a teammate sliding over while the original tackler and recycle into the space vacated by the player. That recycling into space is more apt in theory or during buildup, than actual practice on the counterattack given that they usually happen at pace
- Always compact when cover is not present. If the defense finds itself in a situation where it's numerically outmanned, ie a zone overload, the defense should compact, restricting lanes between the ball carrier and the goal until reinforcement arrives. That compacting also comes with a corresponding requirement that, if possible, play needs to forced wide, constricting the angle on goal and making it easier to place yourself between the man and the goal.This necessarily comes with the caveat that the ball carrier also has to be shadowed to prevent the cross field switch in the middle of transition play until such a time as you can isolate the opposition in the corner. Once there you can force the opposition to either recycle possession back into midfield or force a contested cross.
There are other rules that apply when considering defensive theory and how it applies to counterattacks, but these are the most fundamental concerns. And on Saturday, Micheal Azira violated all of these rules in the span of a single play.
To his credit, Azira starts this sequence correctly. He's positioned in midfield to handle and mark the clearance from Chicago. Harrison Shipp pick the ball up in midfield and Azira pressures instantly to force him to play it wide to Stephens rather then pushing play through the middle. From there Azira shadows Stephens to just over the midway line. At the midway point, Stephens checks back to bring Jason Johnson into play on the overlap. At this point, Azira has cover with Dylan Remick deep (and to some extent with Gonzalo Pineda in the middle, though his lack of pace basically makes him useless in this department). Zach Scott is in the process of recovering.
Ideally at this point, Azira should challenge Stephens as he turns back to goal and either a) take him out of the play if Johnson overlaps (at that point it's 2v1 with Remick or Pineda/Scott), or b) win the ball and stop the counter. However, without knowing the runs of Scott and Pineda in behind it's a forgivable move to lay off Stephens and preserve defensive shape.
Though seconds later as Johnson overlaps and the play evolves, Azira gambles it all. With Marshall coming but not yet in the play, Azira tries to anticipate the pass from Stephens to Johnson. While effective if Azira wins the ball, it's one of the the worst move for two reasons he can make if he doesn't win the ball.
First, the Johnson overlap brings Chicago back into a position of numerical advantage on the wing and with Scott and Marshall still recovering there's no cover for Remick who continues to drop deep. If Azira doesn't step, Remick maintains the defensive cover and they're seconds away from reinforcing the backline giving Remick the option to play more aggressively as cover arrives.
Second, trying to intercept the pass while moving wide takes Azira beyond the plane where he's between both Stephens or Johnson and the goal. Now, if Azira fails, he's taken himself out of the Sounders defensive structure. Azira does fail and this has huge ramifications just seconds down the line, especially as Stephens makes the pass on the inside giving Johnson a direct angle on goal.
With Remick hung out to dry with no cover -- again -- he retreats back into the box. If Azira is still in this play, the numerical advantage they pose against Johnson gives he and Remick the freedom to both move to cut down the options for Johnson while Marshall moves to cut off the top of the box on this way into the defensive line -- with Scott already in the defensive line, and controlling the air. With Azira out of the play Remick is pinned to the direct line on goal, Johnson has free reign to cut into the top of the box. And he buries it from 18 yards.