Over the last two matches, the Seattle Sounders have started shaking things up. After losing 4 of 5 behind a pitiful attack, Sigi Schmid hinted that he'd have to shake things up. The result of that shakeup has been the 4-3-3 of the last two matches, a new style of buildup play and a whole new defensive schema.
Changes in Possession
In offense, the Sounders haven't displayed an overall massive shift. They still utilize an attacking midfielder as a support striker. This has been a hallmark of Sigi Schmid's time in Seattle and at this point barring a massive squad overhaul, I wouldn't expect that to change in any way. The main change is how buildup play is influenced. Rather than relying on back to goal hold up play from Dempsey or Martins to bring Pappa and Neagle into the fray, the trend has been reversed as the Sounders use Friberg and Rose pushing aggressively out of central midfield to push the ball out to the attackers.
Lamar Neagle, to his credit, has changed his role finding himself operating at the opposition defensive line with Chad Barrett rather than running on the left of Obafemi Martins into channels opened by their movement. This out-and-out winger role in attack isn't something Neagle has been particularly good at as he's also been best running onto the ball and reading the play as it develops in the middle. That versatility and willingness to adapt his role -- while it hasn't been particularly effective -- might be the only reason why Sigi Schmid has kept him in the lineup, anemic week after anemic week.
Roldan operates similarly to how Neagle used to operate on the left wing, pulling off the top of the forward line. Where it differs is in intent, in that rather than reading the play and running onto the ball, Roldan is attempting to craft possession with Rose pushing up and Mears advancing from the backline. Rather than using the third midfield man's zone as a rotating cast of Dempsey, Martins, and Pappa tucking inside, Andy Rose is holding the dual responsibility to both attack the box and create possession while Erik Friberg shoulders the bulk of the creative duties. Friberg, for his part in the Montreal game, showed some audacious decision-making that if he were in better sync with his teammates could have produced some dangerous runs into the box rather than another lost possession.
Changes in Defense
It's in the defensive phase where Sigi Schmid has shown the biggest departure from his preferred tactics recently, switching from his two-striker press to a lone presser. When oppositions are in transition deep, the Sounders frequently push Roldan and Neagle in conjunction with Barrett to form a front three-man press. But more importantly after that initial push, both wingers dropped deep to form a second band of four in conjunction with Andy Rose and Erik Friberg.
The three-man midfield was kept intact but rather than operating as a low block with the center backs and a central secondary presser, the overall structure has been inverted to form a 4-1-4 defensive unit with the backline. This brings both Rose and Friberg into play as secondary pressers supporting the lone striker, attacking the opposition's ability to build play in the middle.
This defensive change is where the biggest questions are going to have to be answered when Clint Dempsey returns and Obafemi Martins comes back from injury. The first concern is that splitting the duo like this vertically separates the most in-sync players in MLS and that's a partnership that should be preserved at all costs. The mitigating factor in that concern, though, is the way in which Rose positions himself. What Rose is doing is similar to how Dempsey operates off the shoulder of Martins. The Sounders might be able to get the best of both worlds in this type of setup because Dempsey showed he was capable of playing exactly this style of defensive play at two Premier League clubs.
A secondary benefit of this type of midfield setup also helps to mitigate whatever loss the Sounders are going to encounter with Marco Pappa's current situation. Remove Pappa and the Sounders lose their main central playmaker. Slotting in Dempsey would be a fantastic way to cover that issue. And with a combination of Roldan, Neagle, and Thomas out on the wings, the Sounders have the pieces necessary to cover by committee the technical ability, passing, and scoring threat that Pappa can pose.
At the base level, it's a hard call. The Sounders were leading the Supporters' Shield race using their 4-4-1-1 on the heels of that formation leading them to the Shield in 2014. It's hard to blow up what was a one of the most potent offensive setups in the league during the middle of a season. On the flipside, even if Pappa, Dempsey, and Martins are all available and Schmid returns to the 4-4-1-1 he's run the past two years, this formation would prove a viable backup plan late in games or when the Sounders are finding themselves struggling to control the midfield. And that in itself is probably a worthwhile reason to at least keep it in the practice regimen.