In the past few matches, the Sounders had started moving away from their familiar 4-4-1-1 formation and towards a more straightforward 4-2-3-1. That switch, forced as it was by the loss of all three of the Sounders' biggest offensive weapons in Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Marco Pappa also coincided with a three-match losing streak that included a particularly disheartening loss to the Portland Timbers. While the absence of Osvaldo Alonso as well as most of their offense is a mitigating factor in the team's performance level, their return to their more standard 4-4-1-1 setup heralded a better offensive performance from the Sounders in their 1-0 win over DC United.
What Dempsey does so well is operate in that pocket of space between the center backs and the opposition defensive midfielders. A quick pass, one-touch interchange with Martins and the Sounders have beaten both lines of many opposition defenses. Without Dempsey or Martins, that ability was largely absent from the Sounders' play in recent weeks as the central attacking midfielder dropped deeper to combine and shift play in a rotating three-man midfield with a rotating cast of characters. It was an attempt to provide both defensive cover and offensive attacking thrust from a cast of players with limitations to their games. With the return of Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders no longer had to pick and choose. They had the "best" of both worlds.
In the DC win, despite their poor finishing on dangerous balls in the box, they generated more chances than in many previous games and their ability to operate in the space usually reserved for Dempsey was a large part of that equation.
That came in either the form of Cristian Roldan or Lamar Neagle.
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In the case of Neagle, that function was filled by drifting in off the right wing and pinning high against Steve Birnbaum while either Mears overlapped on the right or Thomas and Remick worked play on the left. From there, both Neagle and Chad Barrett were free to make runs in behind the DC United defense or drop back and link up with Roldan a bit deeper.
Roldan for hist part was the tactical linchpin for the Sounders, his role not one of any specific function but one of manipulating the space to make everyone else more effective. When Thomas pinched in, Roldan moved high occupying the center back and forcing DC United to compress their lines or risk Roldan or Barrett receiving the ball in space. Both players were effective at this, it was just the finishing that was completely missing in most circumstances. The other avenue was when Alonso or Pineda pushed up in conjunction with the Sounders attacking wide. When either of them pushed, Roldan would drift again forcing DC to address his presence or risk dangerous balls into the box.
While it was nice to see the Sounders generating a significant amount of offense, it comes with the obvious caveat that DC United had to burn their original tactical game plan just 4 minutes into the match with the loss of Luis Silva. Then they had to burn almost their entire playbook following the Fabian Espindola red card in the 26th minute.
The Sounders certainly didn't do themselves any favors with their ability to finish but they frequently worked the ball into dangerous situations and they showed a cohesive tactical plan. That's definitely not good enough to win a Supporter's Shield but it should at least work long enough for them to stay in the hunt until they get their firepower back.