The 4-4-1-1 of June and the previous 18 months was a balanced formation for the Seattle Sounders. And as we've seen since mid-June, it was also a formation that couldn't handle the loss of key pieces with the way the squad was constructed. The losses of Osvaldo Alonso, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins sent the Sounders into a tailspin that saw them win just a single game over exactly two months.
That tailspin saw a number of changes for the Sounders, starting with the signing of Erik Friberg and culminating in a tactical shift to a 4-3-3 formation in an attempt to find something that would work. On the other side of that dark tunnel, but still without Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders have found their synthesis and it's a hybrid of those systems. That synthesis, along with a woeful performance from Orlando City, led the Sounders to a cathartic 4-0 win on Sunday.
While zonally not very distinct, the behavior of the players is the key difference in the new Sounders formation. With all three of Martins, Nelson Valdez, and Lamar Neagle responsible for pressing duties, this left a hole under the main strikers that Andy Rose would frequently tuck into leaving Friberg and Brad Evans to deal with Kaká in the middle in a 3-man midfield. In possession, Rose would push out wide freeing that space for Martins and Valdez to work. In the 4-4-1-1, that space was filled by Pappa sliding in off the wing while Dempsey pushed up high to drive play forward with Martins. The key difference here is that this new system shifts the avenue of attack -- now moving from the middle wide as opposed to wide to middle-- and establishing a greater reliance on Tyrone Mears to build play by stepping into the midfield.
This new style is something that the Sounders can mix and match with their new personnel. Do the Sounders need to be more direct on the right? They can shift Neagle or Valdez to the right and utilize new signing Andreas Ivanschitz pushing out to the left in the same vein as Rose from his preferred position centrally. When Pappa comes back he can add yet another dimension into the attack by providing playmakers on either wing who can drop into this same configuration. And when Dempsey returns, the whole system can be turned into a rotating cast of players dropping centrally or pushing out wide depending on the defensive state and the holes in the opposition defense during transition.
The midfield trio is perhaps the most interesting part of this change as it was a source of immense strength against Orlando City through the middle (i.e. Kaká) but struggled with wider threats. And while that was without Osvaldo Alonso, the setup might be uniquely configured to take advantage of both the defensive and possessive threat that Alonso and Friberg pose while retaining the power of Brad Evans deeper. That setup would help to mitigate the threat posed by quick, wide threats.The sticking point here though is Evans.
Long term, Evans is likely going to be a center back. He's too good at the position not to earn his way there, but right now he still has the pace and ability to put together great performances in midfield. An option in this setup is for Schmid to play Evans on top of the backline (as he did on Sunday) while Alonso can shift into a higher possession and defensive role that suits his skillset so well. High-octane offense and defense paired with a measured tactical approach with a dash of the creative madness of Friberg -- and there's still Ivanschitz to think about -- might well be a recipe for the best midfield the Sounders can form.
Whether these changes stick on Dempsey's and Alonso's return is an open question at this point, but there's not much reason to drastically switch it up. Especially when the Sounders seem to have found a great answer that fits both the players they have and the new players who've come in.