While ordinarily a 1-1 draw wouldn't be a result to write home about, the Seattle Sounders earned their first road point in what seems like an eternity on Saturday. Putting up a stalwart defensive performance against a San Jose Earthquakes side who has proved to be a massive thorn in their side proved the difference and for much of the second half, one of the Sounders' best defensive players was MLS debutant Andreas Ivanschitz.
Coming on at the half for the injured Brad Evans, Ivanschitz's first 25 minutes were a collective mixed bag. On the offensive side of the ball, the Austrian international was virtually non-existent. Displaying a propensity to tuck inside, he frequently found himself squeezed for space between the advancing Tyrone Mears and the Sounders withdrawn striker. For their parts, Dempsey and Martins struggled to find the right space to operate in with Ivanschitz pushing into their zone from the right and with Nelson Valdez doing the same on the left.
To his credit, Ivanschitz backed off towards Mears, content to let the Sounders offensive duo work their magic. But it came with his alienation. As the half wore on, Mears picked his spots better adapting to Ivanschitz's positioning and opening space for the Austrian to receive and work with the few touches he did receive. If that right sided partnership is to continue, I'd expect Mears and Ivanschitz to adapt much better to utilize each other's strengths. Their experience and adaptation in game already speaks volumes to what they could do if they had a week in practice to work on it.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ivanschitz and Mears were nearly flawless. Ivanschitz's ability to position himself directly in and to close down and eliminate entire passing lanes, keep the play in front of him, and restrict the ability of Shaun Francis and Shea Salinas was at times beautiful to watch. With little link up on their left, the Earthquakes had little choice but to try to ram the ball down the Sounders' left past Neagle/Valdez and Oniel Fisher. That ability of Ivanschitz to shut down an entire side in conjunction with a player like Brad Evans or Nelson Valdez, gives the Sounders the ability to put enormous defensive presence into their own half if needed. And that complete defensive posture is something the Sounders have struggled to do consistently well in the past.
After the 75th minute, though, Ivanschitz got his moment in the sun on offense as Brian Schmetzer elected to have Neagle and Ivanschitz shift sides. From a more central position, Ivanschitz was able to drive play out wide to the left combining with Martins and Friberg in pushing the Sounders offense. With Martins given a more free role, to push wide on the left, and Neagle pushing high on the right, this gave Dempsey more room higher towards the San Jose center backs and helped to ensure Ivanschitz had the space to work with in pushing play forward. And then there was that dead sexy set piece service. It was Ivanschitz's free kick that set up Martins' goal and he also found Neagle on a long-distance service for an open header that went wide.
Just for good measure, Ivanschitz nearly factored into a second goal, too. Shortly after Martins' goal, Ivanschitz controlled a ball off his shoulder -- that was incorrectly ruled a hand ball -- before he blasted it off the goal post, ricocheting off a defender and into the net.
Capable of proving to be hugely influential on both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball, Andreas Ivanschitz's 45-minute debut for the Seattle Sounders was extremely positive for what the Sounders can accomplish once both Valdez and Ivanschitz find their niche. Both have proved already to be dynamic game changing players, capable of putting in solid shifts and that's an encouraging sign for the Seattle Sounders headed into the last five games of the regular season.