With the season-ending injury to Román Torres, the Seattle Sounders face the unfortunately familiar task of adjusting the starting backline for the final playoff push and - hopefully - the team's effort to succeed in the postseason. Even though the dire days of the 2015 season may be subsiding, none of their remaining options at center back have been left untainted. Above we see the cumulative minutes of the five starters tried in the back this year.
Seattle's slide largely coincided with Brad Evans' absence from the team - leaving Chad Marshall and Zach Scott the preferred pairing - but Evans returned to the lineup for two large and important losses in that stretch (away against Portland, and at home vs. Vancouver). Jimmy Ockford's sole start came in the 1-0 loss away to Philadelphia, and no one considers him (or now-activated Damian Lowe) ready to take on a starting role. From 2015 results, none of the available permutations seem stellar at first glance.
But those numbers are fairly misleading. The defense has been primarily at fault in the aforementioned Portland and Vancouver games, as well as earlier losses against Columbus and San Jose. The backline failed to contain LA's offense in August, but a road game against the Galaxy without Osvaldo Alonso made such a result fairly predictable.
For the most part, the defense has not really been the problem with this team. Seattle ranks third in goals allowed per game behind Vancouver and Colorado and tied for sixth in expected goals allowed. Choosing Evans or Scott doesn't seem to have a massive effect on goal concession, but how should the team best arrange its personnel to address lingering issues with the rest of the team?
(all values per 90')
Scott and Evans each take positions modestly upfield of Marshall as a cb partner, but there the similarities end. Evans is a confident and eager tackler with by far the most attempts and best success on the team. Scott combines a fair sense of defensive timing with fearless challenges. Scott is the superior aerial presence (as we are reminded by the game-tying set piece chance last weekend against San Jose). Still, any perceived advantages and disadvantages in the stat line above could be considered misleading, as Scott's performances have come in relatively less active games (i.e. fewer team defensive actions in general). Without comparing them side-by-side in the same game, it's difficult to set an objective standard for the numbers.
We've previously looked at how the presence or absence of a teammate might impact a stat line. Instead of relying on the specific numbers for Evans and Scott - statistics that are changing both in context and style - perhaps the most illuminating difference in their quality and role is reflected in Chad Marshall's game.
Marshall's defensive share has been pretty variable over the course of the season. Early on, its peaks (particular game 1 at ~24%) could be attributed at least in part to Evans' adaptation to the cb role. The share has startlingly decreased over time - a trend I am inclined to blame on the introduction of Torres as a cb partner and the team playing from behind in the slump. The difference in passing share is more clearly attributable to the Evans/Scott switch, with Marshall taking a significantly more prominent distributional role when Scott is his partner. Evans' passing from the back hasn't been extraordinarily prominent (with respect to volume). Indeed, Seattle has chosen to almost completely bypass the central defenders in distribution on several occasions (mainly in solid wins), but he clearly provides an outlet the team is happy to exploit - a trait that is distinctly useful on the offensive side of the ball.
A last consideration (perhaps the most important one), setting aside injury issues (Evans' head, Scott's foot): as much as the defensive choice may be a question of style, the arrangement of the backline is not so much a choice between Evans and Scott as it is a decision to leave Scott or Erik Friberg out of the starting 11 when the team is fully fit ... and that question should have an easy answer. Friberg ranks in the top 3 for key passes among Sounders receiving any sort of real playing time. His creativity is more aggression than art, but he has also taken up a consistently large share of midfield distribution, and will be needed for that purpose so long as Andreas Ivanschitz and Nelson Haedo Valdez are the expected wing pairing (even as Ivanschitz and Marco Pappa come into the team to shoulder a healthy amount of the creative responsibilities).
Seattle needs every one of its healthy (more or less), quality players to step up in this hard-luck season. Zach Scott's performance has been as strong as anyone could expect of him this year, but as the season closes, Erik Friberg belongs in the middle and Brad Evans belongs on the backline.
Chalboard images are adapted from mlssoccer.com. Expected goals values are gathered from americansocceranalysis.com. Other raw data for this work has been collected from whoscored.com.