Due to Nicolas Lodeiro’s fifth yellow card in just ten games, Clint Dempsey’s heart condition forcing him out for the rest of 2016, three potential midfielders coming off of injury, short rest, and Garth Lagerwey’s statement that he wants a more system driven organization, guessing the lineup that will face the Vancouver Whitecaps is as difficult as can be. Head coach Brian Schmetzer has more awareness of health and fitness than we do. But we do know what skills the nine, yes nine, options to play the role of the 10 offer.
One of those will take the field in Lodeiro’s stead, another will be the right mid and a third will be the left mid. The entire band of three in the 4-2-3-1 could shift. To this point only four players have played those roles (Lodeiro, Ivanschitz, Fernandez and Roldan). On Sunday that number could nearly double.
The following options are in alphabetical order, not by likelihood of use.
Alonso has a great passing tree. Over the years he’s gone from a square-ball man to someone who can chip it, send out a flying switch or charge up the field. Of this list of nine players his passing skills are in the top third. His defense is still extraordinary. For a team that presses a touch more often there is an appeal to Alonso moving forward on the field.
For a team that has been able to prevent central penetration into the defensive third over the past several weeks breaking up the Alonso-Roldan partnership is frightening. The two of them control the field quite well, managing to use square balls for space while the other charges up field opening new passing lanes.
Starting Alonso in the band of three would be exciting, and risky. With an outside chance at hosting the play-in round a high-risk/high-reward move like this is appealing and scary.
Yes, he’s healthy again. He’s ready to play and almost certainly would appear in the midfield. Brad may not be ready to start though, which means if he did Schmetzer would need to look at an early sub.
If Evans starts in the middle it would put him into a primarily creative role for the first time since the July 5th 2014 match against the Whitecaps (a loss with Cooper and Barrett at forward). When he’s central, Brad is most often a box-to-box type holding midfield possession and controlling space rather than creating chances. This would be a huge disruption in the system which sees the central slot in the band of three as both a creator and scorer, when either Dempsey or Lodeiro or playing.
The advantage to this choice is in defense. Seattle can press higher up the field. That would reduce the distance to goal and maybe create transition opportunities for Morris and the wingers.
He’s probably not healthy. If he was Marfan would be an option. At his best, which has yet to be seen in Rave Green, the former Cruz Azul player is a creator who can slice through a defense. He has rarely been at his best drifting around from Philly to Cruz Azul to DC to Seattle (where he’s seen more time with S2 than in the MLS 18).
When Farfan signed this was the type of game he should start. But then he got injured, and his quality has looked more like a fringe rotational player when healthy. He could be in the 18 on Sunday. The signing did not work out in Seattle’s favor, but it was a low-risk/low-cost move.
Lagerwey said that Flaco is the Lodeiro replacement. One need only look at how when Lodeiro slid into Dempsey’s spot Alvaro took over on the right for Nico. He is not a great crosser, which means as a wide player he spends much of his time in central spaces either just outside of the area or charging towards the back post for a header.
Recently his passing shows improvement, although mostly within 10-15 yards with a focus on maintaining possession rather than unlocking the defense. He’s fifth among healthy Sounders for key passes per game and would let every player above him stay in their more polished role.
Starting Fernandez centrally is the system play. Then the question becomes who starts on the right, which is a bit less risky because the offense only flows through the right mid when that right mid is Nico. It won’t be Nico, so the RM can instead focus on defense, interchanging with Mears and late runs into scoring space (Evans, Friberg, Kovar and Roldan can all handle that role capably).
Mostly used as one of the band of two in 2016 he has shown some flashes as a more creative player, but mostly through his use of the long ball. The Swede offers decent defense and that vision at distance. Starting in the central role would mean that Seattle looks to spring Jordan by going over the top or out wide. That’s suitable, but not ideal. Considering the discussion is about suitable but not ideal situations (ideal would be having one of the creative DPs available) Friberg should be considered.
But, he (and Evans and Kovar) is coming off of injury that kept him out of the 18 and XI for a few weeks. Friberg likely would not be able to press at the levels expected and instead would retreat to defend space in the central third rather than higher on the pitch.
Starting Erik centrally would be fine. It would not be a reason that the Sounders lose. It would be a safe play that could work, but likely just results in treading water.
Early in the season Seattle tried this several times. Ivanschitz in tight spaces was not an effective passer. His work both defensively and in the attack is best out wide. It puts him in spaces where he can apply a bit of simple pressure or can wing in a cross. Andreas out wide is an adequate, if not better, player.
Seattle is in a bit of desperation though. Ivanschitz is one of the best attacking passers this team has. He does have the vision and skill to work centrally, if he can get the time to execute. If he starts in the middle the left wing needs to be filled. Kovar and Evans are the strongest options there. The system would want Fernandez to stay our right.
The left midfielder turned left back turned inverted right midfielder only has a handful of games in Rave Green as a CAM. More of them came in the Academy era than they did as a pro, and that time as a pro was with S2. He tends to look two defenders away for his passing targets. Rather than beating the man in front of him with a dribble or short pass, he wants to destroy from distance. It’s similar to Ivanschitz in some regards.
There are two main reasons why Kovar will not be the CAM - injury recovery and lack of experience. While he may be in the middle of this list in overall quality the fact that he’s missed so many games makes it highly unlikely that his first one back would be as The Man running the Sounders attack.
Roldan played some CAM in college. It was probably the best role for him at that level. As a player with some success attacking on the wing in MLS he’s shown that he can keep his head up looking for that incisive pass, but not with the consistency needed to play the 10 regularly in the league. Starting Roldan in the 10 role would mean breaking up the Ozzie partnership, but could add more passing with either Friberg or Evans back there.
This would create a swinging-axes trap for an opposing attack. A team that beats the pressure from Roldan then has to attempt to beat Alonso and one of Erik and Brad. It would be a great way to force an opposing team into cross-and-pray action against Marshall-Torres. Where it would struggle is generating offense. Maybe if the Sounders are up a goal or two you could see this, but they need to score to win and starting Roldan as the 10 would making scoring hard.
Sturgis, like Farfan, has played most in 2016 down in the USL. He has not looked great, but has earned nine bench selections in MLS this year. With S2 Sturgis played the more creative of the central midfield positions, but did little to show that he could do so at a higher level of play.
Selecting Sturgis would be an indicator that Schmetzer is looking for slow deliberate play likely to end 0-0 or with a single goal for one or each team. It is safe, patient and boring.
Switching up formations
The nine above all have some level of skill that puts them as the 10 in the 4-2-3-1 that Schmetzer has used to this point. Alternatively, he could change the formation and style of play that has worked for him (powered by Dempsey/Lodeiro to this point) and go with a traditional 4-4-2 with Nelson Haedo Valdez starting up top.
That would likely see Jordan Morris as the more withdrawn forward in attack with the two defending on the same plane. This would be pragmatic and leave most of the team in similar roles and spaces, but with new passing angles and options. Considering the injuries to the best players that have not started during the winning streak and Valdez recent strong performances (outside of scoring) this is likely the idea that would have happened under Sigi Schmid (who usually put his best XI healthy bodies on the field).
In a match that could end with Seattle gaining seeding or falling below the red line this decision point for Schmetzer is as tough as he’s had. It’s the type of choice that gives a glimpse into style, and even if it does not work will show the organization’s leadership that Brian is not just a temporary coach.