Breaking down the best defense in MLS (only 32 goals against, top 5 by xGA) will be a tough task for the Seattle Sounders. Yes, the Colorado Rapids are without Tim Howard, but he is not the reason that their defense has been great. The Rapids use a three-man central midfield - when healthy - of Jermaine Jones, Sam Cronin and Michael Azira. That’s a buzzsaw of strong defensive players.
The backline is huge. Axel Sjoberg, Eric Miller and Marc Burch team up with one of Jared Watts or Bobby Burling. They may not be the most mobile set of defenders in the league, but they defend the air quite well (5th in aerial duals won per game, 4th in % of aerial duals won). Colorado is also good at blocking shots and passes.
It will be a challenge for Brian Schmetzer to construct an offensive plan to beat that.
True to his form, his tactics will be to emphasize what made the Sounders succeed so far. “I think the same way we've kind of done it since our coaching staff, the new coaching staff, has taken over. We like to be a possession-based team,” he said during Wednesday’s conference call.
Seattle will use three primary techniques to turn that possession into goal opportunities.
Route 1 - Play direct to Jordan Morris
“We like to make sure that we find the right balance of playing direct through Jordan Morris's strengths...”
The Sounders use a mix of throughballs and balls over the top to spring Morris. They are now confident that, whether he’s the center forward or left winger, getting him into space can lead to a shot, pass, or hold-up play to maintain possession.
It is not a huge change from how Obafemi Martins was used. Now, it is the Mercer Island native Morris who is in space hunting down the goal. It does not always work, but Seattle rode Morris to having a decent offense, and with Nicolas Lodeiro to feed him Morris should get a few good looks.
Route 2 - Patient deep possession
“... and finding that possession, that extended possession in our opponent's half of the field to create opportunities.”
Lodeiro is strong in maintaining patient possession. Seattle can use he, Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan to roam the center of the park to pick apart a defense forced to adjust to possession in layers and varied spaces.
This does more than result in good looks on goal, it wears down an opponent mentally. The constant need to adjust the backline will force Zach MacMath into interesting command choices. It also makes the tall, but non-nimble, backline work to avoid ending up in a crooked shape.
That Jones-Cronin-Azira midfield is well suited to combat deep possession, but it should result in a few fouls in dangerous areas.
Route 3 - Set-piece success
“I think you also have the set piece dynamic. I think with Chad Marshall and Roman Torres we have really some effective weapons. You add into that Brad Evans who is very good in the air. You have Nelson Valdez who you've seen can score a couple goals with his head, and we have a formidable team on set pieces. The delivery, of course, with Nico has been tremendous.”
Ten of Seattle’s 44 goals came from non-PK set-pieces. Marshall, Torres and Valdez all average a headed shot every other game. Marshall, Valdez, Morris and Roldan each have two or more headed goals on the season.
The late season saw an improvement in the dead ball game, likely due to Lodeiro and Torres joining the XI. Lodeiro completes 45% of his corners, with Ivanschitz succeeding in 37% of his attempts from the flag. Even against the tall Rapids backline which only gave up four non-PK set-piece goals (2 corner, 2 direct free kick) in 2016 the Sounders should be able to cause some trouble.
Together these three paths to goal amplify the others’ chances of success. A team that sits off of Morris allows more possession in depth. A team that aggressive presses Seattle’s midfield puts Morris into situations where he needs to beat just one man, plus they are likely to foul where a Lodeiro or Ivanschitz can change the game with a stunning strike.