The Sounders' new tactical makeup is still a work in progress and Sunday's loss to Sporting Kansas City highlighted some ongoing flaws in the setup. During the period of useful play -- from an analytical perspective, anyway -- before the Oniel Fisher red card, the most egregious of those flaws was the role Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz played as a dual attacking tandem. From this position, Peter Vermes' midfield setup was easily able to fracture the Sounders attacking buildup through the middle
In the Sounders' preseason win over the LA Galaxy and their 2-2 draw with Club America, Dempsey and Ivanschitz operated more as complementary players. One pushing high to press while the other dropped deeper in defensive support or moved wider to help the midfield. While at times they both pushed forward in possession, it was in concerted harmony with the team. In the second match leg against Club America and against Sporting KC, none of that harmony was on display.
In some respects, both opposition sides flooded the midfield to deal with the threat of Erik Friberg or Cristian Roldan advancing out of the double pivot, isolating both Ivanschitz and Dempsey higher up the field. But in contrast, both's relative unwillingness -- or lack of instruction to track back during defense and transition play -- also functioned to isolate them from the Sounders midfield. With the attacking and defensive transition out of a balance, the Sounders functionally became a lopsided 4-2-4 to their detriment.
This separation between the Sounders attack and midfield stymied buildup play through the middle on Sunday, forcing the fullbacks into a larger share of the possession duties in order to get the ball to the creative hubs. While Joevin Jones is perfectly suited to this type of role, the same cannot be said of Oniel Fisher who required extensive support from Cristian Roldan to push the Sounders forward on the right against Peter Vermes' side. This is in direct contradiction to the formula the Sounders employed so well in their first couple games of building through the middle before attacking into wide spaces utilizing the fullbacks.
With this separation, the Sounders midfield pivot of Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso was frequently over matched with targets in wide areas requiring them each to expend significant effort supporting both Jones and Fisher for the first 40 minutes and change. With their defensive duties taxed, the Sounders defensive line dropped deeper creating additional separation between the midfield and the defense.
What began as a simple numbers game in one zone quickly gave way to extensive separation of all zones on defense. With the defense so stretched, the Sounders were not able to effectively employ their preferred brand of fast transition soccer when they did win the ball back, resorting to long balls into Valdez up top or into wide areas for Jordan Morris to run on to.
There's not a lot that went right for the Sounders on Sunday -- and that's before the thoroughly deserved red card for Oniel Fisher -- but they can thank their stars that Sporting KC were borderline inept in the attacking department. Dom Dwyer was contained easily by Brad Evans and Chad Marshall and their wingers proved incapable of beating Jones and Fisher in 1v1 situations. Without those struggles from Sporting, this game might have ended with a particularly ugly scoreline for the Sounders. A 1-0 loss on a wet ball flub from Stefan Frei and some valuable lessons learned is probably a decent start to the season even though losing three points stings.