Throughout the offseason, the Sounders’ repeated mantra was the switch away from Sigi Schmid’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. It was repeated often and frequently and came to define their play in impressive performances against Club America. But after several games, the wheels fell off. Real Salt Lake and the Vancouver Whitecaps showed easy ways to neutralize both Clint Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz and without the presence of Erik Friberg, gameplans quickly deteriorated until the Sounders were nigh unwatchable.
Fast forward three months and the Sounders are pounding away at the opposition back in their more familiar 4-4-2. They play through the middle relying on Alonso and Friberg to guide their team while playing formational whack-a-mole on the wings with a cast of characters. While it’s leading to much needed results, it feels like a severe compromise of talent as they don’t try to give their players the leverage to ultimately be as successful as possible.
Fortunately, the Sounders have a functional model for their play. And that model is, however unlikely, the US side Jurgen Klinsmann has run out during the Copa America, and it coincidentally is clearly based around Clint Dempsey.
Let’s start with the basics.
That red circle? That’s Clint Dempsey. He’s moving in off the wing, while forward Bobby Wood plays the striker role. That green circle? That’s Alejandro Bedoya who’s interchanged out of midfield to move left while Dempsey drifts centrally. That’s exactly what the Sounders midfield was designed to do but, because of a combination of immobility, age, and lack of familiarity, they couldn’t pull off with Dempsey and Ivanschitz.
That yellow circle? That’s Gyazi Zardes occupying a deep role where he can attack wide right but also presents a defensive body for the USMNT to prevent a switch while the third midfielder is advanced out of his defensive zone. If that seems familiar it’s because it is exactly what Jordan Morris spent the first month of the season doing.
Fast forward in the match to the USA in possession. Dempsey (still in the red) checks in off the wing again. Bedoya’s attacking wide on the left (in green). The keys here are Bobby Wood (blue, because Hamburg) and Gyasi Zardes (yellow, again), who are playing as a narrow striker duo while Dempsey drifts into attacking midfield to combine with Michael Bradley. This sequence ends with a fantastic throughball for Bobby Wood. Alarm bells should be ringing given that Sigi Schmid repeatedly said their 4-3-3 was going to play very narrow.
This is how the Sounders attack was designed to function on paper. And its most important cog, Clint Dempsey, can play this way, and he can play this way very well as Thursday night showed. Unfortunately, Ivanschitz has proven to just not be the player the Sounders needed. His inclusion caused spatial compression, players trying to fill the same role, and ultimately was far too easy for oppositions to disrupt, which is why we’ve seen him removed from midfield and pressed into wide duty. Given the Sounders well publicized pursuit of Nicolas Lodeiro and the way he can attack into wide spaces from central midfield — just like Alejandro Bedoya is doing — it’s probably a wise bet to think that, come the close of the transfer window, the Sounders might look just like the USA did against Ecuador.