On a wonderful sunny Saturday the Seattle Sounders return home after more than a month without games at CenturyLink Field. It is a full stadium match, a celebration of Pride and the opportunity to see three of the greatest players to join MLS and then get really old, really fast. New York City FC is third in the Eastern Conference, but they aren't that good. Just 5-5-6 -6 on the year, NYCFC has the worst defense in MLS and would be 7th in the West. They are the rare MLS team that is better on the road than they are at home. Seattle Sounders FC is also not good. They are 9th in the Western Conference with a 5-8-1 -4 record and the worst offense in the league. ESPN picked these two because the spectacle of soccer will be extraordinary for their 2 PM match with Euro 2016 as the lead in programming.
Jake from Hudson River Blue answers Three Questions
SaH: How did Viera figure out how to get all three DPs on the field at the same time and winning?
HRB: Magic, probably, because it seemed like a bad idea, mostly in the midfield where Lampard and Pirlo would have to defend in tandem. Vieira even acknowledged this earlier this season, claiming the two midfielders would not play together in the midfield of our now forgotten W-M formation. Villa, if healthy, should always be on the field, and can play with either Lampard or Pirlo, so I think your question really has to do with the two of them.
There were two things Vieira did to soften the blow of Lampard and Pirlo's defensive deficiencies on Saturday: The first was pairing them in the three man midfield with a purely defensive player in Andoni Iraola, who has been a solid in the role as CDM subbing in for an injured Federico Bravo. The second was putting two hardworking midfield players out wide. Vieira tapped always reliable and hardworking Tommy McNamara, as well first overall pick Jack Harrison, and the two of them tracked back very effectively to provide additional cover.
Yankee Stadium's narrow confines actually helped this past weekend for once, as it seemed like there was a lot less ground for Lamps and Pirlo to cover. That, and it looked like the two of them actually gave a crap about defending in this game, which is a wonderful development.
SaH: Will any of them back out because of turf/travel? Who replaces them?
HRB: Well I think we're unlikely to see the two of them play more for tactical reasons, but also for the turf concerns. As I mentioned above, more expansive stadiums are going to expose the two of them. This is a talented Seattle team at home as well, so I'm hesitant to believe Vieira would roll the dice like that. I'd imagine we give one of them a break, likely Pirlo since it appears Lampard can go the full 90, and trot out a midfield of Iraola, Lampard and likely Mix Diskerud or Mikey Lopez. Diskerud is the more accomplished player, but he has struggled this season finding a place in the squad. Lopez, meanwhile, has a low ceiling but has a high work-rate that would help cover up for Lampard.
If Diskerud gets a go, Vieira will be hoping NYC can control the play and generate chances in the final third. However, if Lopez manages a start, NYC will likely sit back a little more and play for the counter.
SaH: The defense has issues this year. What can the Sounders do to capitalize on that?
HRB: Yes, the defense has struggled at times this season, but no one really projected this unit to be all that successful. Preseason, most of our supporters believed that if the team finished middle of the pack defensively it could make the Postseason. At times we have found ourselves to be unlucky (such as last week, with a questionable PK called against us and an own goal), other times it has been injuries that have hurt us. In all, it's pretty hard to gauge what to expect from this back four at this point in the season.
Sounders will find some joy coming down the flanks against our sometimes over-eager wing backs. Ronald Matarrita and RJ Allen have loads of talent offensively, but often they forget to handle their defensive responsibilities, leaving us open to counter attacks. Allen especially lacks the recovery pace of Matarrita, so his side can be taken advantage of with the right strategy from Seattle.
We are also one of the worst teams in MLS in defending set pieces. It's actually hard to point to a specific issue, because it's probably some combination of poor communicating, tactical issues, and personnel issues, in addition to some sloppy goalkeeping from Saunders. The Sounders can exploit our issues by trying to muck up the penalty area as much as possible on corners or dangerous FKs.
Saunders; Matarrita, Hernandez, Brillant, Allen; Iraola, Lopez, Lampard; McNamara, Villa, Harrison
HRB: Seattle has been a top-of-the-league mainstay since inception and one of the best franchises in MLS since they came into the league in 2009. The team has not missed the Playoffs in its time in MLS, but find themselves 9th in the conference, 16 points out of first place. I'm wondering how your strong and passionate fan base is viewing the 2016 team? Is there optimism that this will turn around, or has pessimism about the state of the club set in?
SaH: This same question was asked last week. While there was strong pushback for a dreary attitude then it is clear that the feelings of pessimism are only getting stronger. A large element of Sounders fans do not know how to deal with a mediocre, flawed team. Their other soccer experiences come from rooting for the greats around the world. Their Sounders experience has decades of strength behind it. So here we are, mediocre.
Even rumors of a Copa America star and Argentine scoring threat aren't enough to get people excited. This game will be under 50,000 seats sold. Considering it is the first of the full stadium matches for the year with an expected picture perfect 74 degrees and sunny day, the Pride events and the trio of Villa, Lampard and Pirlo possibly coming to town that number is low. It's low because the issues on the field stifle the excitement for what should be a wonderful day of soccer, even if the team loses.
HRB: In trying to find a reason for your struggles it did not take me long to see that the Sounders are dead last in MLS in scoring with only 13 goals through 14 matches. What is the cause for this scoring slump? Does it have more to do with the outgoing players (Obafemi Martins, Lamar Neagle, Chad Barrett), or is it a tactical issue?
SaH: Losing an MVP candidate a week before the season is a large part of the struggles. Oba didn't just play well, he improved the play of everyone around him. That loss ripped the attack to shreds, and it happened after Seattle had dumped its depth forwards so rather than have their #1,4,5 forwards from 2015 they have Dempsey who is fading, Valdez who is faded and Morris who is young and improving. There's a chance that Aaron Kovar learns to start finishing, but heading into 2016 he was a traditional crossing left mid who might be a better left back than midfielder. Now he's the starting right wing in a 4-3-3. Kovar's growing into that role, but it is a heck of a change to go from crossing specialist to expected finisher.
Other forwards like Herculez Gomez, Oalex Anderson, Darwin Jones and Andy Craven are either old, young or not good enough to start. Actually, maybe each are two of those. Seattle's attacking core four features Jordan Morris, two old players falling short of expectations and Kovar. The depth players are either inexperienced or unable to score at this level anymore.
tl;dr - it's not the tactics. The players just aren't good enough.
HRB: Speaking of attack, NYC FC catches a break this week as Dempsey is still with the USMNT as they try to snatch the bronze in the Copa America. Dempsey's goal scoring record for the Sounders has always been great, but this year it's only two in ten matches. What have you seen from Dempsey so far this season? What impact will his absence have on the match this week?
SaH: You know those buddy cop movies where the savvy, angry veteran lost his long time partner? He's bitter that he has to be paired with the young kid, but he'll go through the motions, because dammit that's what's expected? That's early 2016 Clint Dempsey.
The thing is his young future buddy is really good, and they can be really good together. It's taking time for Dempsey-Morris to figure each other out. If they can do that quickly and you turn this buddy cop film into a ensemble action flick with the other talents filling their role the Sounders should have a great latter two-thirds of the year.
As Clint showed the world during the Copa he isn't done yet. If he can do for the Sounders what he's doing for the US (which at worst will be 3 goals and 3 assists in six games) the rest of this year is going to be a thrill ride. Seattle only needs to have an average offense to be a good team. The defense is that good. BTW - those numbers would mean Clint rushes towards the Playoffs with a 10-10 or so and would be his third straight year with the double-double.
Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, Tyrone Mears; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan, Erik Friberg; Andreas Ivanschitz, Jordan Morris, Aaron Kovar