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Sounders cross too much, even compared to peers

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MLS is a strange league. When judging Seattle Sounders' tactics it is best to compare them not to some platonic ideal, but to their peers.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

There's a pause in MLS action, which is fine time to assess what the tactics around MLS are, and how the Seattle Sounders fit into the styles of 2016. Today, let's look at passing styles. Rather than focus on formation nomenclature the attempt will be to focus on which teams cross, which teams punt, and which teams play with the ball at their feet.

The tl;dr version is that the Sounders cross too damn much. Not only do they lack a great scorer with their head they use the cross the sixth most among MLS sides (cross per game divided by total passes). They also cross more times per game than other teams.

It gets worse though. Seattle's crossers aren't very good. So not only do they use the tactic a lot, they're bad at it. Andreas Ivanschitz is 10th by successful accurate crosses per game (min 10 appearances), but of the top 10 only two have more incomplete crosses. Both have better completion percentages (Valeri, Tierney). Ivanschitz completes 20.9% of his crosses. Tyrone Mears is at 39.3%, which is actually pretty good on this traditionally low percentage pass. Joevin Jones is at 16.1% and completes less than a cross a game. Aaron Kovar, playing as a one-footed inverted winger this year is at 14.2%. Last year Kovar completed 47.1% in only 202 minutes and almost always on the left side.

Not only are these not great crossers, their run-of-play targets are either poor in the air (Morris, Dempsey, Kovar, Anderson, Ivanschitz) or not good at that scoring thing (Valdez). Plus, the switch to a traditional front band in the 4-3-3 means that even when someone like Nelson Haedo Valdez wins the ball there is no one there to get the knockdown pass.

One possible change would be to move to a narrower front-band or have the underneath man (Dempsey, Ivanschitz, fancy CAM DP) sit closer to the CF when play is on the flanks. The other would be to stop crossing so damn much, unless you are Kovar playing on the left or Mears on the right.

But there is good news for those that prefer ball-at-feet play - the Sounders are the king of the short pass, and one of the least frequent longball passing teams in the league (17th with only 14.3% of passes. Plus they have three players that are rather good at longballs (Evans, Marshall, Friberg and Alonso). Tactically the Sounders do not often use balls up-and-over, instead preferring their long passes to end pressure and transition to attack.

Osvaldo Alonso is 5th in the league in accurate long balls (non-keeper edition). Evans is 13th with Marshall at 15th. Their completion percentages among frequent punters are all in the top 5. Friberg did not make the 10 appearance cutoff.

So not only are the Sounders not a "punt and pray" side in general, those that they have doing the action are good at it. But Seattle is not getting the most out of their long balls. Too often these passes are behind the forward line, but when the forward line has the speedy Jordan Morris and Aaron Kovar it would be better to pass over them and run them onto the ball.

Doing so creates more goal dangerous situations for a side that is not goal dangerous in general. Cut back passes to Dempsey and the other forwards would be more effective as well.

Neither tactical change is dramatic. It's about telling the crossers to seek a short pass a touch more often, the forwards to be narrow as Sigi stated in preseason and the punters to realize that they have two fast options available not just the old, slow Ivanschitz, Dempsey and Valdez.

Full data is from

R Team Cross pg Through Ball pg Long Balls pg Short Passes pg Total Passes pg Cross % Long %
1 Seattle Sounders FC 23 1 74 420 518 4.4% 14.3%
2 Columbus Crew 21 2 58 435 516 4.1% 11.2%
3 New York City FC 16 1 70 403 490 3.3% 14.3%
4 New York Red Bulls 21 1 64 396 482 4.4% 13.3%
5 Sporting Kansas City 20 1 77 367 465 4.3% 16.6%
6 LA Galaxy 18 1 72 371 462 3.9% 15.6%
7 Toronto FC 18 1 82 352 453 4.0% 18.1%
8 New England Rev. 20 1 70 358 449 4.5% 15.6%
9 Montreal Impact 15 1 75 348 439 3.4% 17.1%
10 San Jose Earthquakes 18 1 71 341 431 4.2% 16.5%
11 Philadelphia Union 18 1 70 335 424 4.2% 16.5%
12 Orlando City 20 1 71 330 422 4.7% 16.8%
13 Vancouver Whitecaps 19 1 75 323 418 4.5% 17.9%
14 Colorado Rapids 16 1 78 322 417 3.8% 18.7%
15 Portland Timbers 18 0 65 332 415 4.3% 15.7%
16 FC Dallas 13 1 70 322 406 3.2% 17.2%
17 DC United 17 1 73 314 405 4.2% 18.0%
18 Real Salt Lake 13 1 68 313 395 3.3% 17.2%
19 Chicago Fire 18 1 76 293 388 4.6% 19.6%
20 Houston Dynamo 19 1 73 286 379 5.0% 19.3%