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Tactical solutions to the absence of Clint Dempsey from the Sounders

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Nelson Valdez? Cristian Roldan? Brad Evans?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

After laying a 3-1 drubbing on Portland last Sunday behind the strength of Clint Dempsey and the smooth passing of Nicolas Lodeiro, the Seattle Sounders get another chance to take the game to the Portland and hopefully come away in a playoff position. But after a very ugly draw midweek against the Houston Dynamo, there are questions surrounding what the Sounders can do given Clint Dempsey’s absence with a heart issue.

After four stellar performances that saw the Sounders collect 10 points behind the creative play of Lodeiro, they hit a wall against Houston as Lodeiro was restricted in the middle of the park by Houston’s disciplined low block. For much of the match he was left to feed on table scraps from wide play. It was also the first time, Lodeiro occupied a central role for the Sounders.

In previous games, Lodeiro’s movement off the wing created zone overloads in both the middle and on opposite side as he drifted to influence the game. In conjunction with the duo of Dempsey and Jordan Morris, the Sounder used a 3-man centralized attack to create separation in opposition low blocks as well as stretch the opposition defensive line. The main threat of that attack is via throughballs into the zones between the centerback and their partnering fullback.

With this potent weapon in the Sounders arsenal now, opposition defenses have to remain more compact in the middle and this space has allowed the likes of Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears to thrive again. Without Dempsey, the Sounder relied on a lone striker setup in that zone —first with Nelson Valdez and then with Jordan Morris — and the Sounders couldn’t generate much forward impetus.

Allowing Lodeiro’s movement from wide areas to create that overload should be a main focus of what the Sounders try to do but that involves playing a two striker set. Without Dempsey, asking that of the Sounders comes with questions but luckily there are many ways to accomplish that.

Option 1: Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris

The first choice pairing with Clint Dempsey gone is most obvious Jordan Morris and Nelson Valdez. They are the only true strikers remaining on the team. However, their partnership would require capitulations from the Sounders in that both players excel when played high against opposition centerbacks.

Valdez is best when his hold up play is allowed to shine as he then works 1-2 combinations in tight spaces to open defensive midfields. That necessarily means Morris has to operate in the spaces between the lines which removes that deadly ability to make runs on throughballs. If you invert the positions, you lose Valdez’s hold up play and make him focus on working the ball forward with his feet which is definitely a scary proposition.

It’s entirely possible that the duo could work out a really nice partnership of interchanges but given they have about a day of practice to do so, it’s unlikely that this would be in sync enough to really work for the Sounders.

Option 2: Use Cristian Roldan as the support striker

With Erik Friberg back in the fold, the Sounders have the defensive midfield presence to allow them to be a little more adventurous with their deployment of Cristian Roldan. The midfielder has come on leaps and bounds recently and after a college career often operating as a #10, the positioning isn’t entirely foreign to him.

This allows you to get Roldan, Friberg, and Alonso onto the field and gives the team a very aggressive attitude towards possession. Unfortunately what the Sounders lose is Roldan’s late runs into the box from holding midfield. Those attacks have proven instrumental since Lodeiro’s arrival and dropping them to focus on possession may not be the best answer.

Option 3: Inject Aaron Kovar with instaheal nanobots and then play him as an inverted winger or get a genie to make Oalex Anderson good at passing

This option is kind of self-explanatory.

Option 4: Brad Evans, striker

Now, before you start throwing the equivalent of virtual tomatoes, let’s talk about this. Admittedly, this kind of the lunatic’s option. Brad Evans hasn’t played striker since 2010 (I said wait before you throw the tomatoes) but at the same time this isn’t playing him as the high striker. If you play Brad Evans in the withdrawn role, you emphasize his ability with the ball at his feet. Brad Evans is a very good passer and he’s spatially intelligent.

Couple that with his ability to body up the opposition and win aerial duels and you have a player who could easily fulfill what Jordan Morris or Clint Dempsey do in a withdrawn role while getting the most of Morris by playing him high.

Plus you get Roman Torres on the pitch too and do you know how many set pieces Diego Chara and this foul happy, terrible Portland defense is going to give away? The Sounders rocked out to the tune of eight set pieces in the Portland half to go along with six corners last Sunday. Adding another body into the mix capable of serious aerial damage should be a pressing concern for the Sounders.