Sunday against the LA Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders rode high to a thrilling 4-2 win over their rivals to the south (south south). For the first two-thirds of the match, the Sounders rolled with their trademark 4-2-3-1, featuring Nicolas Lodeiro as a false 10.
For LA’s part, their focus concentrated on using Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget to limit Lodeiro’s influence. Luckily for the Sounders, Jordan Morris is stepping up his game to new heights and was able to eviscerate Daniel Steres 1v1 shortly after the 60th minute to give the Sounders the lead. An injury minutes later to Andreas Ivanschitz forced Brian Schmetzer to rethink his plan and bring on Nelson Valdez instead.
Valdez’s introduction proved crucial to the Sounders’ next two goals and the solidification of their defensive structure that enabled to not only hold off the LA attack (questionable penalty call not withstanding) and break through and add two more goals to their tally.
The Sounders’ primary change on offense was shifting Lodeiro out to the left side and bringing Morris deeper and left as the support striker. Valdez’s work rate comes into huge effect here as his willingness to attack the backline — particularly on angles that go inside out between the center backs and fullbacks. With LA chasing the game, they were prone to pushing their fullbacks into more far more advanced spaces than they had been. The runs of Valdez dragged the LA defense deep, allowing Lodeiro and Morris to directly attack the wide left area and sustain Seattle forays forward.
These attacks into wide spaces came with a secondary benefit as the midfield duo of Steven Gerrard (who entered at 72’) and Jeff Larentowicz were generally loathe to play effective defense. This created and inordinate amount of space at the top of the box that Morris and later Osvaldo Alonso were able to exploit for both Seattle goals.
The Sounders’ defensive structure also dramatically changed. Changing from a standard 4x4 with two pressers, the Sounders transitioned to a hybrid system that focused on using Valdez. The Paraguayan striker would drop deep off Morris who completely dropped his pressing duties. Morris would instead function as an attacking outlet at pace, mostly focusing on attacking down the left.
Valdez for his part would occupy the space directly in front of the holding midfield. Bringing this extra pressing body into play, the Sounders easily contained Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos. Denying LA service into their strikers (first Keane and later both Keane and Gordon), the only choice for LA was to go up and over the top with chipped attempt after chipped attempt. The Sounders were generally successful at repelling these attempts.
Nelson Valdez and effective bunkering
The key to the Sounders’ effectiveness late on Sunday was Valdez. His ability to drop deep, press, and defend well was instrumental in controlling the midfield just as his willingness to shift from that position to playing high and pushing the LA backline was so important to Lodeiro and Morris. Valdez can’t buy a goal to save his life and likely isn’t worth the resource cost the Sounders expend on him, but what he brought off the bench on Sunday was being the key player to one of the few truly effective bunker attempts the Sounders have ever executed.
The Sounders have long struggled with transitioning from purely defensive play to high-octane offense, but that was not the case against LA. It’s not a strategy that is going to be effective for the Sounders in many matches, but with a playoff appearance looking more and more like it could actually happen, this is a massive tool that the Sounders have in their war chest now.