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Playing out of the back is hallmark of Brian Schmetzer's Sounders

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It is one of the significant tactical changes the Seattle Sounders are undertaking this year.

Beating the New York Red Bulls’ press is not easy. They want teams to clear the ball, or, even better for them, making a bad short to medium pass and turn it over. But the Seattle Sounders did not have those problems. Instead they played from the back, often with short, quick passes that put Red Bulls on their heels. Seattle also mixed in long passes as tactically necessary. With a ball traveling faster than the players the Sounders were able to generate on offense that dominated New York.

This is by design. It is not just something that Seattle will do against pressing teams. It is part of their philosophy under Brian Schmetzer. Assistant Coach Djimi Traore credits Gonzalo Pineda in implementing that shift.

“It’s something that we worked hard on in the preseason,” Traore told Sounder at Heart. “So we are lucky to have someone like Gonzo and he helps us a lot with that style of play. That’s something we want to change for our team.”

It involves a lot of practice. Part of this strategy depends on on the center backs, but it also demands a lot of effort from the defensive midfield. One of the two holding mids will drop back as an outlet while the other plays a bit higher. The movement varies based on the number of forwards for the upcoming opponent.

“We just make it live [in training],” Brian Schmetzer explained after Friday’s practice session. “We'll have some of the young guys do the chasing and pressing in different formations. Maybe it's one forward pressing, maybe it's two, and just train it live.”

For the team to make this change it takes practice by seven of the outfield players in defense. The young talent that simulates the attacking press? When they get their MLS playing time they are more likely to do so in games. These changes affect the whole team, from keeper up the pitch.

“We're out here every day working on our footwork, and we watch a lot of film as well. So we see where the patterns are, where we have the opportunity to play, where we want to just be safe,” Tyler Miller told Sounder at Heart. “It's a lot of repetition on the field and working with the back four and two holding mids to really get that fine-tuned so that we can play out of the back.”

This is new(ish) for the Sounders, but not for MLS. The Columbus Crew, New York City FC and Atlanta United are all teams that play out of the back. Each coach has experience in Europe. They’ve had differing levels of success in this league though.

Looking at center back pairings with two or more starts on the young season there are a couple other teams that look, at times to play quick, short passes from the back. The following table is sorted by ratio of short pass to long pass by those CB pairings (TFC plays a 3-man backline, Columbus did so in one match as well. OCSC and NER are short a game due to the rescheduled snow match).

MLS team centerback passing after three weeks

Players Team Apps Mins Total AccLB InAccLB LB% AccSP InAccSP SP% Out Back Ratio
Players Team Apps Mins Total AccLB InAccLB LB% AccSP InAccSP SP% Out Back Ratio
Mensah+Naess CCSC ** 5 447 104.8 7.8 3.5 69% 82.5 11 88% 8.3
Chanot+Callens NYCFC 6 540 146 10.6 9.4 53% 118 8 94% 6.3
Olum+Miller PTFC 5 450 85.5 8.8 4.8 65% 65 6.8 91% 5.3
Hedges+Zimmerman FCD 5 450 63.2 4.8 5.8 45% 47.7 4.8 91% 5
Hagglund+Moor+Zavaleta TFC *** 9 795 148 9 16.3 106% 102.6 20 84% 4.8
Jungwirth+Bernardez SJQ 6 540 115 10.4 10.3 50% 85.3 9 90% 4.6
Franklin+Birnbaum DCU 6 540 91.7 9.7 6.7 59% 62 13.4 82% 4.6
Besler+Opara SKC 6 540 127.4 13.6 9.7 58% 94.4 9.7 91% 4.5
Onyewu+Marquez PU 3 270 37 2 4.7 30% 26.7 3.7 88% 4.5
Meira+Kappelhof CF 6 461 60 5.7 5.6 50% 47.6 1 98% 4.3
Parkhurst+Pirez AUFC 6 531 141 17 10.4 62% 105.3 8.4 93% 4.1
Leonardo+Machado HD 6 540 46.7 5.7 3.6 61% 33.4 4 89% 4
Long+Perrinelle RBNY 6 525 84.4 7.4 10 43% 53.6 13.4 80% 3.9
AVERAGE AVG 5.5 482.4 93.7 9.8 10.0 50% 65.5 8.4 89% 3.7
Marshall+Torres SSFC 5 445 89.8 7.3 12.7 37% 64 5.8 92% 3.5
Schmidt+Horst+Schuler RSL i 6 540 91.5 9.5 14 40% 55.5 12.5 82% 2.9
Steres+Van Damme LAG 5 394 108.7 17.7 11.2 61% 73.2 6.7 92% 2.8
Aja+Spector OCSC * 4 360 71 7.5 11.5 39% 44 8 85% 2.7
Ciman+Cabrera IMFC 5 444 102.3 13.3 14.3 48% 62.3 12.3 84% 2.7
Watts+Sjoberg CR 5 450 101.8 15.3 13 54% 67.5 6 92% 2.6
Anguoa+Delamea NER * 4 360 64 10 8.5 54% 40 5.5 88% 2.5
Demidov+Calvo MUFC 5 450 72.8 7.8 15.2 34% 43.7 6.2 88% 2.2
Parker+Dean+Waston VWFC i 6 540 109 15.5 18.5 46% 66 9 88% 2.2
WhoScored.com for raw data

Seattle is only average right now. But if you look at their center back short-pass success rate you see the intent, if not the success. Plus, a quick long ball can break a team, especially on the road.

“Obviously, if they press up or you're away from home there's tactics there too,” Schmetzer explained. “You get the idea. In the run of play, if Stef or Tyler makes a save, where do we move to? How do we initiate the attack to give us an opportunity to get from the back to the front?”

So, even though Seattle has been on the road and their only home date so far is against a team that presses nearly constantly, though Red Bulls eased off a bit due to the Sounders breaking through so often, the club is focused on this being a permanent change in style and tactics.

“We have teams like Columbus. They are very good playing out from the back,” Traore said, “and I think we can match them, but it’s up to the personnel on the field.”

It’s a thing to watch, especially during a friendly against Club Necaxa team that is more talented. Will the lineup that Schmetzer puts out adhere to their desired style? With youth ready to earn playing time based on what they do against Club Necaxa they better. It’s what the coaching staff want from Schmetzer through each of his assistants.

“We’re trying to change our style of play,” Traore declared. “We lost Valdez. He was more like a target man, we tried to bring the ball on the ground to our top players, like Lodeiro and Dempsey. That’s the way we will do it.”

Spenser Davis also contributed to this report.