According to Stefan Frei, when the Vancouver Whitecaps “smell blood, they go after it.” He wants Seattle Sounders to possess and control the tempo. There is a recognition that Vancouver is a young, energetic team that can swing from enthusiastic to broken within a game. Their recent match against RSL was a case study in that swing. Carl Robinson told AFTN “The first goal was always going to win it and I actually thought when they scored their first goal we had probably had our best 15 minutes of the game.”
Twenty-four minutes after that first goal the Whitecaps were down 3-nothing. Some of that was due to the snow. Some of that was because Vancouver had to change styles due to the game state.
Frei wants Seattle to force its will on Vancouver. “I think we have to stay in control of the game,” he said after Thursday’s practice, “maybe tire them out, let them chase the ball for a bit.”
Game state is both a statistical concept (at its most basic it is the combination of goal differential and time remaining in the contest) and a philosophical one (who controls pace, which team is under pressure). The Sounders always want to own the battle of wills.
“It’s not just the goals,” according to Frei. “I think it’s the pressure. When you’re on the field you sense when teams are under pressure. You sense when they are rattled. That’s what I’m saying. When we have the ball and we’re making them chase. I think they’re going to be the ones on the back foot. They’re going to be the ones huffing and puffing.”
Turning a frenetic, bunker-counter team into one that just absorbs can be difficult. When done right it is both physically and mentally exhausting. When done wrong it leaves a team like Seattle vulnerable. The key is to have the ball so that the Sounders determine the tempo of the game.
“We want to maintain possession and have them tire out, so that when they put us under a little bit of pressure that they are not going to be as snappy and not have as much gas in the tank any more to sustain pressure for a considerable amount of time,” Frei said. “As we know, when you are able to maintain pressure for longer spells that’s when usually the bend ends up being the break.”
A keeper is part of the possession game, and also has a different view of the field than his teammates. His vantage point is nearly one of an observer, rather than the participant. He can command his line, while he determines the overall shape and attitude of the opposition. From there he decides how to re-ignite the attack.
“Obviously that long ball still needs to be in your repertoire. You need to keep teams honest with that ball, because otherwise they are just going to press high and it doesn’t allow you to play short any more.”
Playing out of the back is just one way for a team to force its will on another squad.
Many factors influence Frei’s thoughts around what type of distribution to use on any given touch.
“I think it's a mixed bag of balls, really - seeing what the game, what the opponent gives you,” he explains. “Also realizing, as a goalkeeper, what time in the game it is, and what kind of game we have going at that moment: Have you been under pressure, are you going to take the sting out of the ball [or] out of the game, are they under pressure, are they going to back out because they want to sit back and rest for a little bit? There’s so many factors that you take into consideration in terms of how you maintain possession.”
Stefan is still going to use that long ball, even when his intent is to maintain possession.
“A lot of people think that booting up the ball is a 50-50, but not necessarily,” Frei said. “If you’ve got the numerical advantage on one side and you can get guys around it you are more likely to win the second ball. I think it’s seeing all these clues and reacting upon them.”