It has only been two, no four, weeks since the Seattle Sounders hosted a home game, but with five away matches out of seven played to start this season, it feels much longer. Sounders FC host New England Revolution in the first of a four of six home game stretch. Both teams have nine points, but the attitude around the fanbases is quite different.
SaH: What's going on with Rowe as the LB?
tBM: Well for starters, I do want to mention that Rowe did play a little right fullback last year for the Revs so this concept wasn't completely out of left field for New England. However, incumbent starter and 2015 MLS All-Star Chris Tierney (who withdrew from the ASG with an injury sadly) hasn't started the season off very well and Jay Heaps facing a stretch of three games in eight days rotated his squad and featured three different starting left backs.
Je-Vaughn Watson got two first half yellows in a loss at the Chicago Fire, Tierney started midweek in a draw vs San Jose and finally Rowe started last week against DC United in another draw. There are two issues surrounding why Tierney has suddenly found himself on the bench. First, his crossing and service hasn't been all that great, and you could even say this going back to last year. Secondly, with the new diamond midfield New England uses, Tierney is far more exposed on his flank than he's ever been and he can't get the same support from a single holding midfielder. Throw in a couple of major errors that led to goals with Maxi Urruti in Dallas and Diego Valeri in Portland and it's been a rough year for Revs left backs on the whole.
Tierney's left foot two years ago was arguably the best in MLS but right now it's not helping the Revs so Heaps as searched for other options. It should be noted that while Tierney's performance against San Jose was fine, his crosses still aren't finding the mark however, the best Revs performance of the year came with Rowe at left back. That game came at home against Houston in which a backline of Rowe, Antonio Delamea, rookie Josh Smith and Andrew Farrell shut out the Dynamo.
SaH: If the Revs make the playoffs whose performance will take them there?
tBM: Largely, the Revs will have to figure out a way to get their scoring by committee thing to start producing goals. Even if Juan Agudelo repeats his late season performances from 2016, New England is always going to be a team that is bigger than the sum of it's parts. And the Revs have a lot of talented parts and creating chances has never been the problem, just finishing them has.
However, there's still one player who may yet prove to be the guy who can push the Revs into a different gear. DP midfielder Xavier Kouassi has shown so far to be a solid holding player at the bottom of the Revs diamond. But Kouassi was the guy who was slated to replace Jermaine Jones last summer but a knee injury at the end of his club season in Europe ended that idea. Kouassi has been putting in full games, but we've yet to see if he can be a catalyst on the attacking end of the field for New England. In 2014 Jones joined the Revs, started to get a result almost every game and marched all the way to another MLS Cup final appearance. The Revs might not need Kouassi to be Jones, and he won't solve the finishing woes that have plagued this team over the years, but if Kouassi starts to have any influence on the Revs attack and pitch in a few assists, that will give the Revs another dimension for opponents to deal with come October and the playoffs.
SaH: Playing with two strikers is rare these days. How does New England make it work?
tBM: It depends on your definition of "work" because there are plenty of Revs fans who would be happier if the Revs went back to their old 4-2-3-1 formation and put Agudelo up top and Kei Kamara on the bench. Kei will never put up the same numbers he did in Columbus because the Revs will never ask him to be the focal point in their attack. Kamara also isn't getting the same service that a target man would get, though he did have a beaut of a cross to Lee Nguyen last week to open the scoring against DC.
Overall, I think the Revs diamond functions very well because it gives almost everyone on New England options to create and move into space. Kei Kamara's presence is going to tie up center backs, Juan Agudelo can make runs to either side depending on where the ball is, Diego Fagundez has been really good this year but doesn't have the stats to show for it and Lee Nguyen is good at soccer and creates stuff all the time. If and when the Revs start to finish, I think they can compete with anyone in the league. What they haven't been able to do, is prove they can do that consistently which is a shame considering the core players this team has acquired and developed over the years.
Projected Lineup: Cropper; Rowe, Smith, Delamea, Farrell; Kouassi, Caldwell, Fagundez, Nguyen; Agudelo,
I'm not sure if this is the Revs best starting XI but it's close. I could see anyone of the three players I mentioned earlier at left back and all would be solid choices in their own right. Either way, the Revs left back is going to have to stop Lodeiro or Morris or Dempsey...and I don't love that matchup so I think Rowe's versatility will win the day.
The Revs need a bit of a boost from this game, two draws at home against San Jose and DC weren't the best results but I think the best I can ask for is another draw against the rolling Sounders.
tBM: I really enjoyed that 3-0 pasting of the LA Galaxy. Besides the Galaxy being bad, what went right for the Sounders in that game and how was it different from other games when Seattle seemed to be struggling a bit on offense?
SaH: I enjoyed destroying the Galaxy too. That first half might be as close to perfect soccer as the Sounders have ever played. Every aspect went how it is supposed to go. Seattle played their possession style perfectly. They used the ball in both attack and as a way to prevent attacks. Their finishing, the biggest problem on the early season, had no issues.
To be clear, the attacks struggles are about finishing. By expected Goals they are the top team in the league. Players like Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris didn't get worse. On the season they should all be fine. Playing mostly on the road they didn't finish. It happens. Rather than make massive changes Brian Schmetzer only made one minor switch - Will Bruin started at forward and Morris slotted back. That gave Morris more space to run and cleared a few more yards for Clint and Nico to operate in between the lines.
It also helped that LA is bad. They are structurally inadequate. By design they count on Jermaine Jones being a competent defensive mid. That's not going to work long term. He no longer puts in the effort throughout a game. That puts too much pressure, particularly forcing lateral movement, on Van Damme, Steres and Pedro. I hope the Galaxy believe deeply in those four. It will make the West so much fun.
tBM: Let's talk about the other side of the ball. How have Stefan Frei and the Sounders backline fared so far in 2017? I see Joevin Jones has three assists so far this year, how has he contributed so well out of the back?
SaH: The defense has been rather unstable, if you think of defense as just the back four. But Alonso-Roldan are as important, maybe more important than the fullbacks. I've started referring to it as a pentagon (Frei, 2 CBs, 2DMs). Those CBs will often split wide in both defense and certainly in the attack. This let's Jones and whoever plays right back (Fisher with 3 starts, Svensson with 2, Delem with 2) get forward into the attack.
It's a defense that generally gives up shots from distance but closes in quickly when a team gets into the area. It can be prone to silly moments where they allow space to players they dominated for most of the game. Both Wondo and Montero took advantage of those mental errors.
All of that together allows Joevin Jones to be the 5th attacking piece. He generates quite a few crosses both from the touchline and from the endline with cutback passes. He has already matched last year's assist total and looks likely to be the best left back when entering the attack. That's good for eighth so far this year, and nearly everyone ahead of him is a #10. There is every reason to think that Joevin Jones, left back, finishes with 10+ assists in 2017. He's creating extraordinary opportunities, and was already robbed of an assist because Ashley Own Cole took away Bruin's opportunity to score.
tBM: I know it's early, and the Sounders are above the red line in the West standings, but how concerning is it to see Portland seven points ahead of you (even with a game in hand)?
SaH: I don't spend much time thinking about Portland. Six is greater than one. Fifteen is greater than three.
Lineup prediction: (4-2-3-1) Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Tony Alfaro, Gustav Svensson, Jordy Delem; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin
Seattle's backline is nowhere close to 100%, but it's the same backline that shut down both Atlanta and LA. I expect Brad Evans to be in the 18.