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Sounders outmaneuvered by New England, but late game changes lead to thrilling draw

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Finding the keystones in a thrilling, complex match can be difficult

MLS: New England Revolution at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s 3-3 draw was a wild tactical whirlwind for the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders flailed fruitlessly against the New England goal for 75 minutes while succumbing to three immaculately crafted counterattacks — yes, Stefan Frei totally gaffed but it was a knuckler from an unmarked man in a zone overload on a counter from 35 yards — before overloading New England with a ferocity of attacks that was as desperate as it was unyielding for the final 15 minutes.

The heart and attitude showed by the Sounders was impressive but it doesn’t diminish the easy way the Sounders were shut down for the first 65 minutes.

New England’s Tactical Gameplan

Jay Heaps focused his side on three key interrelated plans on Saturday:

  1. Neutralize Joevin Jones’ ability to beat the fullback one against one
  2. Keep the low block square and cut off Clint Dempsey from his partners
  3. Trust that Jordy Delem was going to be a completely inadequate offensive piece for the Sounders

Against LA, the Sounders were able to unlock the Galaxy defense using Jones and Nicolas Lodeiro to beat Nathan Smith time and again, while Jordan Morris’ near post runs exposed the Galaxy backline. Coupled with Jermaine Jones’ expansive forays —meaning no one was in a position to mark Clint Dempsey — the Sounders had a plethora of space and targets to exploit. Jay Heaps wasn’t in the mood to let that happen.

New England’s main defensive focus was dropping Scott Caldwell from midfield to play as a second right back. With Caldwell directly challenging Jones, this left Andrew Farrell free to either a) challenge the supporting runs of Lodeiro and Morris, maintain single cover, and force the Sounders into crossing or b) play as center back cover against Morris’ near post run, remove Jones’ incentive to try and beat Caldwell 1-v-1, and force the Sounders to recycle possession.

With the New England defense so heavily stacked right, Daigo Kobayashi and Xavier Kouassi were easily able to maintain defensive structure in the middle because they weren’t supporting the fullback. This allowed them to focus on separating Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin.

With Lodeiro and Morris unable to really provide effective outlets for Jones, Cristian Roldan had to adopt a more proactive approach in crafting attack and possession. With him isolated out wide, the Revolution used man advantage in midfield to jumpstart counters with Diego Fangundez and Lee Nguyen into the space behind Jordy Delem.

Let’s talk about Jordy Delem

With so much focus on safeguarding the right, New England was distinctly vulnerable on their left with Kelyn Rowe lined up as their only defender. It was a gamble from Heaps and it paid off as Jordy Delem demonstrated he really has no business playing as a fullback. It’s easy to see why Delem is on the roster. He has very good first touch, his range of passing is highly underrated, and he has a defensive physicality that few players match. In many ways, he’s a backup 6 and perhaps potentially a long term center back. He is not a fullback, though, and his awareness and positioning is questionable at best.

Delem’s ability to transition from attack to defense was terrible and New England targeted the space he vacated when moving forward, using both Fagundez and Nguyen to drive all three of their goals right at his zone. On offense, Delem was a important piece in retaining possession for the Sounders — 55 passes in 55 minutes is a key cog — but without speed or the ability to beat Rowe on the dribble and sub-standard crosses, New England played him conservatively and trusted he would do nothing dangerous offensively.

After thundering down the Sounders’ right for their third goal, it was clear Brian Schmetzer had seen enough and went directly to Henry Wingo who was more than capable of providing what the Sounders needed. This is not a knock on Delem, or even Schmetzer for putting the 24-year-old in this position to fail, but unfortunately, this was the reality forced on them by an injury-ravaged backline.

How to Break a Bunker: a story in three parts

  1. Bring on a new fullback with blistering pace, force support from defensive midfield, before burning the fullback and pumping cross after cross to draw out the New England center backs from cover. With Kobayashi forced to respond to the threat posed by Wingo, this necessitated Caldwell to shift more centrally allowing Jones and Lodeiro to directly challenge Farrell. However, with New England’s low block still intact, the Sounders had work to do.
  2. Lose your winger and force an entirely new look on the game by taking your turn to overload midfield. With Kobayashi and Caldwell now owning timeshare’s in midfield, the introduction of Harry Shipp was a blessing in disguise for the Sounders. With Shipp, Roldan, and Alonso in midfield now, Lodeiro was freed and the Uruguayan obliged by turning into a hurricane. Combining with Jones on the left, before a possession recycle saw him running rampant with Wingo on the right, Lodeiro was everywhere riding tackles and challenges to drive the Sounders forward. In addition, with the midfield trio attacking the middle via secondary runs, the Revolution defensive midfield suddenly had too many targets on their hands to stop Dempsey anymore.
  3. Double down on the center back overload with Roman Torres. With Lodeiro already having scored the first goal of the comeback, the Sounders only needed two more. With New England having surrendered their desire to counter-attack in the 66th minute when they took off Fagundez, Schmetzer removed a center back and brought on Torres to body up against the New England center backs. With Wingo and Jones now able to attack their fullbacks directly and Bruin/Torres matched up 1v1 against Angoua and Delamea, New England was scrambling to track Sounders’ runs everywhere as they pumped corners, crosses and throughballs into dangerous areas. That effort was ultimately fruitless as they were unable to stop the Sounders from scoring twice more.

Are there really any lessons to be learned here?

The Sounders pumped in 41 crosses on Saturday. That number on the face of it is absurd. But that number came from two factors: a) their unbalanced attack and reliance on players who are not ready caused by a serious injury crisis and b) trying to break down a strong defensive team who has made a habit of shredding the Sounders via bunker/counter in recent years.

New England came in with a very specific game plan for dealing with the Sounders and focused on neutralizing their biggest assets. The Sounders naturally struggled immensely and New England focused on maximizing those very few chances on goal they generated. Not every team the Sounders face will drive them to relying solely on one type of offensive attack.