TUKWILA, Wash. — It’s fair to say that the Sounders’ trip to Columbus at midweek, which ended in a 3-0 loss for them, didn’t exactly go as planned. But thanks to losses due to injury, early call-ups, and much-needed rest, the plan they did have was far from ideal. But veteran defender Brad Evans said that even the youngest of rookies should be able to use that loss to motivate themselves to do much better on Sunday against the Houston Dynamo. “Anytime you lose a game, you should reflect on what you did poorly and what you can do better and you apply that to the next game,” Evans said.
As he mentioned before the recent home game against Real Salt Lake, Evans called the Dynamo match “a must-win game,” especially considering that the league is headed into an international break next week. There was clear frustration from Evans, who only played about a half hour against Columbus, since he had only recently returned to first team action. “All these games, if we’re not gonna pick up points on the road, we gotta do it at home.”
Head coach Brian Schmetzer touched on that home-away dichotomy, and how home teams in MLS are much more successful as of late. “This league is a brutal league. Lots of teams don’t have great road records, we only have one win.” Even though Houston is fairly poor on the road this season, their phenomenal home form (that’s rocketed them to first in the West) means that they are still a team to be wary of in any situation. Schmetzer noted that “awareness of their attributes, that’s going to be key,” but his focus is on getting his own team to play at their best, no matter the opponent.
Evans admitted that the shakeups on defense probably didn’t help the team’s case, but Schmetzer really didn’t have much of a choice. “The reality is that was who was available on the day,” Evans said. “We had to go with what we had.” The team didn’t really even have attacking substitutes on the bench that were healthy enough to come on and make a difference. “We were in kind of a shit sandwich, if you want to put it that way, when it comes to trying to make subs that could make an impact and get a goal or two back.”
The lack of experience on defense showed up a couple times in the loss to Columbus, according to Evans. He praised Tony Alfaro, but admitted that the situation just wasn’t ideal for anybody at this point in the season. “If Tony had started from game one, maybe we’re singing a different tune.” The good news is that the Sounders will probably be able to start a nearly first choice defense on Sunday, as both Evans and Chad Marshall will likely slot back into the starting lineup after getting rested at mid-week.
Having those top defenders on the pitch should help the Sounders in a variety of areas, from stopping counterattacks to being dangerous on set pieces. When Houston moves the ball quickly from back to front, the Sounders defense has to disrupt that transition. Evans stressed that “defending in transition is all mental, it’s all being aware of your surroundings. Making sure that everybody is on the same page.” Evans pressed the point that being mentally aware and connected is absolutely key for both defending the way Houston plays and kicking off attacks in Seattle’s preferred manner. He looks at soccer like a “chess match” decided by the many small decisions and actions a player has to make throughout the game. “We gotta be on the right side of guys, in front of them, stopping counter attacks, clearing a corner kick, yanking somebody down and taking a foul or yellow card to get reset.”
Set pieces in particular could play a big part in a match like this, so having a defender like Marshall who is dangerous on both sides of free kicks and corners could be key. The Sounders’ only goal in last weekend’s match against Portland was from an early corner kick; Marshall flicked the initial ball to Cristian Roldan, who headed it in at point blank range. Schmetzer said that the whole routine was drilled into the team in training, and they executed it perfectly. On Sunday, they might need another perfect execution to come out on top. “We’ll try some new set pieces for Houston,” Schmetzer said, “we’ll see if we can try to catch them by surprise, maybe it works.”
While stopping counters and executing set pieces will be very important and puts a lot on the shoulders of the defense, the Sounders need to be sharp in every aspect of the pitch. If the defense does its job at the back, the rest of the team has to force turnovers and kick off counterattacks. “It’s also the forwards’ responsibility because as the ball turns over, immediate chase, get pressure on the guy with the ball, so maybe his first pass is negative.”
Evans also puts the onus on each individual player to execute a specific duty based on their matchups. “At the end of the day it comes down to individual battles and individual duels against the guy you’re playing against.” Even if Houston does have fast players, even if they have players that can shoot from distance, the Sounders are prepared for that. If every player sticks to the plan well, Evans said the team has a much better chance for success.
All of these things considered, the Sounders clearly have no intention of changing their game plan or style based on the circumstances. Sure, they might be without their top three forwards. Sure, Houston is number one in the West and boast one of the top counters in the entire league. Schmetzer said none of those things truly change his team’s core game plan on Sunday: “it’s not going to stop us from pushing the attack and trying to score goals.”