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Tactics and Trends: Lodeiro’s mighty midfield

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Nicolas Lodeiro has become the maestro of a fluid and ruthless attack.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Nicolas Lodeiro is without question one of the Seattle Sounders most important players. Since making his debut in the summer of 2016, he’s led the team to an MLS Cup, a Western Conference Championship, and an MLS record for most consecutive matches won in regulation during a single season. Along the way, he’s notched 19 goals and 32 assists in 71 matches—not bad for a player who may be even more important in build up play than he is in delivering the final product.

But while the Uruguayan playmaker has produced fairly consistently with the rave green, never going more than five matches without a goal or an assist, the team as a whole hasn’t always clicked with him in the line-up. Early season struggles in each of the last two years have virtually eliminated the Sounders from Supporter’s Shield contention by mid summer and left some fans longing for the days of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, a pairing that nabbed the Shield in 2014 and regularly dazzled with multi-goal performances.

On the list of scapegoats for the Sounders offensive inconsistency and early season struggles, Lodeiro is pretty safely nestled beneath (in no particular order): early season injuries, Garth Lagerwey, roster turnover, Brian Schmetzer, short offseasons, and many more. On the flip side, if someone made a list of all time best Sounders, Lodeiro would be far from a lock at number one despite providing the most consistent offensive spark over the Sounders’ two most successful post-season runs.

Of course, all-time-great lists are notoriously murky, and Lodeiro’s case is particularly complicated. First, there is a philosophical debate about the value of the MLS Cup/playoffs compared to the Supporter’s Shield and US Open Cups. Then there’s the fact that Lodeiro’s only played two and half seasons with the Sounders. And finally, most importantly, one must consider that over Lodeiro’s short time with the team, he’s rarely been the most high profile player in his position group, let alone on the entire roster.

For better or worse, Lodeiro has spent the bulk of his time with the Sounders sharing the midfield with arguably the greatest U.S. men’s national team player of all time. During certain stretches, the duo looked dominant, most notably bullying their way through the western conference playoffs with a 7-0 aggregate score over the three matches they both started. During other stretches, the duo ran an offense that looked slow and plodding, particularly when playing without a Joevin Jones or Jordan Morris to stretch the field.

Regardless of the final result, the Dempsey-Lodeiro pairing meant that neither player could truly put their stamp on the midfield. At times that was OK. When the Sounders had wide midfielders such as Jones and Morris playing a more defined winger role, Dempsey and Lodeiro were both able to drop deep at different moments and find touches without stepping too much on one another’s toes. This year, however, with less true wingers on the roster, the timing of each movement in the midfield has demanded more precision and coordination as the attacking midfielders rely on interchanging and quick combination more than straight-line speed.

In order to conduct all that movement, the Sounders have required one undisputed maestro to lead the way. Lodeiro has played the role to perfection. In his 15 starts since taking over the center attacking mid position in July, the Sounders have gone 12-1-2. The one time Lodeiro didn’t start in that position over the last three months, the Sounders lost 3-0. Also, their one loss during that stretch in which he did play centrally came against the Union in a match the Sounders dominated in nearly every statistical category. Even before the Sounders got healthy, Lodeiro led the team from the CAM position to a 2-2 draw away at SKC with two rookies flanking him in the attacking midfield.

Still, without a skilled orchestra to play the parts, Lodeiro’s masterful conducting would be for naught. In that regard, the health and performance of Victor Rodriguez, Cristian Roldan, and Harry Shipp have proved vital as all three offer the intelligent, technical, and unselfish qualities needed to play off the dynamic number 10. Even moving down the line, the overlapping of Kelvin Leerdam, Brad Smith, and more recently, Nouhou, has given the team a width to compliment the tight combination play of the attacking midfielders. At the same time, Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson have made sure the team can transition from back to front smoothly while Raul Ruidiaz and Will Bruin provide the final crescendo with good awareness and movement in the box.

In the last two matches, the proverbial show has gone off without a hitch, and Lodeiro’s been at the center of it all: scoring, assisting, pressing, and providing the key build up on countless Sounders chances. Surrounded by like-minded players who share his special combination of quality and grit, Lodeiro’s tendencies have become one-in-the-same with the tendencies of the team. As such, the players are moving with a fluidity and tenacity that should strike fear in any approaching challenger.

Pressing

Lodeiro’s pressing ability is likely the most underrated part of his game. While he doesn’t play the position as a true destroyer like Cristian Roldan or Tyler Adams for the Red Bulls might, he does consistently disrupt and hurry opposing teams during their build out play. And although the outside mids in the Sounders system don’t press as consistently as the center attacking mid, they do pick their moments to apply heavy pressure, particularly after committing a turnover. Similar to Lodeiro, Roldan and Rodriguez were excellent over the last two matches in applying pressure when called upon. Both created turnovers that led to a goal.

Movement off the ball

As industrious as the Sounders attacking midfielders are in defending, they work just as hard in the attack, particularly with their movement off the ball. In both of the Sounders opening goals against Houston, Lodeiro worked tireless to find an angle so he could get open for Alonso to play an incisive forward pass out of the back. That ability to get open for holding midfielders allows the team to play out of the back on the ground and create more dangerous scoring chances going forward.

Moreover, on both goals, Rodriguez made unselfish runs to create space for Will Bruin and Cristian Roldan respectively. These are the runs that Shipp had consistently been making as he helped the Sounders to a nine-game win streak before Rodriguez returned to health. The more the Sounders midfielders can use their high motors to create space for each other, the less straight-line speed is needed to break down their opponents.

Not to be left out, Roldan capped off both plays, one with an assist and one with a goal, by making long busting runs down the wing despite starting out behind the play.

Combination play

The Sounders have shown throughout the season that hard work can help a team grind their way to results. Still, only quality can earn two four-goal performances in a row. Here —in the flicks and the megs and the one-two combos — Lodeiro and the rest of the midfield’s skills shine brightest.

On the first goal against Colorado, Lodeiro put on an attacking midfield clinic: switching the point of attack, playing Nouhou in behind the defense, rifling a dangerous shot, following that shot, and then picking his head up for a smart cut back assist. Rodrgiuez provided a similar, if not even cleaner moment of brilliance against the Dynamo that featured three one-two combos in a row en route to netting the team’s fourth goal of the match.

Trends:

· For perhaps the first time in Sounders history, the rave green have a roster that’s comprehensively build to suit the skills and needs of their best playmaker. Depending on how far the team goes in the playoffs (assuming they make it), 2018 could mark the true beginning of the Lodeiro era in Seattle.

· Will Bruin’s resurgent performance against the Dynamo further solidified his place as one of the best strikers to not have a starting spot in the league. Furthermore, Jordy Delem’s strong outing showed the Sounders have great depth at holding mid as well. The team is 2-0-2 in the last four matches Delem has started. When paired with another holding mid who’s willing to take the bulk of responsibility in possession, Delem can play at a starting MLS level.

· Lodeiro has answered the call of duty with his national team just as he’s reaching peak form with the club. If he misses the Orlando match, it’s unclear who will fill his role in the 4-2-3-1. Both Roldan and Rodriguez have played minutes at CAM, the former more than the latter, but neither has played extensively in the position. Moreover, if Shipp’s injury keeps him out of the match, then Handwalla Bwana, Alex Roldan, or Henry Wingo could get a start. The road trip to Orlando could ultimately decide who will complete the Sounders 18 come playoff time.