It’s a big week: Seattle’s fate in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 will be decided, the 2018 MLS season kicks off on Sunday, and of course the team will be looking to do everything it can to wipe the haughty smile from Bob Bradley’s face in his first match back in the league. There are a lot of balls to juggle!
Player rotation already? A distasteful result in Estadio Las Delicias from a limited roster leaves Brian Schmetzer with a rough set of decisions to make. He’ll have to decide how much firepower to throw at a now must-win match, while balancing Sunday’s MLS regular season opener. Pre-season fitness levels mean most players appearing Thursday are going to be hard-pressed to produce much out of their legs in a game situation on Sunday.
While last Thursday’s match wasn’t encouraging in and of itself, it was pretty clear that even the B-ish team rolled out was more than capable of controlling the game and dominating Santa Tecla.
Seattle has waited two years for their chance at Champions League glory, so I imagine it’s a significant priority and we’ll see a mostly first-team starting lineup. Which parts, though, is a bit of a stab in the dark. The hope, of course, is that the superior firepower will be able to pull the El Salvadorans apart quickly and allow key players to sub off early.
How strong and deep is Santa Tecla’s bunker? The thing that impressed me about Santa Tecla the most was their willingness to step out and avoid bunkering in for 90+ minutes. Recalling their coach’s comments from Niko Moreno’s scouting report last week, it was clear his goal was to achieve enough at home that they wouldn’t need to attack hard in what will be unfriendly mental and weather conditions.
You’d find little argument from most observers that Seattle will have a significant talent advantage. You’ll also find, without much effort, that a bunker done well has negated many a strong attack (it hasn’t, after all, earned that nickname without reason). Add on the Sounders’ struggles to break down bunkers in the past, and there’s legitimate cause for trepidation. All that superior firepower is going to need to come together quickly to find the holes and exploit them.
Without Jordan Morris, the team will need to rely on its technical skills, which are plentiful, and intelligence, which is high. There will be few, if any, true breakaways. The buildup, ball movement, switches, and off-ball runs will need to compound and be well connected. Thankfully, most of the starting lineup will have played together last year, which a provides solid foundation.
Can the defense hold it together? Despite the expectation that Santa Tecla will turtle, and somewhat because of it, the defense is going to have to be on their game when opposing attacks come. Realio’s ratings for the away leg highlighted positioning issues that put the team in a tough spot when dealing with attacks — and in particular, counterattacks.
There’s a good chance the home side is able to put up a goal or two early, which will open the game up. This is not (in its current form) a Sounders defense capable of absorbing all comers. More than ever, this will need to be a full-team defensive effort to make life difficult from the first transition kick to the point of turnover. That’s something I’m confident the team is capable of doing for at least a half; I’m less confident their fitness will be at a point that allows them to stay focused and within themselves for a full 90 minutes.
Expected Sounders lineup: Stefan Frei; Nouhou, Tony Alfaro, Chad Marshall, Jordan McCrary; Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin