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Tactics and Trends: Sounders start to solve evolving puzzle of squad rotation

Seattle saved their best for last in the opening two weeks.

Mac Aquino / Sounder at Heart

It was always going to be a struggle. With four matches in two weeks (including three in seven days), and coming off of the club’s shortest offseason ever, the challenges were obvious. Could Seattle Sounders President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey sign enough reinforcements in the offseason to support the necessary heavy squad rotation? Could those signings gain fitness and acclimate to the team in time to contribute? Could bench players step up and give meaningful minutes during crunch time of knockout matches?

Perhaps fittingly for a stretch defined by the always-unpredictable CONCACAF Champions League, the answers may be no clearer now than they were in January.

Over the first four games, the Sounders played 20 different players, including 17 different starters, with somewhat mixed results. The constant rotation made understanding the team difficult, as tactics were fluid to say the least. Some challenges were familiar from last year— what to do with a bevy of central-leaning playmakers, how to stretch the field without Jordan Morris, and how to effectively defend the counter. Others were more specific to current circumstance — how to build out against a high press on a tiny field, where to find left-side service without Joevin Jones, and what are the most effective roles for newcomers such as Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Handwalla Bwana. The good news is, despite many of these questions not being fully resolved, the Sounders are taking a lead into game two of CCL quarterfinals after recording their most impressive win of 2018 against Chivas. Here’s how they got there.

Santa Tecla, Leg 1

Tiny turf

Playing on the road in CCL is always difficult, and Santa Tecla proved no different. Fitness and unfamiliar weather worked together to force two early subs, as Harry Shipp and Henry Wingo both came off looking semi-drowned from the humidity. All the while, the hostile crowd whistled and jeered every Sounders mistake. Despite those difficulties, nothing affected the Sounders quite like the tiny field with a surface that seemed to play closer to the Kingdome’s AstroTurf than anything the current Sounders use at CenturyLink Field.

With Morris and Wingo both in the attacking four, the Sounders had deployed one of their faster lineups — perfect for getting in behind the Santa Tecla high press — but the tiny field combined with the fast turf meant they were left unable to get far enough behind the defense. Instead, surefire goal-scoring chances on a regular field — such a Shipp’s 5th minute through ball to Morris — turned into toothless probing with every unpredictable bounce. While the speed of Morris and Wingo did contribute to the first goal by stretching the Santa Tecla defense enough for Nico Lodeiro to find the ball with a lot of space underneath, the opportunity was created more from a high-press turnover than by a ball in behind.

Tiki-taka turnover

Difficulties in finding runners combined with the lack of a true holdup forward meant the Sounders would need to break pressure with extremely quick short passing. Here the field again played into Santa Tecla’s favor, squeezing space to the point where passes needed to be inch-perfect. Sure-footed midfielders committed uncharacteristic turnovers (Shipp in the 33rd minute, Cristian Roldan in the 37th, and Lodeiro in the 39th), while Jordy Delem and Wingo consistently struggled to keep the ball under pressure. Unsurprisingly, the Sounders posted a season-worst 73 percent passing percentage for the match.

While Roldan, Lodeiro and Shipp did contribute to a quick build-out that led to good counterattacks in the 25th and 56th minutes, creative play was found too rarely to unbalance the energetic Santa Tecla side. Even with Will Bruin contributing to a sustained spell of possession with good holdup play around the 63rd and 64th minutes, the Sounders’ turnovers kept coming. Waylon Francis and Tony Alfaro couldn’t work it out with a couple of chances to keep possession in the 65th and 66th minutes, leading to Santa Tecla’s first goal. Turnovers from Jordy Delem, Morris, Alex Roldan and Alfaro in the following five minutes created sustained pressure from Santa Tecla that finally led to the game-losing PK.

Take away

The Sounders’ game plan of stretching the field down the right with Wingo and keeping possession down the left with Shipp should have provided enough options to win the game. Even after subs, the tactics that had taken the team to a 1-0 lead up to that point looked relatively the same, though flipped with Morris on the left and Alex Roldan on the right. In the end, the Sounders couldn’t find consistent success stretching the field or keeping possession. While the defense did give up two goals, it was ultimately the team’s inability to find a way out of pressure that lost the game.

Santa Tecla, Leg 2

Hello fullbacks, my old friend

Protecting a one-goal advantage heading into foreign territory, Santa Tecla wasted no time getting into a bunker, fouling anybody in sight (23 times to by the referee’s count), and trying to waste away the rest of the game on the ground milking phantom injuries. They fouled the Sounders twice in the first two minutes, and by minute 19 had nearly every player around their own box defending.

With Santa Tecla keeping so many numbers behind the ball, Sounders fullbacks Nouhou and Jordan McCrary were free to roam high up the field, playing closer to out-and-out wingers than defenders. Within the first half, the two recorded nine offensive actions (shots, passes, or dribbles) in the attacking third, three more than Francis and McCrary combined in the entirety of leg one. They also managed to get off three crosses after the fullbacks failed to record a single cross in the first leg.

The necessity of getting the outside backs forward to start the game was two-fold. First, the Sounders needed to push numbers in order to have any chance of breaking down Santa Tecla, and second, width and pace down the flanks become mandatory when starting the central-leaning trio of Shipp, Dempsey, and Lodeiro. Unfortunately, Nouhou and McCrary only posted a 66 percent success rate on first-half offensive actions in the attacking third, and were one-for-three on crosses, calling into question if either can be trusted as focal points for an offensive game plan. Their high positioning further complicated matters by forcing Roldan and Gustav Svensson to pick up the ball on the defensive line as they filled the vacated space. In fact, Roldan appeared to pick the ball up ostensibly as a left back four times in the first 10 minutes, sacrificing his chances of going forward to get involved in the attack.

Too many No. 10s in the kitchen

While the Sounders didn’t have a bad first half by any stretch, outshooting Santa Tecla 8-1, they didn’t create the incisive goal-scoring chances one would hope for. Some of this was due to Santa Tecla methodically slowing the tempo by fouling whenever the Sounders were on the break, some was due to fullbacks missing the killer ball, and still a third part came down to a Sounders logjam in the middle of the park. In the first half, only half of Shipp’s passes were down the left flank (the space in between the penalty box and the touchline). Meanwhile Lodeiro, though starting on the right, ended up registering an equal amount of passes from both sides of the field. All that central movement squeezed Dempsey deeper and deeper into the middle third of the field as he searched for space, resulting in his failing to register a single first-half touch within 25 yards of Santa Tecla’s goal.

In what appeared to be a concerted effort to get his best goal threats higher up the pitch, Schmetzer moved Lodeiro back to holding mid to start the second half. Though Lodeiro still had license to go forward, his deeper starting position allowed Dempsey more space higher up the field. The move paid immediate dividends as Bruin and Dempsey combined within the first minute of the second half, and the rest of the midfield (particularly Lodeiro and Wolff) began to dictate play from underneath. Shipp, though nominally playing the same position he did in the first half, also recorded a higher percentage of actions from further back on the pitch, ultimately contributing to key buildup on the second goal. Allowing Dempsey more room to go forward while keeping Lodeiro and Shipp further back created opportunities for each to contribute without stepping on one another’s toes.

Take away

Eikrem’s insertion created an obvious spark as his calm passing and finishing provided an added bit of quality in the final third, but the more subtle adjustment of keeping the fullbacks at bay in favor of a higher front two creating space for direct runs out of the midfield is what opened up the game. That said it’s worth noting that the first goal still came from the aftermath of a corner kick, meaning the Sounders have yet to break down a truly bunkered team in open play.

LAFC

Someone turn the forwards back to easy

With all due respect to Santa Tecla, who showed far more consistent quality than most expected, their strike force did not compare to Diego Rossi, Carlos Vela, Marcos Urena, and Latif Blessing. The LAFC front four came out firing against a Sounders backline that consisted of one borderline starter, one regular who still looked to be fighting off hibernation grogginess and insulation put on for the Seattle winter, one fifth-choice center back, and one third- or possibly fourth-choice right back. Within the first 11 minutes, LAFC had hit the post from point-blank range and scored on a screamer from Rossi.

But while their skill certainly caught the Sounders unprepared, their tactics also flummoxed the makeshift backline, particularly early in the match. While the Sounders play a 4-2-3-1 with one if not both outside mids tucked in to create room for fullbacks down the flank, LAFC kept their outside attackers high and wide. They also pushed Vela up to the forward line frequently, essentially playing four up top across the width of the field. Service to these players should have been hard to come by in that scenario, with the Sounders’ holding mids cutting off passing lanes and the backline ready to stay tight and rough up any LAFC player trying to receive the ball with their back to goal. Unfortunately, Alfaro and Torres were both caught sleeping in the 11th minute, as they respectively allowed Urena and Vela to collect the ball and turn within 30 seconds of each other, the latter resulting in Vela’s assist to Rossi.

Even once Seattle began to dictate tempo and dominate play, the front four from LAFC found the quality to get on the break just enough to keep Seattle honest in the back. These little spells, occurring in the 25th, 31st, 48th, 61st and 78th minutes, to name a few, proved invaluable in giving the LAFC defense a chance to rest while also breaking the Sounders’ rhythm. In the end, the Sounders missed the organizational and aerial prowess of Marshall badly — he would’ve helped pin LAFC more consistently in their own end.

Hello fullbacks (Nouhou), find a cross

While the Sounders had both fullbacks streaming forward in the first half of leg two against Santa Tecla, they opted to send Nouhou forward on the left while keeping Delem more at home on the right against LAFC. This not only suited the playing style of Nouhou and Delem, but also allowed Shipp to drift central while keeping Wingo as a direct outlet on the right. Unfortunately, Nouhou once again lacked the crossing ability necessary to make himself a consistent threat. Of his game-leading six registered crosses, only one was deemed successful by Opta, an 87th minute back post drifter that dropped somewhat harmlessly to Eikrem.

While long crosses are an inherently low-percentage endeavor, it’s hard not to notice the difference in accuracy between Nouhou this year and Jones last year. While still excellent in tackling and good going forward on the dribble, Nouhou has yet to show he can shoulder the offensive load without a truly wide playing midfielder in front of him. On a roster with four different central leaning playmakers who could line up in front of him of the left (Rodriguez, Lodeiro, Wolff, and Shipp), Nouhou’s crossing ability may become problematic. Luckily, he’s young, and the sample size this year is small, so improvement is not out of the question.

Take away

Ultimately, the Sounders created enough chances to score goals, so it’s dangerous to read too far into the scoreline. In the end, poor finishing and a great game from Miller killed the team, but shaky defense, questionable service from wide areas, and a less-than-elegant performance from Bruin in tight spaces around the box didn’t help. On the bright side, Wingo and Bwana showed the potential to be difference makers off the bench later in the year. Bwana in particular looked fearless taking chances down the flanks — something the Sounders have partially lacked ever since Steve Zakuani went to the broadcast booth (we’re just going to ignore that little sojourn he had to the south).

Chivas de Guadalajara Leg 1

American muscle

For the most part, the myth that U.S. soccer can use superior athleticism to will its way to the top has thankfully come and gone, and, under Lagerwey, the Sounders have led the charge towards a more technical American game. Back-to-back trips to the MLS Cup final suggest this philosophy is paying off. Still there’s no stat Schmetzer loves more than duels won, and the Chivas game tells why.

The Sounders dominated duels 64-47 and tackles 19-8. Leading the charge was Roldan, with an Ozzie-like 6 tackles, twice as many as the next-leading tackler. The Sounders dared Chivas to break their high press all night, and with Roldan and Svensson disrupting play through the middle and the backline winning almost every long ball, Chivas never found the comfortable possession they needed to control the game.

On the opposite end of the field, Bruin and Dempsey absolutely owned their physical matchups. From the 20th minute to the 51st, and plenty of times in between, Bruin won his battle to control the ball high up the pitch, consistently providing the Sounders with a long option to break Chivas’ press. Moreover, Dempsey put in one of his most physical performances in recent memory, drawing a key foul in the 3rd minute and using a combination of grace and grit to break Chivas’s pressure in the 29th. As Dempsey has aged he has evolved his game to find soft pockets of space within opposing defenses, but against Chivas, he looked to embrace contact more than avoid it. If a more physically active Dempsey is the plus side to giving him increased rest this year, the tradeoff may well be worth it.

Where’d’ya go, Lodeiro?

It’s no secret Lodeiro is going to go where Lodeiro wants to go, somewhat regardless of starting position. His movement can cause migraines for defenses trying to contain Seattle’s most energetic playmaker, but it can also make Seattle’s offense somewhat amorphous in a way that stalls attacks when his teammates don’t end up on the same page as him. Against Chivas, he and the rest of the squad got the equation exactly right.

The Uruguayan playmaker swapped sides at least twice with Bwana in the first half alone, starting on the left, moving to the right, and then back to the left again. How much of this was by Schmetzer’s design as opposed to Lodeiro’s own decision-making is hard to say, but the constant switching made it hard for Chivas defenders to get comfortable; one minute they were guarding the swashbuckling dribbles of Bwana, and the next they were chasing Lodeiro’s shadow while Francis pillaged their left flank. Francis — it should be noted — had the most productive offensive performance from a fullback to date in 2018 (a very good one in general terms, even), with four key passes in the match.

Fittingly Seattle’s goal came as Lodeiro, noticing Wingo had drifted centrally from the left to keep possession, subtly overlapped to the left himself, allowing Wingo to complete his momentum that eventually carried him to the right where he made his game-winning cross.

Even more promising from Lodeiro were his central movements. Whereas he tended to squeeze Dempsey’s space in the first half against Santa Tecla in leg two, his central movements against Chivas nearly always came from underneath. That deeper movement allowed Dempsey to stay higher up the pitch, where he nearly netted three goals.

Take away

This match was by far Seattle’s most complete match of 2018. Bruin, and Dempsey at times, helped with holdup play; Francis and McCreary found good success going forward; Wingo and Bwana helped stretch the field; and Lodeiro found the right pockets of space to dictate the game — not to mention the dominant performance from Seattle’s back six. The team’s balance in all phases of the game should lay out the blueprint for 2018. Whether they can take that form to Guadalajara remains to be seen.

Trends

  • The Sounders found their most successful spells of the four-game stretch when Lodeiro dropped deeper to start play while Dempsey remained higher up the field. If those two can continue to move in harmony, the Sounders should be able to manufacture goals consistently enough while waiting for key players to get fit.
  • The left back competition will remain an interesting watch. While it looked like Nouhou had stamped his name on the position after Francis’ poor outing against Santa Tecla in leg one, Francis showed more nuance going forward against Chivas. The upside of Nouhou is undeniable, and he already looks like the more stout defender, but whether he can add the offensive ingredients to take his game to the next level remains to be seen.
  • Having played an equal number of minutes in the middle and out wide in the band of three, it will be interesting to see where Eikrem gets the most time moving forward. If Bruin and Dempsey reprise their successful roles from leg one against Chivas in leg two, the Norwegian will more than likely find himself out wide. So far, the Sounders have only used that look with Lodeiro sitting underneath as a holding mid, a move Schmetzer may avoid in in favor of starting the more defensively stout Roldan and Svensson as the two holding mids. If that pushes Lodeiro, Dempsey, and Eikrem into the attacking band of three, it will be for the first time this year. How quickly the three can find their chemistry may determine the match.
  • Given the number of players with questionable availability, predicting the Sounders’ tactical approach moving forward, let alone their specific lineup, may be a fool’s errand. At the end of the day, if the team can break Chivas’s press as well as they did in leg one, they have a chance; if they flounder against pressure like they did at Santa Tecla, it could be a long day.

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