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Tactics and Trends: Injuries and a red card throw Sounders plans to the wind

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At least the depth got some experience.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This stretch could have cemented the Seattle Sounders’ early season aspirations of making a deep run in CONCACAF Champions League as well as getting a good start on the Supporters’ Shield. Following an up and down first two weeks that ended brightly with a 1-0 win against Chivas, the Sounders had a full week to assemble the right pieces for the two-game trip to Guadalajara and Dallas. Given the intense schedule congestion of the first four games, that short break should have allowed Schmetzer and staff the perfect opportunity to evaluate the opening slate of matches and comfortably select the best plan moving forward. Instead, Nico Lodeiro got hurt and stayed home. Then Will Bruin came off in the 8th minute against Chivas, and 30 minutes later, Chad Marshall came off too. And finally, to add insult (or perhaps incident) to injury, Clint Dempsey got himself ejected in the first half against Dallas.

Suddenly, what looked like a perfect opportunity for a few depth players to flex their muscle in key matches quickly cascaded into a cataclysm of inexperience and inability as one too many key injuries burst the proverbial dam. In the end, there would be no breakout performances, and no amount of Henry Wingo’s speed, or Handwalla Bwana’s flair, or Harry Shipp’s composure could save an incomplete squad from two 3-0 beat downs in a row.

Chivas de Guadalajara, Leg 2

Power ball

There’s a bitter irony to Bruin getting injured making the exact type of play that made him irreplaceable. In the second minute, his fearless challenge for Stefan Frei’s long ball allowed Henry Wingo to pick up the second ball underneath, burst into space, and have a clean shot from 20 yards out. While the Sounders are a short-passing, possession-based team, that play alone showed the importance of winning aerial duels from long balls against a high-pressing Chivas side. Forced between replacing a power player with a finesse piece by subbing on Shipp, or putting on a player who has yet to start a match but is more likely to win aerial duels in Lamar Neagle, Schmetzer went with the latter.

Somewhat surprisingly though, instead of making a straight switch by putting Neagle up top, Schmetzer played him on the wing, pushed Dempsey to striker, and slid Magnus Wolff Eikrem centrally to the No. 10. While Neagle has played the bulk of his minutes this year and last out wide for the Sounders, the move marked one of the only times during the Schmetzer era when the team went without at least one technical, possession based player on either wing. The results were ugly.

The Sounders posted an unacceptable 56 percent passing success rate for the match. To put that in perspective, D.C. United were statistically the worst passing MLS team in 2017, and they still managed a 74.7 percent mark for the season. And while Neagle and Wingo were responsible for poor turnovers (Neagle in the 43rd minute, Wingo in the 15th), they weren’t entirely to blame. In the first half alone, the back seven (keeper, defenders, holding mids) attempted 19 unsuccessful long balls from their own end of the field into the opposition’s half. By comparison, during the same stretch of time, they only completed 17 successful passes of any variety from within their own half.

In general, the Sounders’ game plan after Bruin’s injury appeared to revolve around knocking the ball long and hoping to win enough aerial duels to occasionally threaten Chivas’ goal. Missing their best hold-up player made that plan a long shot a best.

Counterintuitive counters

Despite Chivas dominating possession and chances, the Goats left the first half without a goal and having only managed one shot on target. The Mexican squad did create dangerous crosses and a few good set piece opportunities by consistently switching the ball from left to right and isolating Waylon Francis on the wing, but they failed to find a breakthrough. Their lack of finishing touch was due in large part to slow build up as Francis, despite giving away a bad foul and what probably should have been a penalty in the first half, was usually able to delay long enough for help defense to come from Neagle, Cristian Roldan, Chad Marshall or Gustav Svensson. For example, in the 21st minute, five Sounders ended up closing in around the ball to put out danger deep in their own corner.

But while the Sounders were bunkering in terms of getting midfielders tracking back behind the ball, they did allow their fullbacks to get forward in the few moments the team created possession in the attacking half. In fact, Jordan McCrary and Francis both put in decent crosses in the first half. The decision to occasionally commit numbers forward made sense given the importance of an away goal, especially with a second half Chivas goal looking inevitable.

However, with Francis high up the pitch, Roldan’s 48th minute turnover left the team exposed at the back, and Kim Kee-Hee had little choice but to foul once he got beat on the dribble. After burying the ensuing free kick, Chivas were on the break again only five minutes later following a McCrary turnover high up the pitch, and that time the Goats were able to put the ball away in the run of play.

That the Sounders were ultimately undone on the counter in a game where they spent so little time on the ball was a fittingly frustrating way to lose the match.

Take away

The decision to put Neagle on provided added physicality as the Federal Way native battled for more long balls than any other Sounder on the night, but ultimately the lack of any cohesive build up play or possession doomed Seattle. Although Chivas got their goals on the counter, they had enough of the ball to score in a variety of ways, none of which would have been surprising. Playing without at least one technical outside midfielder was an unlikely departure in identity for the team, and a move they are unlikely to try again.

F.C. Dallas

Focus and fatigue

Whether the starting line-up against Dallas was a reaction to the Chivas game or simply a matter of squad rotation is hard to say, but Schmetzer trotted out an ultra technical (relative to the options available) front four with Dempsey, Shipp, Eikrem, and Bwana. On paper, this yielded better results, with the Sounders owning over 58 percent possession and only trailing 8-6 on shots in the 37 minutes that preceded Dempsey’s red card. The team achieved this despite turning the ball over nine times compared to Dallas’ four during that same stretch. Still, the turnovers added up and helped create the sustained pressure that ultimately led to a 1-0 deficit even before Dempsey’s sending off.

Many of those turnovers were only inches off and usually featured the Sounders player who was set to receive the pass remaining too stationary by either not checking to the ball or not anticipating the angle of the pass. These misfires started early and occurred often. In the 2nd minute, Shipp won possession off Mauro Diaz and tried to lead Svensson into space with a quick pass, but the Swedish international stayed put, creating a turnover that led to an immediate shot on goal. Three minutes later Eikrem played Shipp who checked back to the ball too slowly and was overrun by Anton Nedyalkov. Once more in the 26th minute, Eikrem played a square ball to Dempsey who turned and allowed the ball to run by him only to realize it was running too quick for him to catch up.

While not all the starters from the Dallas game played against Chivas, those who did looked a step slower. Their fatigue, combined with a general lack of mental sharpness from the squad as a whole, made dominating possession challenging. With no Bruin to stretch the field with hold up play, and no Jordan Morris to stretch with runs in behind, dominating possession through slow build up was nearly the only way to create chances. Though the Sounders controlled the ball leading up to the red card, they weren’t as efficient as they needed to be, particularly in the opening 20 minutes.

Total football

The Sounders’ best run of play in this match came between Dallas’s 20th minute goal and Dempsey’s 37th minute sending off. In that time the Sounders had 67 percent possession and out shot Dallas 5-4. The key man during this spell was Kelvin Leerdam, whose return from injury has provided the only bright spot of the week for the Sounders. In the first 20 minutes of the match Leerdam only had three passes in the attacking half, and all of them went backwards into the Sounders own half. In the following 17 minutes, Leerdam attempted 10 passes in the attacking half and completed eight of them, including a key pass to Eikrem in the 25th minute.

Getting the fullbacks forward is almost always a key part of the Sounders’ game plan, but without a true striker, and with Nouhou and Bwana struggling to find chemistry on the other side of the field, the outlet to Leerdam became the team’s saving grace. In the first 20 minutes, the Sounders tried to play long alternately to Shipp, Bwana, and Dempsey, and found little success with each option. But once Leerdam began to stretch the field high, the other midfielders found the room to pull the strings from underneath. While using an outside back as the primary option to stretch the field vertically is not exactly traditional, it may be the Sounders best option when Clint Dempsey has to start up top.

Take Away

In the end, the red card decided this match. Going from a “false 9” to a “no nine” ruined the team. Besides limiting Leerdam’s forward movement, it forced Eikrem to play up top for at least 20 minutes where he lacks the physical qualities to hold up the ball or get in behind the defense. In both the 40th and 47th minute, the situation got so dire that Svensson played as the highest player up the pitch on goal kicks in order to challenge for Frei’s long balls. The Swede’s high positioning predictably left the team exposed at the back and led to an immediate counter opportunity in the 47th.

The red also forced Neagle on early as he was the best hold up option left on the bench. Unfortunately, Neagle’s poor touch followed by a missed tackle led to a second goal for Dallas only three minutes after he was subbed on.

Ultimately, playing a 4-2-3-1 with a false 9 is extremely challenging both tactically and technically as the team must connect on all cylinders in order to make up for the reduced space that occurs when no one is designated to stretch the field high. It’s a shame the red card prevented the team from truly growing into the formation.

Trends

  • If injuries force Dempsey to play alone up top again — and fingers crossed they won’t — the team needs to field enough technically proficient players around him to combine in tight spaces. They also need to get the fullbacks involved early and often in order to provide some stretch to the game. Dempsey also would need to not get a red card, but that should go without saying.
  • The left back battle rages on, but not in the way anybody had hoped. Though he didn’t look great, Francis’ first half performance against Chivas was awkwardly effective. Yes, he gave up a bad foul early on and was perhaps lucky to not get called for a penalty, but he was also mercilessly and repeatedly put on an island to defend one v. one in space against skilled wingers. This predicament was somewhat out of his control due to the ruthless efficiency of Chivas’s switching play. That said, his marking on Chivas’s 2nd goal left a lot to be desired and his failed tackle on their 3rd goal was fairly inexcusable.

Equally inexcusable was Nouhou’s angle of pursuit on Michael Barrios for Dallas’ first goal. Nouhou already got a warning of Barrios’ speed in the 4th minute when he had to collect a long ball under high pressure from Barrios, and yet he still gambled on winning the ball instead of taking a more conservative line in retreat to his own goal in the 20th. Barrios got in behind and the rest was history.

There’s enough MLS proven talent at left back that somebody should take control of the job. The sooner this can happen, the better.

  • All the injuries to the midfield have created a quieter, but perhaps more intriguing battle for depth minutes. Shipp is still safest choice, but he’s yet to find the type of game breaking plays that demand more minutes from a coach. Bwana on the other hand has displayed a knack for the spectacular, but his inexperience still shows through at times in his positioning and lack of defensive discipline. Wingo provided a good spark against Chivas in leg one and looked good against LAFC, but disappeared against Chivas in leg two and was also ineffective against Santa Tecla in leg one. Last but not least, a strong showing in garbage time against Dallas from Alex Roldan may have earned him a second chance as he provided energy down the flank and poise on the ball.

Right now, there are enough minutes to go around for these players, but if the team ever gets healthy, it will be interesting to see who earned the right to stay in the rotation.