One point in two games. It’s not a blazing pace by any stretch of the imagination — in fact such a clip would virtually assure a last-place finish if extended throughout the year. But after a horrid start to MLS play, history may mark the last two-match stretch as an early turning point for the Seattle Sounders.
For starters, the Sounders showed enough grit to actually look like the better team in the second half against the Montreal Impact despite playing down a man. Though they still failed to get a result, the team’s resolve looked much improved in comparison to their post red-card performance against Dallas. More importantly, the Sounders managed to earn a point on the road against the current Western Conference leaders while starting three players who were still fighting to earn a roster spot only two months ago.
The results still aren’t good enough, but with depth players beginning to step up at the same time that starters return from injury and suspension, good soccer may yet return to CenturyLink in time for fans to enjoy the newly emerging spring sun.
For the first time in 2018, the Sounders lined up against a team playing a 3-5-2. The new look gave the home team trouble in the first half as they barely out-possessed Montreal despite the Impact’s defensive posture and got out shot by the Canadian side 5-3. Surprisingly, the Sounders struggled less with defending Montreal’s wing-backs and more with containing the Impact’s attacking play down the middle of the field.
One such example came in the 15th minute, when Ignacio Piatti, Samuel Piette, Jeisson Vargas, and Ken Krolicki all combined to win a dangerous free kick 25 yards out from Seattle’s goal. In the play’s build up, Daniel Lovitz, the left wing-back for Montreal, only touches the ball once to pass it back to a center-back, but his presence succeeds in forcing Magnus Wolff Eikrem to stay out wide, which in turn opens up enough space for Jukka Raitala, Motreal’s left center-back, to play a 30-yard ball on the ground into Piatti’s feet. At this point, because a 3-5-2 features two strikers and two center mids who can go forward, Seattle’s central defensive block of Cristian Roldan, Gustav Svensson, Roman Torres, and Chad Marshall are in a 4 v 4 battle with Piatti, Vargas, Krolicki and Saphir Taïder. Once Piette, the holding mid, joined in the combination, Montreal’s numbers overwhelmed Seattle down the middle, leading to Krolicki earning a free kick on the break.
The Impact looked dangerous going down the middle once again in the 25th minute, this time with Taïder breaking forward. As Vargas stretched the Sounders backline deep and Krolicki made a late run forward to briefly occupy Roldan, Piatti found a pocket of space to receive the ball and run at Seattle before firing a shot from just outside the box.
Playing out of pressure
While Montreal’s high central block of two strikers and two pushing center mids gave the Sounders’ backline trouble in the first half, the Impact’s wing-backs were largely ineffective as they failed to register a single successful pass in the Sounders’ attacking third. That lack of creativity from Lovitz and Chris Duvall allowed the Sounders to gamble on giving the two wing-backs more space by having their own outside mids either stay high and act as outlets for the counter or tuck in to help win the ball off of the Impact’s three center mids. While this strategy did allow more Montreal possession as their wing-backs were given space to carry the ball up field, it ultimately resulted in more dangerous chances for Seattle as Handwalla Bwana, Nico Lodeiro, and Alex Roldan won a greater number of balls in the midfield and also provided numbers higher up the pitch to counter.
Unfortunately, despite creating far fewer chances in the second half, the Montreal central attacking four still found a way to punish the Sounders—this time through a high press. Though Montreal never implemented an all out high press as a team, the center mid pairing of Krolicki and Taider continually pestered the Sounders throughout the match as they recorded a combined seven recoveries and one interception in the Sounders’ defensive half. One of those recoveries was Taïder’s 60th-minute backheel to Piatti that both saved the ball from going out of play and set up Piatti’s game-winning assist to Vargas. True to form, Taïder created the play by pressing Waylon Francis into a turnover only seconds earlier.
A second half adjustment to have the outside mids apply more pressure to Montreal’s center mids helped take the life out of the Impact’s attack, especially once Alex Roldan subbed into the game and registered multiple tackles. Still, the Sounders struggled to deal with the pressure and movement of Montreal’s center mids and strikers for most of the night. With the Impact funneling most of their effective play through the center of the pitch, Ozzie Alonso’s elite ball-winning and calming presence in build out play was sorely missed.
A challenging compromise
The Sounders faced another new formation for the first time in 2018 when they took on Sporting Kansas City’s 4-3-3. The biggest similarity between the 4-3-3 of Kansas City and the 3-5-2 of Montreal is that they both feature one holding mid and two box-to-box mids who have license to go forward. Contrary to the game against the Impact, Seattle wasted no time providing help defense to snuff out Kanas City’s roaming center mids, with Bwana chipping in on Yohan Croizet and Alex Roldan helping his brother do the dirty work against Roger Espinoza.
The help defense against Croizet and Espinoza was largely effective in the first half as Alex Roldan and Bwana’s ability to squeeze space centrally led to turnovers off of SKC’s back five in both the 14th and 22nd minute. While the two outside mids’ work was far from flashy, a 33rd minute breakdown leading to SKC’s PK showed why it was so important. On that play, Lodeiro and Alex Roldan both get caught pressing high but marking no one in particular. Lodeiro’s over aggressive positioning allows Ilie Sanchez time and space to receive the ball and turn, while Roldan’s similar mistake allows Espinoza the freedom to receive and turn as well. Given time and space to pick his pass, Espinoza calmly slotted a dangerous ball into Johnny Russell, SKC’s best 1v1 attacker, which allowed the Scotsman to run at Nouhou in the box.
But while multiple defensive breakdowns and a great flash of skill were required to generate a goal through build up play down the center of the pitch, Sporting Kansas City’s outside backs were permitted much easier passage, leading to a combined two key passes, an assist, and a goal from Jimmy Medranda to Graham Zusi. Those stats are impressive enough before considering Medranda’s key build up contribution en route to Khiry Shelton’s 23rd minute point-blank opportunity. With SKC playing three strikers, two box-to-box center mids, and two outside backs who ran the flanks, the Sounders had to give up something defensively. Seattle chose to allow more space on the wings, and SKC exploited that space efficiently.
Return of the Honey Badger
Thanks to Svensson and the elder Roldan, Osvaldo Alonso’s absence from the lineup is no longer a near automatic loss. While the 10-year Sounders vet used to leave a honey badger-sized hole in the midfield whenever he was missing, Svensson and Roldan’s fearless defensive work has helped the Sounders maintain their bite while Alonso has been out with injury. Numbers wise, Roldan’s 3.5 tackles per game in 2017 was right on pace with Alonso’s career average, and Svensson has put up an eye popping 4.8 tackles a game in 2018.
But while the Sounders have done well to replace Alonso’s defensive output, they have struggled to replace his elite passing out of the back. Since 2014, Alonso has averaged more than 90% passing success rate per game. By comparison, Roldan is at 86.4% for 2018 while Svensson sits at 85.4%. Only once in four games has either Svensson or Roldan completed more than 90% of their passes. In fact, against Montreal and SKC, both teams that deploy two box-to-box center mids who can apply pressure, Roldan and Svensson combined to average only an 83% passing success rate.
Alonso’s insertion into the SKC match immediately helped calm the Sounders down in the midfield as the team jumped from 38.6% possession before his arrival to 48.6% after he subbed on. The Honey Badger completed a smooth 96% of his 25 total passes. His ability to efficiently jumpstart counter attacks, as he did in the 77th and 79th minutes, helped the Sounders register multiple dangerous chances, and his ability to stay calm under pressure, exemplified by his 86th minute turn on Roger Espinoza, helped the Sounders maintain possession and make SKC drop more numbers into defense.
Children’s Mercy Park is a historically difficult to place to play. Given the numbers SKC commit forward in their 4-3-3, the match was bound to be defensively challenging for the Sounders. That Seattle were only two defensive gaffes away from getting a shutout against the No. 1 team in expected goals for 2018 shows that this group is inching closer to the defensive form that defined their success over the past two years. If Alonso’s return can help the team also reclaim their dominance in possession, the Sounders will be a tough out even as they await offensive reinforcements.
· In only 30 minutes, Osvaldo Alonso reminded the entire league why he’s been the most important player on the most consistently dominant team over the last decade. He is still the Honey Badger: not only tenacious and determined in battle, but intelligent and efficient in technique. His return from injury could reignite the team just as it has so many times in the past.
· The silver lining of consistent injury and suspension is getting to find out what your depth is made of. While perhaps not yet ready for the grind of regular starter’s minutes, Bwana has shown he has enough skill and inventiveness to provide a spark off the bench even when the team is at full health. On the other end of the playing style spectrum, Alex Roldan’s calm passing and high work rate make him an effective cog in the machine who excels in doing the little things to help others shine around him. Last but not least, Jordan McCrary’s productive minutes have shown that Leerdam’s absence may not be the crisis it would have been just a year ago.
· The battle to win (or maybe just not lose) the starting left back job rages on. If Francis’ injury gives Nouhou the chance to start a few games in a row, perhaps the consistent minutes will help the young fullback gain confidence and momentum. If Nouhou continues to struggle during Francis’ absence, he may have a long wait on the bench before he sees the field again.