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Tactics and Trends: Sounders’ search for goals continues

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A new formation helped the team score, and then it didn’t.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Another three-match stretch for the Sounders, another draw, win, loss streak that’s left doomsday fans sure of the club’s demise while keeping optimistic supporters confident that the team is trending up.

Comparing the last three matches to the three before them, it’s hard to pick which spell looks better on paper. Surely, the away draw to top-of-the-table SKC trumps the toothless home draw to a 10-man Columbus. But on the other hand, three points at home against Minnesota pales in comparisons to stealing three on the road against the defending MLS Cup champs. Throw in two away defeats that mirror each other as hard fought defensive battles barely lost in the final minutes, and the Sounders have done well to stop the bleeding from their 0-3 start, but remain far from the form required to compete for silverware.

Still, for all the inconsistent performances the Sounders have put on in the last month, the club has done well to make themselves “tough to beat” again. Dating back to the team’s first point of the season against SKC, the Sounders have only given up a goal per game, a rate that would have earned them the second best goals against mark in the league for 2017. Furthermore, the Sounders have only trailed in 42 of their last 540+ minutes of soccer.

If the plan is to grind out matches with strong defense until attacking reinforcements arrive in the summer, the Sounders look more than capable.

In the meanwhile, if the team can raise their goals per game rate from a league worst .78 to a somewhat average 1.3, they could put themselves back in the playoff mix even before the summer transfer window. Paramount to achieving that goal will be creating more chances, as the Sounders are in the bottom quarter of the league in expected goals. With that in mind, this tactics and trends will break down the different wrinkles going forward in each of the Sounders’ line-ups from the last three matches.

Columbus Crew

Crosses on crosses on crosses

It’s no secret the Sounders were overly reliant on crosses against a short-handed Columbus Crew. According to whoscored, the squad pumped in an astonishing 43 crosses over the course of the game. The team’s single-minded approach in the attack was so frustrating that even Will Bruin, a player who’s made a career out of finishing crosses, was visibly annoyed in his post-match interview, noting, “I think everybody in the stadium knew we were going to get it, try to push it wide and cross it.”

One reason that tactic was so fruitless was that from the 31st minute on, the short-handed Crew opted for a 5-3-1 instead of a more traditional 4-4-1 look. That formation allowed Columbus to pack the box with three big center backs, each of whom were more than happy to match the notoriously bruising Bruin blow for blow in the box.

To make matters worse, the Sounders offered very little in terms of through balls or combination play down the middle that could have at least unbalanced the Crew in the back. While it’s true the Sounders lack speed in the attack, there’s no excuse to not at least keep the Crew honest by making them either turn and run at their own goal in order to chase a through ball, or step up to the top of the box in order to break up combination play. Had the Sounders proved willing to try either on at least a semi-consistent basis, Bruin and Clint Dempsey would have likely found more space in the box when the team did decide to cross the ball. In fact, the best Sounders’ chance of the game came off Bruin chasing down one of the team’s only through balls of the match and then slotting a low ball back across the box to Dempsey.

Given the Sounders are essentially guaranteed to go without a pacey forward until mid-summer, the team must accept that they’ll need to slip whoever is playing forward in behind the defense every once in a while in order to keep opposing center backs honest. Though he doesn’t have much pace, Bruin has at least shown comfort picking up the ball on the run as he provided an assist to Cristian Roldan against SKC and a goal against Toronto running behind the back line. Clint Dempsey is also more than capable of finishing on the run if the timing of the ball is correct.

Moreover, if/when the Sounders get healthy enough at forward to drop Dempsey back into the midfield, he’ll need to find some sort of rhythm combining with his fellow attackers around the top of the box. The devastating gut punch that he, Obafemi Martins, and Marco Pappa once provided down the middle may not be possible with the current personnel, but surely the Sounders can do better than only completing one pass around the top of the box for an entire match.

Playing it safe

Bruin provided another candid moment in his post-match interview when he described the team’s mentality as, “I’m not going to make the mistake. I’m just going to move it to the next guy.” The numbers largely back up Bruin’s claim, particularly on the wings.

Over the course of the match, Nouhou, Kelvin Leerdam, and Handwalla Bwana combined to play the ball backwards roughly 90 times in the attacking half of the field. (That number does not include crosses that were angled backwards in the attacking third.) The reason those three players’ actions were particularly significant going forward is that they were the most wide leaning players who saw the field against Columbus, and with the Sounders offering very little going forward centrally, the creative burden fell almost entirely to those operating on the wings.

The fact that a majority of the actions taken by those wide players in the attacking half were backwards passes made for a predictable pattern of play in which the Sounders recycled the ball from side to side without much urgency before delivering a cross from outside the corner of the box—a low percentage option even before playing a team that’s bunkered in. While taking players on one v one becomes significantly more challenging against a bunkered opponent, it’s often the exact quality required to unlock a tightly organized defense.

Toronto FC

A true back 5

Whether the Sounders deployed a 5-4-1 more as a means to bolster their defense or provide a spark to their offense is hard to say. Fortunately, the move worked out for the team in both phases.

The defensive success of the formation was perhaps more predictable. Deploying a highly organized bank of five defenders behind another bank of four midfielders is always likely to make space tight for opponents. Despite starting the fourth or fifth choice options at both center mid and center back, the Sounders defenders moved with a tight synchronicity that has become commonplace in the Brian Schmetzer era even when the team uses more attacking formations.

The flip side of the Sounders getting so many numbers behind the ball is that Waylon Francis and Jordan McCrary didn’t get as involved in the attack as the formation suggested they might. Both players only managed one cross, and neither player made a key pass, a stat where Francis in particular has put up big numbers during his time with the Sounders. Normally, playing five in the back allows a team’s outside backs to push up with some level of freedom, but Toronto’s dominant possession kept the Sounders defenders at bay.

Balance on the break

With the Sounders keeping so many players behind the ball for much of the match, the team was forced to find most of their opportunities on the break, a phase of the game in which they’ve struggled mightily all year.

The most commonly identified source for that struggle has been the Sounders’ lack of speed. And while the well-documented absence of Jordan Morris has certainly hurt the Sounders in transition, the team has just as often struggled with finding a lack of quality on the break. For example, in leg two against Chivas de Guadlajara, the athleticism of Wingo and relative speed of Neagle over Bruin hardly saw the light of day as the Sounders struggled to even get the ball out of their own half.

Against Toronto, the Sounders got the balance of athleticism and quality just right. On one end of the field, Eikrem proved that having a quality creator is just as important on the counter as having speed when he caught three Toronto defenders out of position with only a few deft touches and a perfectly weighted pass. On the other side, Bwana showed off his lighting quick burst in order to cut through Toronto’s defense and notch the game winner.

Ironically, the last time Bwana and Eikrem started on the wings together was against the Montreal Impact, when the Sounders turned in one of the worst first-half performances of the season. In that match, the Sounders attempted to control pace and possession and ran into a well-organized Impact back five. Conversely, in Toronto, when Eikrem and Bwana were tasked with providing urgency on the counter, both players’ best tendencies shown through.

Portland Timbers

Wingbacks get their wings

Toronto’s attacking posture limited the number of players the Sounders could push forward into the attack. However, it also meant that Seattle had room to operate when they did break. But where Toronto currently sits third in the league in possession, averaging 55.1% per game, the Timbers are in the bottom five for the league, averaging 46.9% per game. In essence, Toronto likes to take the game to their opponents, whereas, under Gio Savarese, Portland have preferred to defend and strike their opponents on the counter.

That meant that even when the Sounders did break down Portland, the Timbers usually still had enough players back to cut out any direct ball to goal. For example, Jordy Delem’s 44th minute flick to Eikrem sent the Norwegian running free at the Timbers backline with Portland center back Liam Ridgewell completely out of the play. Still, even with their backline out of shape, Portland had two defenders limiting space to Dempsey and buying enough time for Chara to make a quick recovery that forced Eikrem to lay the ball off for a late run from Nouhou. Tight Portland marking forced the Sounders to go wide to Nouhou once more in the 48th minute when Alex Roldan tucked in to overload the center of the park and found himself surrounded by multiple defenders. Fortunately, the younger Roldan made a heads up play to lay off the ball for his brother who put Nouhou in on goal.

The good news is that on both occasions, Nouhou received the ball running at goal in space rather than isolated in a corner as happened far too many times against the Crew. If the Sounders can continue to find their outside backs quicker in transition, it could mean more shots on goal and less slow-to-develop crosses.

Clint Dempsey, lone striker?

With news of Bruin’s heel injury sending many Sounders fans over the brink of despair, the Portland game at least provided a small silver lining in that Schmetzer will have plenty of time to evaluate what Dempsey can bring to a 5-4-1 as the lone striker.

And while one shot on target against the Timbers won’t have opposing defenses trembling when they watch game tape, Dempsey did show some promise as a striker in the Sounders’ new alternative formation. The veteran played particularly well with his back to goal for much of the match. In the 48th minute, he showed excellent poise bringing down a throw with his chest and holding off Chara long enough to start a combination with the Roldan brothers that eventually sprung Nouhou free down the left. He also helped the team out of tight spaces in build up play in the 47th and 25th minutes.

Perhaps more surprising was Dempsey’s willingness to chase down through balls, winning the Sounders a corner in the 45th + 1, and using his muscle to help him nearly beat the speedier Chara to the ball in the 24th. As a lone striker, he won’t have the luxury of sitting beneath Bruin or Morris and feasting on opportunities at the top of the box like he is used to, but he does have the strength and quality to provide excellent hold-up play if he can mentally and physically commit to doing the dirty work for an entire match. Furthermore, if the Sounders continue with a 5-4-1, Dempsey can still drop into the midfield from time to time without stepping on the toes of an attacking center mid. The earlier the Sounders could get him involved in such situations, the more likely they are to keep Dempsey engaged and active.

Trends:

  • Injuries, World Cup call-ups, more injuries. At least the following weeks should give fans an idea of how the bottom of the depth chart is shaking out. So far, between Alex Roldan, Bwana, and Henry Wingo, Schmetzer has started at least one outside mid with limited top league experience in every MLS match this season. Virtually the only way this won’t continue is if Harry Shipp and Eikrem start out wide against RSL in a 5-4-1 — a viable option for injecting more creativity into the lineup, but one the manager may shy away from for lack of speed and grit. The relative lack of healthy center backs also makes this a tough fit.
  • The Sounders have officially introduced a second formation into the fold. The 5-4-1 helps the team keep space tight in the back and allows the wingbacks and outside mids to get out quicker in transition. The formation also lends itself well to counterattacking, which could help the Sounders generate more goals from the run of play. Downsides are that the Sounders may not have a true striker left on the roster to play up top, and the absences of Roman Torres and Gustav Svensson for World Cup duty would seriously test the Sounders depth when playing five at the back.