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Tactics and Trends: A tale of two 10s

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Cristian Roldan and Clint Dempsey offer different approaches to the same position

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Normally after one win and one loss, the debate with regards to the Sounders’ form would revolve around whether the glass is half empty or half full. Unfortunately, given that the team is off to its worst start in club history, the larger question is whether the glass’s contents are low but manageable given the Sounders’ notoriously slow pouring technique in recent years, or if there’s a striker-sized hole in the bottom of the glass that is causing such leakage that even Garth Lagerwey’s annual summer refill cannot come soon enough to save fans from crippling hope-dehydration.

Compelling evidence exists for both outlooks. On the one hand, four out of nine points in the last three matches is an unspectacular but respectable mark when two out of the three games were on the road against the West’s top two teams. Throw out LAFC’s somewhat fluky stoppage-time goal and the Sounders have tied each road match and won each home match in which they’ve not received a red card.

On the other hand, barring the first 30 minutes against MNUFC, the Sounders have yet to truly dominate an opponent, and another scoreless performance against LAFC showed that the team’s offensive challenges are far from solved. Throw in the winter transfer window closing without a new striker, and the more anxious Sounders faithful will need to do their best cactus or camel impression if they hope to preserve whatever’s in their proverbial glass long enough to sustain them through the dry season that will precede the summer transfer window.

In the meanwhile, the No. 10 role for the Sounders has never been more vital. With the Sounders struggling to find consistent quality and depth up front and the team’s outside backs still rounding into fitness and form, whoever fills the center attacking mid role will need to create copious chances while also staying goal dangerous themselves. With that in mind, this tactics and trends will focus on the performances of Cristian Roldan and Clint Dempsey in their respective debut starts for the 2018 MLS season as the Sounders’ No. 10.

Cristian Roldan vs Minnesota United

Running the channels

It’s no secret the Sounders have struggled to generate speed in the attack since Jordan Morris went down with an ACL tear. And while Henry Wingo, Handwalla Bwana, and Alex Roldan have all found varying degrees of success utilizing their youthful athleticism down the flanks, none have shown the consistent quality combined with killer instincts needed to truly lessen the burden of production from the Sounders strikers and CAMs. In fact, the Sounders’ outside mids have yet to provide a single goal or assist in the 2018 MLS season, meaning that opposing defenses can squeeze the life out of the Sounders’ attack by simply congesting the middle of the field.

Against MNUFC, Cristian Roldan’s extremely under-appreciated speed and accurately appreciated work rate combined to nullify that strategy. The elder Roldan made runs in behind Minnesota’s back line all game, not only stretching the defense deeper into their own half, but also stretching them wide as he wreaked havoc down the flank and in the half spaces.

Roldan’s tireless work getting in behind and in wide areas contributed to a mass of goal-scoring chances and was the direct source for the Sounders’ second goal as he stretched the defense wide by running through to the left flank before getting an assist on his low cross to Will Bruin. In total, Roldan tallied two assists and three key passes from the flanks or half spaces in the attacking third. Moreover, besides contributing directly to goal-scoring chances, his relentless forward runs also opened up space for Lodeiro to operate from behind. That movement helped the Uruguayan tally three keys passes in the run of play, all from closer to midfield than the attacking third.

Defensive pressure

Though he didn’t register a tackle for the match, Cristian Roldan’s consistent pressure and intelligent positioning also helped the Sounders defend from the front. Defending as a CAM can be hard to quantify as rushing an opponent into a turnover or even just preventing a positive pass often doesn’t show up on a stat sheet despite being a key factor in preventing goals.

In fact, only six minutes after Roldan moved out wide to make way for Dempsey in the middle, the Sounders paid the price for poor defensive pressure as Minnesota’s holding mid, Rasmus Schuller, was allowed the time and comfort to play a penetrating ball to Darwin Quintero who set a Minnesota United break into motion. Though Minnesota didn’t score immediately on the break, Schuller’s successful transition play allowed for sustained possession in Seattle’s third that ultimately led to a goal.

Poor defending in the front has cost the Sounders in earlier matches this season as well. Sporting Kansas City scored against the Sounders after Nicolas Lodeiro’s positioning allowed Ilye Sanchez too much time to pick his pass and start the counter, while F.C. Dallas bagged their opening goal against Seattle after Magnus Wolff Eikrem’s failed challenge on Corey Hayes allowed Mauro Diaz to break on the ball in space. While defense will never be the first priority of a No. 10, Cristian Roldan’s ability to defend high up the field could go a long way toward Schmetzer’s desire for the Sounders to be “tough to beat.”

Clint Dempsey vs LAFC

Picking his moments

At age 35, sheer volume of running is not Dempsey’s strength, but in fairness, it never has been during his career with the Sounders. He’s proven to be productive anyway, and to the veteran’s credit, he put up a much better defensive effort against LAFC than in his substitute appearance against Minnesota United. Still, despite registering two tackles, five recoveries, and a block, the difference in ground covered between him and Roldan a week earlier was apparent. This was particularly true going forward. Where Roldan registered two assists, two key passes, and five successful passes down the flanks and in the half spaces around Minnesota’s box, Dempsey only managed one successful pass of any type in the same areas verus LAFC.

Still, Dempsey was able to outpace Roldan in one specific stat: shots from inside the penalty box, particularly in the middle portion of the box. That area has been Dempsey’s bread and butter throughout his career with the Sounders, and most of his recent big-time goals have come from that area, including the go-ahead against Vancouver in the playoffs and the game winner against Chivas in CCL. For comparison, in Nico Lodeiro’s 1,000+ minutes as a CAM for the Sounders, he’s averaged 1.07 shots and .15 goals from inside the box per 90 minutes each season. Since 2016, Dempsey has averaged 2.90 shots and .55 goals inside the box per 90 minutes each season. In other words, while Dempsey may not have the legs to cover the ground that Lodeiro or Roldan can cover, he’s a master at popping up in the most dangerous area on the pitch and finishing his chances.

No space, no service

Unfortunately, the Sounders’ current personnel does not suit Dempsey’s skill set particularly well. The lack of speed at striker and down the wings does little to stretch the defense and allow Dempsey to operate in the pockets of space underneath. Moreover, when the Sounders play with two inverted wingers as they did against LAFC, Dempsey is even less likely to receive crosses from the outside players in the band of three.

That leaves the outside backs to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for providing Dempsey service inside the box. While Nouhou has looked more composed going forward as of late, he still failed to register a single key pass or successful cross in either of the last two matches. Leerdam, on the other hand, looked very dangerous going forward against LAFC, and his 54th minute low cross to Dempsey provided one of the Sounders’ best chances of the match. That play, with Bruin occupying the center backs on the six-yard line and Dempsey receiving the ball at a backwards angle from a wide area, is the exact situation the Sounders’ hope to create with Dempsey at the No. 10. Still, while the approach remains potentially effective, the lack of quality service from the left combined with a lack of speed up top makes the set up fairly predictable for defenses across the league.

Trends:

· Between Dempsey, Roldan, Lodeiro, Eikrem, Victor Rodriguez, and Harry Shipp, the Sounders have six players who have proven they can play in central attacking roles at an MLS level or higher. While each player has their own style, Dempsey and Roldan may have the most opposite approaches of any in the group. Figuring out who will take the keys to one of the most crucial positions on the field will go a long way towards the Sounders establishing an identity moving forward.

· Alex Roldan has looked better and better in each match. His calm passing and high work rate has helped the Sounders midfield in both directions. That said, so far he has excelled more in getting others involved than in creating his own chances or playing the final ball. If he continues to start on the left with Nouhou, one of the two will need to step up with goals or assists in order to keep the attack balanced and multi-faceted.

· Kim Kee-hee’s return to health could not have come at a better a time. The TAM signing looked more than capable of stepping in without missing a beat in Roman Torres’ absence. The Sounders’ elite depth at defensive mid and center back should give supporters hope that the squad can keep themselves in contention long enough for attacking reinforcements to arrive in the summer.