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How the Sounders lost an Open Cup game they didn’t have to

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A few of the players share some blame, but their coach didn’t put them in a position where they were likely to succeed.

First, I think it is important to define the scope of this article. It is not about whether the organization is putting the proper emphasis on the U.S. Open Cup. It is not about if the Seattle Sounders have a good enough roster or who’s to blame for its deficiencies. It is also not about injuries and their cause and/or significance. It is focused on why a team led by Brian Schmetzer with seven First Team players starting and five more on the bench performed significantly worse against a USL team than S2 has in either of their two games against the same opponent.

I am going to be fairly critical in this piece, so I think it is also important for me to be honest about my own strengths and weaknesses. I am not a tactical genius. I understand most of the basic stuff, and other writers at Sounder at Heart, especially Realio, have, and continue to, deepen my understanding, but I do not know enough to be a coach. What I am very good at is evaluating players and their strengths and weaknesses. I believe my writing and track record bear this out, but you can decide to what degree yourself.

While the disastrous result certainly came about because of a poor game plan and poor tactics the primary cause was mis-evaluation of the players’ ability and form as well as their strengths and weaknesses. The team was unsuccessful partly because of the players Brian Schmetzer chose but mostly because of the positions he put them in. I will start by going over what didn’t work about the starting lineup and then go over a lineup that could have turned out better.

The 11 (+7) Schmetzer chose.

Bench: Brown, Leerdam, Nouhou, A. Roldan, Shipp, Vargas, Olsen

The remarkable thing about this setup is how many players it puts into positions where they have a low probabilities of success. It can be argued that one or two of these decisions were forced by the players who were available for selection, but many were not.

It starts at right back with Jordy Delem. Over the last two years, Delem has struggled at RB with both the First Team and S2. If this were the only choice it would be an understandable move, but there are three other RBs in the organization and I have to believe there was a way to free up one of them to start this match. The worst part about this particular choice is that there are two other positions, center back and defensive midfield, where Delem could have made a real positive impact against a USL team.

The next problem was at CB. The coach isn’t fully responsible for this problem. Tony Alfaro has been very out of form, struggling to look up to the task even in his cameos with S2. I would have done everything I could to keep this version of Tony Alfaro out of the lineup, but Schmetzer didn’t have a ton of good choices and it is at least an understandable choice, and one I just might be forced to make.

Left back was also a problem but while Waylon Francis hasn’t been great this year Schmetzer couldn’t have guessed he would struggle as much as he did. I don’t blame Schmetzer for starting him, but the coach made some other choices down the left that I will talk about later that predictably made the left side weak defensively.

Henry Wingo, a player who could have had a massive impact on this game, was played in a position he has consistently struggled in as a profession. Wingo has shown the ability to be dynamic on the wing but if you have watched him play for either the First Team or S2 it is pretty clear he is not quite ready for a possession or defensive role in the middle of the pitch. His touch is a bit too inconsistent, his decision making still too slow and his passing not accurate enough to deal with the options and traffic in midfield. He may get there one day, but a competitive knock-out game is not the time to throw him into the middle and hope he suddenly figures it out. It was clear that he had to think too much about his role and it kept him from getting too involved in his offensive or defensive responsibilities.

Wingo’s struggles left a big gap in front of him which left the forwards completely disconnected from the rest of the team. That made it nearly impossible for the Sounders to move the ball from defense to attack. Ray Saari valiantly tried but he ended up with too many fires to put out in defense to be able to get forward enough. The players Schmetzer chose to play in the other positions that could have stepped into that gap were not well suited to do so.

On paper Nick Hinds looks like a perfect player to slot in as a left mid. He has played both left back and left wing extensively at the amateur level. The problem is that some of the things he is struggling with about playing left wing as a professional were exacerbated by moving to left mid in a flat 4-4-2. He is not a great defending midfielder yet and struggles to do either when he has heavy track-back-and-bomb-forward responsibilities. He is best when he can hang out around the halfway line and then turn on the jets, with or without the ball, as the team is transitioning into attack. Like Wingo, he was given too much to think about and thus struggled to give Francis the defensive help he needed and was unsure how to contribute to the attack.

Hinds’ opposite, Shandon Hopeau, who has had a whole year more as a professional, was better able to play both ways. The problem with playing Hopeau at right mid was that it meant both outside midfielders had their dominant foot on the outside and hugged the sideline exclusively. They are both used to playing on the wing and hugging the line in that situation and neither were able to recognize that someone needed to fill the gap left in front of Wingo and try to create for their teammates. I am not sure it is fair to expect them to be able to fill that role, but with Wingo behind the gap and Lamar Neagle in front, they were the only ones capable.

The final poor decision Schmetzer made was starting Neagle. Sometimes as a coach you have to put your feelings and your notions about a player behind and recognize that someone is either past it or just terribly out of form. He started Neagle and he had just two actions in his 41 minutes, one a 3-yard pass near midfield and the other a shot from 7 yards out that missed by yards. Anyone who has watched Neagle this year could have predicted that that would be the result (I mean... he played for S2 this season and was the worst player on the field) but for some reason Schmetzer was not able to.

Post Neagle injury adjustments

Bench: Brown, Leerdam, Nouhou, Shipp, Vargas, Olsen

The injury to Neagle provided Schmetzer a chance to make adjustments without embarrassing a player by pulling them at half (which he absolutely needed to do). The solution to two of the Sounders’ problems could be solved by bringing in Harry Shipp and having Wingo slide up to take Neagle’s place. This would give you a player (Shipp) who could bring the ball through the midfield with Saari and then create from the area in front of him that was previously unfilled. It also moves Wingo to an area where he doesn’t have as many responsibilities or decisions to make and can use his speed and strength to go at the Sacramento defenders. This gives Felix Chenkam a dynamic partner up top who he and Shipp can work with.

Instead Schmetzer made a bewildering sub. He replaced Neagle with Alex Roldan and seemingly switched the formation to a flat 4-5-1. This left both Roldan and Wingo confused about their roles, clogged the midfield in an unproductive way and completely severed Chenkam’s connection to the rest of the team. I understand that they wanted Shipp to start on Saturday, so they may not have wanted him to go 50 minutes. If that is the case though, well, Shipp ended up going 50 minutes anyways (oh, and Shipp looked fine playing 90 minutes against D.C. United anyway). At the very least Schmetzer needed to find a way to get Wingo out of the defensive midfield and not doing so was essentially admitting defeat.

So the combination of players, positions and formation that Schmetzer chose didn’t work, which I argue was predictable, but I think it is important to provide a better option to show just how ill advised his game plan was.

An 11 with a chance of success

Bench: Brown, Leerdam, Hinds, A. Roldan, Shipp, Vargas, Olsen

To make this specific argument, I think it is fair to assume the team started every First Team player they felt they could spare, so I won’t be adding any new First Team players to the starting 11 or the 18. I think there is at least one, and probably multiple setups that could have gotten a better result with the same First Team players. Let’s talk about the one I think would have given the Sounders the best chance to beat Sacramento.

To get this lineup on the field you have to make a couple changes to the 18. First you swap David Estrada for Neagle. Then you bring in Denso Ulysse for Nouhou. This keeps the lineup complaint with the Open Cup rule that only 5 players in the 18 can be internationals. You can afford to take Nouhou out of the 18 because Nick Hinds can cover at left back if Francis goes down with an injury. I believe it is worth it to risk the small chance that Hinds will have to play left back because of how much of the lineup bringing in Ulysse allows you to improve.

The first thing it improves on is the formation. Schmetzer’s 4-4-2 (and then 4-5-1) puts the S2 players in a formation that they have not used this season and the First Team players in one they practice with sometimes, but have seldom used in game. You are already putting players on the field together who are unfamiliar with each other, throwing in a new formation only increases the chance of miscommunication and confusion. Along with cultivating some stability, the 4-2-3-1 also fits the players available better.

Not only does this lineup allow for a familiar formation, but it also puts a lot more of the players in positions where they have had the most success. This means that even though we only changed two of the starting players, the quality of players increases all over the field.

At RB the improvement isn’t massive, but I would argue it is an improvement. Delem is slightly above average USL RB quality on the defensive side, but he rarely contributes offensively, so he is overall an average USL RB. Ulysse is about the same quality on the defensive side but he is a much better offensive RB. Over the last six weeks he has been one of, if not the best player on S2. Even if you don’t rate Ulysse as high as me, he is at the very least as good as Delem at the position.

Now that Delem isn’t at RB you can play him as a CDM. There is no doubt that he is a better CDM than Wingo, and will thus do a much better job of shielding the CBs and should have far fewer turnovers than an overwhelmed Wingo. This also allows Saari to become the CDM who is a little bit further up the field. Instead of playing as essentially a lone DM, running around trying to put out fires, he can get into the attack. Saari is adept at moving the ball through the midfield against USL competition, something Schmetzer's lineup was unable to do. He also knows how to use Chenkam’s holdup play to get more attackers upfield and threatening. The improvement at CDM is massive with this lineup, taking the Sounders from a well below average USL pairing to a well above average USL pairing.

The changes to the front four are less about vastly improving the quality of the players at each position and more about emphasizing the strengths of the players and making them fit better with the rest of the team.

Moving Wingo out to the right wing allows him to do the things he has proven he can do at an MLS level. He can use his strength and speed to go at people. He can cut in and shoot (which he has shown he can do with both feet) or pass as well as stay on the outside and put in a cross. It is the position he knows how to play well and is far less likely to get lost or confused like he did in Schmetzer’s lineup.

Estrada comes in for Neagle because he has shown that he is both in better form than Neagle and can play well sitting behind Chenkam. He doesn’t do anything fancy in the 10 role but he keeps the ball moving quickly and has an impressive array of flicks. He is also a much better presser than Neagle and him and Chenkam could have put immense pressure on the backline.

The last change is to move Hopeau over to the left wing. In doing so you lose the blinding pace of Hinds but gain a lot of other things. First, he is a much better fit with Francis. Hopeau understands better how to contribute on both offense and defense, and with Francis on the field you need a left wing who knows when to drop back and help defend, Hinds doesn’t quite have that knowledge yet. Hopeau can also cut inside which gives Francis the room he needs to attack down the flank and get consistently involved in the offense. Cutting in also allows Hopeau to use his most dangerous weapon, long distance shooting.

All these changes combine to turn a highly dysfunctional lineup into a team that could have beat Sacramento. So you can be mad at the team for not valuing the US Open Cup enough, or the roster that the front office constructed, but this loss came about from a Coach misevaluating the strength, weaknesses and form of his players and thus putting them in a position where they were very unlikely to succeed, both as a team and individually.