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What is the Schmetzer way?

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As the team searches for a return to the identity that took it to MLS Cups, it is imperative that we understand just what that style is.

Head coach Brian Schmetzer addresses the media.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Earlier this week on SportsRadio KJR head coach Brian Schmetzer said that the Seattle Sounders need to return to their style. If they are going to go on the improbable run needed to return to the MLS Cup Playoffs for a tenth straight time they will need to be Sounders again.

Their identity this season does not match those of Schmetzer’s first year-and-a-half — not fully, at least — and yet it is the same foundation that won an MLS Cup — maybe even especially that MLS Cup.

Schmetzer describes the identity simply, it is a sports radio interview for the general Seattle sports fan. To him it is about strong defense, effort and patient possession.

What has worked so far in 2018 are a few key building blocks to the identity. These blocks are consistent and need not be abandoned.

  • Duels won. This isn’t just an energy and effort stat. A team that is winning duels is more likely to win possession, more likely to win the ball forcing transition and less likely to cede ground deep within their own area. It shouldn’t be surprising that the correlation between duels won and winning points is strong. Seattle leads the league in both tackles per game and interceptions per game.
  • Collapse into the zone. When defending the Sounders are willing to let teams shoot from distance (3rd in league for percentage of shots allowed from outside their 18), unwilling to allow penetration, and they don’t allow many shots overall (9th fewest in MLS). This has been a hallmark for some time.
  • Dominate the midfield. This is a team that still controls the central third (5th in MLS). In some ways this leads to their only successful “attacking nature.” This last one is a partial success in 2018, but has been lost as the dire nature of the attack forced dramatic changes in philosophy — patient possession 20-35 yards out.

The broken attack is often blamed on injuries, but the defense has seen its share of rotation as well. They’ve gone five deep at centerback, three deep at right back, only two deep at left back and five deep at defensive midfielder. Of those six positions (in their more typical 4-back sets) five players have started in more than 50% of games, but only two have double-digit starts in defensive roles (Chad Marshall and Nouhou).

Despite all of that rotation due to injury, international callup, and suspension, the defensive identity of the Seattle Sounders under Brian Schmetzer has not changed. This is a top 3 defense in the league, again and again and again.

The layer that’s broken is the attack — you know this. Everyone knows this. It just needs to be said because that’s the nature of writing.

Why is the attack broken? Oh, the reasons are numerous.

  • They were built to spring Jordan Morris. This can’t be fixed until they add a new speedy talent (they are).
  • They want cut-back passes from fullbacks but only one of their five players that play fullback looks for that style of pass by nature. Seattle is one of the most left-leaning teams in the league, but their best fullback plays on the right. This can be fixed by abandoning the left-side lean and using Leerdam more than Nouhou.
  • The patient possession in that band in the second to last septile requires great ball control players. In the past, when this has worked, it does so against compact defenses due to players that are able to pass or dribble despite tight marking and few options. The idea is switch the ball along the deeper band as midfielders pop into 18 joining the lone forward. Lodeiro has barely been present more than half of league matches. Victor Rodriguez only available in a few. Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Harry Shipp got buried behind youngsters with great effort levels, but who were unable to possess in the successful style of ‘16/’17. This seems to have been fixed through health and selection.
  • Clint Dempsey is no longer the dominant force he has been, mostly due to energy levels. He also doesn’t have someone to work off of as he seems to enjoy. He and Lodeiro rarely play together in 2018. Dempsey doesn’t yet have a vibe with anyone else. This can be fixed by managing his minutes and the expected signings that up the quality needed for someone to interact with Dempsey’s deft touches.
  • Will Bruin plays through injury. There aren’t any other healthy pure forwards on the roster so Bruin is playing despite his injury. This won’t be fixed until a new player is added. Maybe Neagle and Chenkam will heal and give him some rest and provide some defense from forward late in matches.
  • Be greedy. The fortunes in close will change, the Sounders need to keep attacking the goal and know that they cannot be this poor for a whole season. Take the lesson from Shipp and hit it one time when clear on goal inside the area.

About 60% of the Seattle Sounders identity is absolutely fine. Almost all of their flaws in the attack are fixable and/or being fixed already. If Schmetzer is going to navigate the team towards a rediscovery of his style it should happen this week. He’s had the time, the health and the promise of a new player on the way to help him towards that. The Fire are on short rest.