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Tactics and Trends: Missing identity

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The Sounders returned to a familiar style against D.C. United before starting from scratch again in New York.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Sounders played two games with two very different looks to close out their run of matches before the World Cup break. The first match, against D.C. United, was a return to vintage 2017 form with the Sounders deploying two central leaning outside midfielders, dominating possession, and scoring once from a set piece and once from a fullback’s cross. The second match, against New York Red Bulls, was an amalgamation of 2018’s many pitfalls that included questionable squad rotation, poor possession and passing accuracy, a work-in-progress secondary formation, and lack of precision in the final third.

And while possession and passing accuracy will naturally dip when playing on the road as opposed to at home (especially against RBNY’s notorious high press), the disparity in style between the two matches is largely emblematic of the Sounders’ lack of identity throughout 2018.

On the one hand, Schmetzer’s quest for tactical diversity makes sense given how badly Toronto exposed the Sounders “plan A” and lack of “plan B” in last year’s final. Moreover, the absences of Joevin Jones (transfer) and Jordan Morris (injury) have left the Sounders without a clear option for pace on the wings. Last year, the ability to swap a central leaning playmaker for a stretch-the-field winger allowed the Sounders to switch their approach while still keeping player roles mostly the same from match to match. This year, injuries and absences have forced Schmetzer to get more creative in finding the right balance between pace and possession.

On the other hand, Schmetzer’s varying approaches to each match have left young and/or new players with a lot of learning to do on the fly. Without a consistent system or pattern of play to lean on, many of the less experienced Sounders have looked tentative in attack and prone to mental lapses in defense.

Best-case scenario, all this trial and error will lead to a Mexican national team-esque performance where the Sounders find the perfect set up when it matters most. Worst-case scenario, the team will knock itself out of contention before the race truly begins.

D.C. United

The playmakers play

The D.C. United match marked the first time all season that every player in the Sounders’ midfield had over two years of top-flight professional experience. Accordingly, the team bossed possession and put more shots on target than they had in their previous three matches combined.

Much of the Sounder’s attacking play stemmed from Nico Lodeiro, who started deeper in the midfield and helped link the attack from back to front. Lodeiro not only completed a very tidy 93% of his passes, but did so while attempting to play forward on the bulk of his passes. That steady link-up play allowed Clint Dempsey to drift higher up the field, where the veteran striker attempted seven shots, nearly double his average for the season. Moreover, Lodeiro got into plenty of attacking positions himself, completing the majority of his passes in the attacking half of the field and showing his undeniable quality with a 57th minute goal off the half volley.

Another key factor in the Sounder’s strong build out play was the success of Victor Rodriguez, Harry Shipp, and Magnus Wolff Eikirem in creating central overloads. All three of the Sounders wide players not only provided a good outlet for the back line by checking in to receive the ball in half spaces higher up the field, they also opened up a ton of room for the team’s fullbacks down the flanks with their positioning and direction of movement.

The Sounders’ second goal of the match defined the midfield’s intelligent movement particularly well. On that play, Eikrem drifted from his starting position on the right in order to stretch the defense with a direct run forward down the left. After pulling D.C. United to the left, the Sounders midfield combined quickly to push the ball back towards fill-in right back, Christian Roldan. At that point, Eikrem, Dempsey, Shipp, and Bruin were all tucked in centrally. Once Roldan takes a touch, those four players who were hovering around the top of box each make a unique run, essentially creating an impromptu four on four set piece that resulted in Eikrem’s first MLS goal.

Stretched in the back

While the Sounders made up for a lack of direct pace in the attack by keeping possession higher up the pitch, the numbers they committed forward often left them stretched in the back. The risk of getting countered loomed particularly large on the left the side of the field where a still-gaining-fitness Rodriguez looked less than interested in tracking back and covering for Nouhou when the young fullback bombed forward.

Had the Sounders’ started two defensive-minded holding mids, Rodriguez’s lack of tracking back could’ve been nullified by one holding mid sliding into an outside back role in transition while the other patrolled the center of the park. Instead, with Lodeiro often caught high up the pitch at the same time as Nouhou and Rodriguez, enormous gaps began to show on the left side of the Sounders backline.

D.C. United wasted little time exploiting those gaps, concentrating 43% of their play down the Sounders’ left side while only spending 30% of their time in attack on the Sounders’ right. The disparity between time spent on each flank was so wide that all nine of D.C. United’s key passes came from the Sounders’ left side of the field, including Zoltan Stieber’s 53rd minute cross to Paul Arriola which ultimately led to D.C.’s only goal.

In the end, Frei’s five saves combined with Roldan’s five tackles and Kim’s four tackles allowed the Sounders to limit D.C. to a single goal. Since the Sounders got the win and scored multiple goals for only the third all season, the team’s no holds barred approach to throwing numbers into the attack was a welcome change of pace. Still, Schmetzer will need more defensive production out of his attacking playmakers if he hopes to squeeze them all onto the field at once.

New York Red Bulls

Porous port side

If the left side of Seattle’s defense caused consternation for Sounders supporters against D.C. United, than against New York Red Bulls, the leaky flank likely sent fans’ collective blood pressure through the roof. From a personnel stand point alone, the Sounders left was destined to be a roller coaster in the back as Schmetzer deployed a tired-looking Rodriguez on short rest, an attack-leaning Waylon Francis behind him, and a still-stuck-in-the-reserves Tony Alfaro behind the two of them.

In Schmetzer’s defense, that look wasn’t too far from the Alfaro, Francis, Bwana combo that played well against Toronto F.C. But where Toronto favored a slow-building, possession-based game that allowed the Sounders to comfortably find their defensive shape, the New York Red Bulls were more than happy to get from back to front in three passes or less and force the Sounders to figure out their assignments on the fly.

As such, much of the Sounders defensive problems started in the front, where Rodriguez and Lodeiro pinched in to stop service to the Red Bulls center mids. This approach worked to some extent as the Sounders dispossessed the Red Bulls central midfielders nine times, while the Sounders entire team was only dispossessed seven times. Many of Seattle’s best chances came from creating those turnovers.

Unfortunately, Rodriguez pinching in defensively allowed Ethan Kutler, the Red Bulls right back, time to receive the ball in tons of space during build out play. Once Kutler received the ball, Francis usually stepped high to close the defender down, but not quickly enough to prevent him from playing the ball into the newly created space down the Sounders’ left. At that point, Alfaro and one of the Sounders center mids had to track the alternating runs of Bradley Wright-Phillips, Florian Valot, and Alex Muyl, who smartly interchanged enough to throw the Sounders defensive unit into a tizzy. Four key passes and two assists down the Sounders’ left flank later, the Red Bulls had amassed a near insurmountable 2-0 lead.

Under pressure

It’s unfortunate timing that immediately after finding their groove in possession against D.C. United, the Sounders had to travel to New York to play the best possession killing team in MLS. The Red Bulls thrive on creating chaos in their opponent’s half, and it’s no accident they beat NYCFC and Atlanta United, two of the better possessing teams in the league, by an aggregate of 7-1. While the Sounders have shot themselves in the foot with bad build-out play plenty of times this season, credit goes to RBNY this match for making life truly difficult for the Sounders on the road.

There’s a good chance Schmetzer deployed the 5-4-1 largely as a preemptive concession to the RBNY press, wherein the Sounders would cede playing through the middle of the field in favor of pushing wingbacks higher up the pitch where they could receive the ball behind New York’s pressing outside mids. And while the Sounders did an okay job getting Francis and McCrary the ball in advanced positions, neither of the backup defenders found much success going forward as the Red Bull’s fullbacks and holding mids (who averaged 23 years of age as a unit) closed the Sounders’ wingbacks down with youthful tenacity. Though Francis and McCrary both had their share of hiccups on the ball, the Sounders midfield should shoulder an equal share of the blame as RBNY cut down passing angles far faster than Seattle created them.

A second half switch of formation failed to change the rhythm of the game as the Sounders gained a slight bump in possession but barely put a dent into the onslaught that was the Red Bulls pressure and counter game. More than any other match this year, the Sounders needed a player with pace in the attack to punish the Red Bulls for selling out so hard on the press. Unfortunately, that player (fingers crossed) is in Russia sporting a white jersey with an awesome red diagonal stripe going down the front and back.

Trends

  • For the first time this year, Lodeiro, Rodriguez, Eikrem, and Shipp are all healthy at the same time. That gives the Sounders a bevy of technically capable midfielders who can hopefully fix some of the Sounders’ troubles with build out play. The catch will come on the defensive side of the ball where the Sounders can get exposed on the counter if Lodeiro or Shipp plays a holding role and the fullbacks continue to push high.
  • Dempsey has zero goals in 653 minutes of MLS play. On the one hand, his opportunities to score should go up as the Sounders create more quality chances with a healthier midfield. On the other hand, his inability to press for 90 minutes does not fit well with a team that needs to create turnovers higher up the pitch. As players return from injury and join the squad in summer transfers, Dempsey will likely need to find the back of the net if he hopes to stay in the starting lineup.