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How Brad Smith completes the Sounders’ tactical puzzle

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The newly arrived “left-sided player” combines defensives prowess with offensive quality from the fullback position.

MLS: FC Dallas at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

So, the transfer window passed and the Sounders didn’t get their Speedy Winger™ — at least not exactly. Instead they got Brad Smith, an alumni of Liverpool’s academy who Garth Lagerwey coyly described as a speedy “left-sided player.” The implication of “left-sided player” is that Smith can play left back or left mid, giving the Sounders the lineup flexibility that Joevin Jones provided in 2017.

Ostensibly, it’s true that Smith can line up as a left back or left mid — the newest Sounder has logged minutes at both positions during his time in the EPL and for the Australian national team. On closer inspection, however, Smith appears more likely to line up primarily as a left back for the rave green.

In his first interview as a Sounder, Smith described fullback as his “main position,” though he did add he could play on the wing “if needed.” Moreover, when asked how comfortable he is tucking inside, something the current Sounders’ outside mids do as well as anybody, Smith said, “I’m more comfortable being outside on the flank, but obviously the wingers have to come inside these days so the fullback can come in [up the field]. It’s something I’ll have to adapt to if [Schmetzer] plays me there.”

Combining that Smith sees himself as primarily a left back with the fact that the Sounders started him in that position after only one week of training with the team, and it’s clear the club believes he can offer immediate quality when he starts in a defensive position. But if the Sounders do prefer Smith as a fullback more than as an outside mid, it’s fair to ask why Lagerwey would sign him rather than a true winger given the team’s defensive prowess and offensive struggles during this season.

In order to understand that question, one has to look at the Sounders’ tactical approach, which, contrary to the claims of certain national media, is crystalizing with every match. Chief to that identity, especially since Nicolas Lodeiro has taken over as the team’s center attacking mid, is the attacking midfield’s ability to overlap and interchange.

In the six matches during the Sounders’ winning streak, Lodeiro, Harry Shipp, and Cristian Roldan have each popped up centrally and on both flanks at various times of every match. With Lodeiro moving freely to find the ball and control the game; Roldan roaming to find space where he can stretch the field with more direct play; and Shipp filling in the empty pockets to punish teams who focus too much on the other attacking pieces, the Sounders’ movement has created major headaches for opposing defenses. With their consistent interchanging and ability to keep possession in the attacking half, opposing defenses must pick their poison between sitting back and inviting shots and corners, or playing aggressive and risking set-piece chances when they inevitably foul the Sounders’ tricky attackers.

Inserting Victor Rodriguez still allows the Sounders to play with the same style as the elusive playmaker has the 1-v-1 ability to break down defenders out wide and the technical ability to combine through the middle. Even if the Sounders had added pace to their attack by signing Paolo Hurtado, the Peruvian midfielder still would have likely tucked in from a wide position rather than truly playing on the flanks given the fact that he’s started more games in the middle than wide for Vitoria Guimaraes.

Committing to a fluid and central-leaning attacking band of three — one where technical ability is more important than straight line speed — has allowed the Sounders to control matches and patiently prod teams until they find the right combination of movements to get in on goal or create dangerous set pieces. However, without fullbacks who are capable of getting forward with speed on the wings, the team runs the risk of becoming log jammed by an opposition who parks the bus with defenders in the box.

So far, the Sounders have struggled to find the mix of defensive reliability with offensive quality to fill their ideal fullback role on the left. Starting with Waylon Francis, who was brought in to bridge the gap between Joevin Jones and Nouhou, the team has run into problems. Where Francis was expected to push Nouhou for minutes and drive a healthy competition, he has instead faltered and been relegated to a clear back-up role despite the coaching staff’s frustration with Nouhou at various times throughout the season.

In fairness, Francis has provided some offensive quality when called upon, notching 1.1 key passes per 90 minutes, more than any other Sounders fullback and twice the output of Nouhou. As an attack-minded fullback, the MLS veteran has also attempted an impressive 4.3 crosses per 90, at least showing the expected offensive mentality for a fullback in the Sounders system.

But where Francis has gotten forward like a Sounders’ fullback should, he has struggled with major lapses in the defensive third of the field. Against Montreal, a poor turnover led to the match’s only goal and a 1-0 loss. Away at New York Red Bulls, he and Tony Alfaro struggled as part of a five-man back line that got torched down the left side for multiple goals and even more chances. And in a rivalry match against Portland, he got beat by his man for one goal, and deflected two balls out for corners which led to two more goals for the Sounders’ arch rivals. In the end, the major mistakes piled up and forced Francis to the bench, essentially negating the competition the front office had hoped for at the start of the year.

Compared to Francis, Nouhou’s position with the team is more complicated as the former S2 standout has played a major part in Seattle’s unbeaten streak and been an important cog for the best defensive unit in the league. Defensively, the young fullback has had to overcome mental lapses early in the year such as taking a poor angle against Michael Barrios in the first match against Dallas and not tracking back quick enough after a foray forward against Sporting KC. However, as his decision-making has matured, Nouhou has grown into one of the league’s best defensive fullbacks.

The second-year player is particularly impressive in his 1-v-1 on-ball defending, where his solid positioning combined with exceptional quickness and strength makes dribbling around him a near impossibility. Where other defenders may settle for a loose foot in to disrupt their opponent’s dribble — often giving up a throw, foul or corner — Nouhou is consistently able to pop a shoulder into his man and turn quickly enough to gain position on the ball cleanly, usually leading to a series of merrily performed step-overs as he shields the ball safely out of play.

But for all his defensive prowess, Nouhou has struggled in the offensive third. His service into the box was a red flag early into the year. In the opening match of the season against LAFC, he hit six crosses into the box, and the only one to find a teammate was a ball that was so overhit that a teammate recovered it near the opposite sideline. And though his crossing ability has slowly improved throughout the season, his early struggles appear to have made him gun-shy in the attack as his 2.9 crosses per 90 lag somewhat significantly behind Kelvin Leerdam’s 3.8 and Waylon Francis’s 4.3. In a different system, Nouhou’s defensive strengths would make him a more-than-capable starting left back; in the Sounders system, his lack of productivity in the attack ends up being a significant detriment on the team’s offensive output as a whole.

Enter Brad Smith, the speedy fullback — not winger — that could take the Sounders to the next level. In his debut against FC Dallas, Smith checked all the boxes for what Schmetzer and his staff value in a fullback; all while getting used to turf, still finding chemistry with his new teammates, and learning the hard way that foul calls don’t come easy in MLS.

Defensively, Smith was impressive, frequently showing off-the-charts range and recovery speed as well as solid positioning. His performance was highlighted by a 21st minute chase down of Barrios, one of the fastest players in MLS and a key figure in Dallas’ torching of Seattle in March.

In the attack, Smith showed speed in transition, quality on the dribble, and effectiveness in crossing. However, more important than any of those traits individually was the decisiveness with which he deployed them. Without a doubt, Smith has the physical and technical skills to be an excellent outlet going forward, but where he shined, and where Nouhou must improve, is in the speed of his decision-making.

For now, Smith appears to be a shoe-in for the starting left back spot. Best-case scenario, Nouhou can continue to gain minutes through squad rotation and hopefully have more time to develop his offensive craft in training. The good news for Nouhou is that the structure of Smith’s loan deal means that, barring a transfer, the Sounders will almost certainly rely on the Cameroonian defender to step up as the starting left back once more in 2019. If he can continue his already impressive development, he’ll likely be one of the league’s best.