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Tactics and Trends: Familiar struggles

The Sounders notched a signature win at Vancouver but fell victim to old shortcomings in their two straight losses.

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

The Sounders played very uneven soccer over their last three matches. They won a game in which they were dominated, lost a game that they themselves dominated, and then lost another game that was statistically even in nearly every category but the score. The catawampus nature of the results makes trying to find a single tactical arch for all three matches something of a fool’s errand as none of the matches’ statistics tell the same story as their respective final scores.

Still, matches are won and lost by small margins, and often those margins are defined by how comfortable a team is playing within a certain system. Both by nature of injury and squad rotation as well as facing new opposing tactics, the Sounders found themselves having to adjust their systems of play in both of their losses. Though they created enough chances to score in each, they lacked the final mix of confidence and quality to do so in either.

Ironically, one of the Sounders’ strengths over their nine-match win streak was the team’s ability to adjust their tactical approach mid-match in order to change the final outcome. If they needed more possession, Harry Shipp and Cristian Roldan could pinch central and create overloads in the midfield. If they needed to stretch the field, both were willing runners in behind who could create space even if they didn’t get the ball. If the team needed to play more direct, Will Bruin was a natural fit off the bench as a player who could battle and create havoc receiving long balls from the back and in the box. If they needed to protect a lead, Roman Torres was available off the bench as perhaps the best third center back option in the league.

But where the Sounders had previously deployed their bench depth at optimal moments in order to change matches, injuries prior to and during the Union and Galaxy matches forced the team to make changes earlier than planned. Those changes not only disrupted the team’s first plan of attack, but also limited their flexibility to change tactics later in the matches. Against the Union and the Galaxy, who were both organized in the back, the lack of offensive options proved costly.

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Playing quick

While the Sounders don’t have the pace from their attacking wide players to be a true counter-attacking team, they have become adept at building from the back quickly, particularly when their opponent’s press. In the team’s opening goal against the Whitecaps, the Sounders moved the ball from free kick in their own half to the back of their opponent’s net in 15 seconds without playing a single ball in the air. All seven of the Sounders’ passes went forward and none of the eight players involved in the sequence took more than two touches on the ball. In short, the goal was the antithesis of the plodding, directionless offense that plagued the team through the first half of the year.

But while the goal provided a signature moment for the offense as both outside backs got forward while both outside mids tucked in to create central overloads, it wouldn’t have been possible had the Whitecaps dropped into a defensive shell. In fact, Gustav Svensson’s seemingly innocuous 20-yard pass to Nicholas Lodeiro that kicked off the move was arguably the most important of the sequence as it cut out three pressing Vancouver players at once. The following pass from Lodeiro to Brad Smith also bypassed Vancouver’s holding mids. That the Sounders had cut out all but Vancouver’s back four before getting into the attacking third shows the Whitecaps were caught with too many numbers high up the pitch.

The penultimate pass from Cristian Roldan to Kelvin Leerdam reveals even more about the tactical battle as Alphonso Davies — Vancouver’s left mid and therefore the natural choice to mark Leerdam — streaking forward, trailed the play by 10-15 yards. Cristian Techera, Vancouver’s other outside mid, also trailed the play, applying little to no pressure on Brad Smith earlier in the sequence. Though Techera and Davies could have possibly worked harder to get involved in the play, the truth is that both created plenty of offense in their own attack by cheating high and attempting to exploit the space left by Smith and Leerdam. Ultimately, Vancouver chose to play a cat-and-mouse game between their outside mids and the Sounders outside backs and lost.

Lodeiro’s press

Entering the Vancouver match, Lodeiro had notched six goals and five assists in 12 matches after putting a vice grip on the team’s center attacking mid role in their standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Offensively, the position allows for a freedom of movement that fits Lodeiro’s roaming tendencies best. Defensively, the position allows the Uruguayan playmaker to show off his industrious side as he can constantly harass opposing teams’ back four and holding mids in build out play.

Usually, Lodeiro’s pressing unsettles opponents more than it creates direct turnovers since the rest of the midfield rarely joins him in pressing high up the pitch. The defensive movement proves must effective in keeping opposing back lines honest as it creates a sort of timer to which they must adhere in order to avoid a ghastly turnover. Occasionally, as when the Sounders hosted the Galaxy in August, the timer runs out. Other times, the mere threat of the timer running out causes defenders who are on the ball to self-destruct.

The latter played out against the Whitecaps as Lodeiro applied pressure to Brett Levi’s who panicked and played Raul Ruidiaz in on a breakaway for the Sounders’ second goal. The match-winning sequence displayed the type of pressing that had become paramount to the Sounders’ win streak. It also foreshadowed how reliant the Sounders are on Lodeiro playing in a central role.

Philadelphia Union

Familiar struggle part I

It’s no secret the Sounders struggled to get in behind defenses after Jordan Morris tore his ACL in February. The signing of Ruidíaz helped alleviate that struggle as the Peruvian striker added pace into the Sounders’ lone striker role. Ruidíaz showed that exact quality by getting in behind a high Union backline in the 16th minute, taking an inch perfect first touch, and then nearly chipping Andre Blake with his second touch. Though the Union didn’t usually press their attacking players high during the match, they did keep their backline up the pitch, creating a compact middle block of defenders. Ruidíaz looked poised to shred through the high defensive line of that block until his 34th minute substitution due to injury. Two of the Sounders’ four key passes in the opening 34 minutes were long balls over the top to Ruidíaz. A third key pass during that time sent Brad Smith in behind the Union defense.

In the 60+ minutes after Ruidíaz’s substitution, the Sounders failed to create a key pass that sent a player behind the Union backline. In fact, of the seven key passes that occurred after 34th minute, all but two went backwards. The two forward key passes both resulted in shots from outside the box. The absence of Ruidíaz forced the Sounders to play almost exclusively down the wings and look for cutbacks or shots from distance, making the team predictable in attack.

Shrinking margins

After Toronto FC pressed the Sounders into oblivion in last year’s MLS Cup final, many teams have followed suit in attempting to disrupt the team’s build out play this season. Without Morris, and previous to the Ruidíaz signing, this strategy made a lot of sense as the Sounders were short on attacking players who could punish a high pressing team with pace in behind. Moreover, pressing high often meant keeping the Sounders’ best playmakers such as Lodeiro and Rodriguez from collecting the ball cleanly at their feet.

However, with the addition of Ruidíaz as well as Smith, two pacey players with enough attacking quality to punish teams on the break, as well as better movement and incisive passing all over the pitch, opposing teams have started to feel the burn of pushing numbers forward. Sporting KC, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps (in the second match) all won the possession and shots battle in part by pressing the Sounders higher up the pitch, but felt the sting of getting scored on after the Sounders broke their first line of pressure.

The Union protected themselves from the same fate by only pressing with their striker and center attacking mid (similar to the Sounders defensive shape) for much of the match. Philadelphia’s relatively low pressure meant the Sounders dominated possession, but had little room for error going forward as their outside backs rarely received the ball without pressure from the Union’s outside mids who were good in tracking back all night. Though the Sounders moved the ball side to side well enough to create plenty of dangerous looks, they lacked the final bit of quality needed to break down a well-organized lower block of defenders.

LA Galaxy

Familiar struggle part II

While the Galaxy did apply an effective counterpress throughout the match, helping them earn their first goal after forcing Smith into a bad turnover, they too were content to sit back in organized blocks once the Sounders gained clean possession. Unlike the Union match, however, the Sounders at least had Ruidíaz available to try to get in behind the blocks centrally. But while the Sounders avoided the pitfall of having no pace in behind in the center of the park, they fell into another familiar trap of having too little width.

The team started the match with Lodeiro and Roldan out wide. Both can play on the wing, but neither are true wingers. Having outside mids of that mold has worked for the Sounders when playing with an attacking center mid like Lodeiro who is happy to interchange and pop out wide when one of the wide players comes central. However, when playing with two strikers who stay primarily central, the movements create a logjam in the middle of the park—a frequent problem when Bruin, Lodeiro, and Clint Dempsey all took the field together.

Over a six-minute period in the first half, the Sounders played four long balls to central positions of the field. The direct balls had varying levels of success, but none truly broke down a Galaxy defense that stayed compact in important areas of the pitch. Losing Smith early in the match only exasperated the problems with width as the Sounders all but ignored Nouhou until a second half switch to a 3-5-2 allowed the left back more opportunities to get forward into space. Even then, troubles with erratic crossing and tentative forward play plagued the team going down that side.

Missing Lodeiro’s Press

In addition to hampering the team’s forward movements, moving Lodeiro out wide also hurt the Sounders defense in the match. Without the No. 10’s intelligent and energetic pressing, Jonathan dos Santos had a field day connecting the Galaxy from back to front as the team’s main architect in build out play. In the 54 minutes before Lodeiro switched back to a central role, the Mexican international completed a stunning 94 percent of his passes and kicked off the movement that led to the Galaxy’s second goal, effectively killing the Sounders growing momentum.

Unless Schmetzer decides to bench Alonso or Svensson (or slide the Swedish international back to center back) it’s virtually impossible to start two forwards and still have Lodeiro play as a center mid. As good as the team has looked in moments with Bruin and Ruidiaz on the field at the same time, the Galaxy match showed the limitations of the two forward set, not necessarily because of either striker’s play, but because of how it disrupts the rest of the team shape.


  • Now that the Sounders have rattled off the best win streak in league history, teams are starting to respect their attacking prowess. That means more mid to low defensive blocks and less space for our attackers on the break. It also means more time for the defense to play out of the back, which should lead to more possession. The players must make good use of that possession and show they can consistently break down an organized defensive unit in order to get another win streak up and running.
  • After going 11-0-2 in 13 straight matches with Harry Shipp in the starting line-up, the Sounders lost two matches in a row without him in the 11. A legitimate debate had started as to whether he’d usurped Rodriguez’s starting role, or if Alonso should be moved to the bench so Roldan could slide back and Shipp and Rodriguez could both start. That debate is now at least temporarily moot as both Shipp and Smith are out multiple weeks with hamstrings injuries. With the players who manned the left for the recent part of the win streak out, Rodriguez’s health and Nouhou’s form are vital as the team looks to avoid their early season struggles down that flank.
  • The injury bug continues to plague the Sounders. Smith and Shipp’s injuries will test the team’s depth not only in terms of starters, but options off the bench. Young players such as Handwalla Bwana, Alex Roldan, and Henry Wingo may yet get another chance to show their value. How they perform could define the Sounders’ season.

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