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Tactics and Trends: Controlling tempo in a fluid central midfield

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Minus a few hiccups, the Sounders center mids performed well in their newer, more fluid roles.

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

Two matches into the season, the Seattle Sounders have proved what many assumed would be true heading into the year: they are a very good team. Between the established chemistry of a group that went mostly unchanged from last year and the high level of talent distributed evenly across a starting lineup of TAM- or DP-quality players (spare a thought for the perpetually underpaid Chad Marshall and Stefan Frei), Seattle looks primed and ready to compete for the Supporters’ Shield.

Throw in Jordan Morris outperforming his expected trajectory in returning to form and Cristian Roldan doing the same in his quest to become an all-MLS level midfielder, and all trophies become tantalizingly within reach. As of now, the team is in pole position for the only hardware currently at play — the Supporters’ Shield — with a 2-0-0 record and +5 goal differential.

Of course, the season is still young, and the performances have not been perfect. The most immediate cause for concern is that the Sounders have failed to bury teams by the amount one might expect from two matches where they’ve averaged 63.3% possession and 18.5 shots — though interestingly, the team outperformed their combined expected goals from those contests.

But for head coach Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders’ inconsistency controlling tempo, particularly in the early stages of each game’s second half, has caused at least as much consternation as any missed chance to score. After the Colorado match, Schmetzer addressed the issue, calling out both the holding mid unit and the team as a whole.

“I want us to control tempo. I need us to control tempo,” Schmetzer said. “Someone has to, at the right moments, say, ‘OK, let’s keep possession for the next five minutes.’”

Though highlighting two 25-minute periods from each match in which possession dipped is admittedly nitpicking, these are the margins that two dominating performances allow a team to explore. They are also the margins that separate good teams from great teams and great teams from historic teams.

In both matches, as is standard in soccer, the Sounders’ ability to dictate tempo and swing momentum came from the central midfielders — a position group that has become more fluid than ever for the Sounders with Roldan and Lodeiro both taking turns making forward runs as well as checking back to receive the ball deep while Svensson frequently drops between the centerbacks to create numerical overloads in the back.

Though the Sounders have gotten their goals and won their matches down the wings, it’s been the central midfielders’ ability to find pockets of space in build out play and win 50/50s that defined the ebbs and flows of the team’s momentum. Here’s how the trio adjusted and readjusted to the varying looks of F.C. Cincinnati and the Colorado Rapids.

F.C. Cincinnati

Managing the single and double pivots

One of the most significant tactical changes the Sounders have implemented this year is the frequency with which they use a single pivot in possession. Last year, Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson largely alternated who would split the center backs in build out while positioning themselves side by side at the bottom end of the horseshoe shape in the attacking half.

This year, Cristian Roldan, who has replaced Alonso in the defensive midfield, roams forward with much more freedom, positioning Gustav Svensson as the primary option between the center backs and a loan safety valve when the team possesses in the attacking half.

The benefits of this change are that the Sounders are less likely to get bogged down in meaningless possession in the attack, Roldan can utilize his high-motor to make penetrating runs in the attack, and Lodeiro has more space to drop in and pick up the ball from the defenders when feeling starved for touches. The downfalls are that a high press can overwhelm the Sounders when the team plays passes to an isolated Svensson, and the backline is more susceptible to counters if Svensson loses the ball.

To that point, FC Cincinnati’s first goal came off a turnover in which Svensson headed a Cincinnati throw laterally to a space where Alonso would’ve likely been a year ago. On that play, Lodeiro and Roldan were both higher up the field, and the ball ended up landing on the feet of an attacking Cincinnati midfielder who started a quick counter en route to a goal. Minutes later, Svensson turned the ball over off a back pass from Brad Smith that he had received under immediate pressure and with no easy outlet passes available.

Though the Sounders had largely dominated the opening phase of that match, they found themselves 1-0 down and having trouble building down their left 15 minutes on from kick off. Enter Roldan and Lodeiro, who began to alternate dropping deep on the left in order to help the team build out and release Brad Smith and Victor Rodriguez higher up the field.

In the first 20 minutes, Roldan and Lodeiro had only completed two passes in the lower quadrant of the field, in the next 25 minutes, they completed 10, which helped the team raise their possession share by 20% and move the ball further up the pitch en route to a three goal burst. As Roldan and Lodeiro took turns creating overloads down the left, the Sounders pinned Cincinnati further and further back, allowing Svensson more room to dictate play by himself from deep and eventually granting Roldan and Lodeiro more freedom to move back into the attack and find pockets of space in the final third. In short, once Roldan and Lodeiro found the right pockets to help the team in build out play, the single pivot worked to perfection.

Moving into the second half, Cincinnati began to commit increasing numbers into the Sounders’ end of the pitch. In doing so, the away team gained more possession, but due to sloppy passing and pressing, also opened up themselves up on the counter. As such, the Sounders’ attacking mids found themselves on the ball in increasing space moving forward. Seattle attacked that space full bore, notching five shots between the 55th and 68th minutes. But while the team looked semi-dangerous moving forward, the Sounders’ also turned the ball over four times during that period (compared to Cincinnati’s one), and allowed the visitor’s nearly even possession for the first time in the game.

Distressingly, a match that the Sounders’ should’ve been killed off through possession had rapidly devolved into a back and forth track meet. At that point, Roldan, visibly frustrated and motioning for the team to slow play down, dropped into a double pivot with Svensson, and the two wrestled back control of the match by playing side by side and completing a combined 94% of their passes from the 68th minute to the end of the match (Svensson 100%, Roldan 88%).

Ultimately, the switch from a single to double pivot slowed down the tempo and allowed Roldan and Svensson to increase their combined touches from 23 between the 45th and 68th minutes to 77 between the 69th minute and the end of the match. Though the Sounders’ attacked at a less frenzied tempo in that final stage of the match, they managed to take nine shots and add a forth goal.

Colorado Rapids

Bypassing the center of the park

If Cincinnati’s press forced Lodeiro and Roldan to get creative with their movement in helping the Sounders build out, then Colorado’s press forced the duo to do same, but this time with little guarantee of time on the ball regardless of where they roamed.

The Rapids opened the match with tight middle blocks both in terms of width and depth that dared the Sounders to play down the wings or long over the middle. When any Sounders’ midfielders tried to check deep into wide areas to help with build out as they did against Cincinnati, the entire Rapids middle block would follow them in a rabid swarm of burgundy.

The only players allowed time on the ball were Kim, Svennson, and Marshall, who were granted space so the Rapids could swarm even more players around the Sounders’ midfielders. Svensson did well dictating tempo from deep and Roldan and Lodeiro were quick enough on the ball to maintain possession or draw fouls despite the constant pressure. With the three central midfielders operating at a high level, the Sounders forced the Rapids into an unsustainable amount of running via a healthy diet of long balls and side-to-side switches. By spraying the ball to all corners of the pitch with speed and accuracy, Seattle pulled Colorado’s tight block apart early and often in the first half.

Down 2-0 at half but full of character and with nothing to lose, Colorado admirably doubled-down on their press in the 2nd half, this time committing players high enough that even Kim, Svensson, and Marshall had little time on the ball. As such, the Sounders had space and opportunities to counter early in the half, but were once again sloppy with their transition play and failed to be goal dangerous or possess the ball in their opponent’s half.

In the opening 23 minutes of the second half, the Rapids utilized their high press and increased quality of passing to out-possess the Sounders 61-39%. Because Colorado maintained possession well enough to pin Seattle back defensively, and because they pressed well after turning the ball over, the Sounders ratio of long balls to short balls was 31% higher in the second half of the Colorado match than it had been in the second half of the Cincinnati match. In other words, the Rapids pushed a ton of numbers forward and dared the Sounders to play direct.

While the Sounders failed to punish the Rapids through that direct play, they did eventually win back control of the match by fearlessly challenging long balls and tirelessly winning second balls. The play of Svensson and Roldan on second balls deserves particular plaudits as the two combined to register five recoveries and one interception in the final 26 minutes of the half.

By winning aerial duels and second balls, the Sounders retook control of the game despite struggling in build out play. But while Seattle’s tenacious play had already helped turned the momentum of the match starting in 70th minute, it was the 84th minute substitution of Roman Torres and subsequent formation switch to a 5-4-1/3-4-3 that ultimately closed the door on Colorado.

In the 5-4-1 that plays like a 3-4-3 when the Sounders move forward, Nicolas Lodeiro and Harry Shipp played in nominally wide roles, but more or less roamed wherever they wanted in order to help the team possess the ball. That formation allowed the Sounders to ostensibly play four center mids against the Rapids from their 4-1-2-1-2 for the first time in the match. From the time Torres subbed on until the final whistle, Svensson, Roldan, Lodeiro, and Shipp put on a passing clinic against a winded Rapids team with each of the Sounders’ midfielders completing more than 10 passes while the Rapids midfielders only managed seven passes total. While the match may not have ended in the knockout goal fans had hoped for (has that Shipp shot landed yet?) the Sounders ultimately ended play with a nearly equally brutal submission through possession that allowed the Rapids only 19% of the ball through the final nine minutes of play.

Trends

  • The fluidity of the Sounders’ central midfield combined with the pace and skill of their wing play makes the team nearly impossible to defend. Up to this point in the season, opponents have chosen to cut off build out through the middle, but the Sounders’ central trio have still found ways to effectively get on the ball and distribute to the wings. Should future teams choose to focus more on defending the wide channels, they’ll likely find Ruidiaz, Lodeiro, and Roldan knifing through the middle. If teams press high, the pace of Smith and Morris remain a constant threat (though the team does need to clean up their transition play). If teams sit back, they’ll have to hope that Rodriguez, Lodeiro, Ruidiaz, and Roldan don’t find a way pick them apart. While the season is still young, it stands to reason that the best way to defend the Sounders would be to keep the ball, something Cincinnati and Colorado failed to do with any consistency. The Chicago Fire have been solid in possession through their first two matches, so the Sounders will have a different sort of test on the road this weekend.
  • Jorstian Mordan has been lights out through their first two matches. If they continue their upward trajectory, the Sounders could end up with the two best American players in MLS, both of whom are on long-term contracts. In a league with limited international roster spots, the duo’s excellent play could pay dividends for years to come.
  • Squad rotation has been essentially non-existent through the Sounders first two matches. The team started the same 11 in both matches, and Shipp has been the only sub to log more than 10 minutes in either. While the starters appear set in stone barring injury, it will be interesting to see if Schmetzer uses different subs to get more players game-time in preparation for the inevitable squad rotation that will take place when the team begins their first three-match week on April 6th. So far, the Sounders’ leads combined with their sloppy play to start second halves have made Shipp an ideal sub to slow tempo and retake control of possession in both matches, so even if tactical adjustments take precedent over rotating sub minutes, it’s entirely possible that an altered game state may precipitate different subs. How Schmetzer uses his bench over the next two matches will reveal a lot about the role he envisions for his depth players moving forward.