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Earthquakes’ man-marking and the power of unconventionality

If you were confused by San Jose’s defensive structure, don’t worry. The Sounders didn’t have the easiest time with it, either.

SEATTLE — The San Jose Earthquakes walked out of CenturyLink Field with a point Wednesday night, thanks in no small part to the atypical defensive doctrine utilized by head coach Matías Almeyda. The Earthquakes’ man-marking system is a rarity in the world of soccer, but Wednesday’s result proved that sometimes less-utilized methodologies can still find success at the game’s higher levels.

In the realm of sports, unorthodox styles are always met with raised eyebrows. The A-11 offense in football, Chad Bradford’s submarine delivery and Roy Jones Jr.’s almost flailing approach to pugilism all stand out as stark departures from the established norms in their respective fields.

Of course, those methodologies only work when an athlete or team possesses exceptional ability, as with Jones and Bradford. The A-11 requires a tremendous advantage in raw athleticism (and previously, a loophole in the rule book) to find success. It’s the reason that such an offense would never function in the relatively talent egalitarian NFL.

But for San Jose, whose only recent claim to being exceptional was in its Wooden Spoon-winning 2018 season, it seems the man-marking system relies on something else entirely — discombobulation.

“It was wild,” midfielder Harry Shipp said. “I’ve never played a team like that and it’s part of the reason why they’re decently successful – the novelty of it. It takes thinking. It takes understanding how to drag guys out of position. It’s totally different than a normal game you play. It took us a little bit to adjust to it and unfortunately we weren’t able to adjust to it in time enough to get all three points.”

The Sounders had the run of play from the opening whistle, when fresh legs and full-speed sprints meant that San Jose—like many others in MLS—couldn’t keep up with them. When an early goal didn’t materialize, however, the club struggled to find meaningful connections when pressing forward.

“Well we knew what to expect, but I felt like we played into their hands at times,” noted midfielder Cristian Roldan. “I felt like we were playing a bit of their style as well, just because you lose the ball defensively and you end up being man-to-man. It was a bit of a chaotic game.”

Seattle had a plan to overcome the bizarre openings created by the system, which at times looked like a mad beehive as San Jose chased the Sounders all over the pitch. The plan, however, created its own moments of bizarreness, like Kim Kee-hee sprinting up the right side and smashing a cross into the penalty area in the 16th minute.

Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer explained.

“We worked on Kim Kee-hee getting forward and Gustav [Svensson] dropping back in to play center back,” Schmetzer said. “When they pair up with everybody there’s one spot that’s open. [Harold] Cummings was the guy who was almost a sweeper – he didn’t pair up with anyone. I wanted to draw him to the left side, bring the ball and hopefully Kim would be able to find some space and bring the ball forward, which would start a chain reaction. Whoever comes to put pressure on Kim has to release from their man and we were trying to get an advantage in that situation.”

As the match wore on, fatigue started to open up more gaps for the Sounders, but they were unable to exploit it thanks to a series of missed chances, a save on a point-blank header from Handwalla Bwana and no shortage of delaying tactics from the Earthquakes.

Still, Bwana pointed out that the club had figured out how to best the system before.

“It’s a battle,” Bwana said. “You have to win your individual battle. We [played] against Almeyda when he was with Chivas [in the Champions League in 2018], and it was the same situation and we won the game at home because we fought and fought. If you can win the individual battles, you can win the game.”

Seattle is unlikely to see another team play a defensive system like San Jose’s, but the lessons learned may prove useful depending on where the Sounders sit in the league standings when the clubs meet again on the league’s penultimate match day, September 29.

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