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How the Sounders can contain Eduard Atuesta and beat LAFC

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The Colombian midfielder is not the flashiest player for the Western Conference leaders, but he’s the one who makes them tick.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Los Angeles FC Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Seattle Sounders had a plethora of struggles against LAFC. Most of them began (and one of them ended) with Eduard Atuesta.

The young Colombian midfielder ran the show against the Sounders, most notably notching a goal, an assist, and two key passes, and less notably (but perhaps more importantly) completing 90% of a game-high 78 pass attempts.

Atuesta nominally acts as the lone pivot in LAFC’s three-man midfield, and often drops beneath Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing to receive the ball from his defenders and transition his team forward. Against the Sounders, he completed every pass he attempted from his own half of the field, and troublingly, the majority of those passes went forward. That means Atuesta was able to receive and turn with the ball far too easily.

Allowing Atuesta to dictate tempo from deep might be OK if he was consistently dropping between the centerbacks to receive the ball, and the Sounders allowed him time deep in his own end in favor of sitting back and cutting off his options into the midfield. But that’s not what happened.

All match, Atuesta’s movement, especially in conjunction with Blessing and Kaye, was extremely fluid. On the first goal alone, he begins the play in a traditional place for a single pivot: clearly beneath his other two central midfielders, and ready to start the play from the back.

In that moment, he’s the responsibility of Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, who act as the front two of the Sounders 4-4-2 defensive block. Morris and Lodeiro do what they should, and calmly shepherd Atuesta to play the ball wide for LAFC outside back Jordan Harvey. The play advances forward, but the Sounders are pretty well bunkered in and ready to defend. LAFC go on to work some intricate passes en route to a failed entry ball into the box from Atuesta.

All seems well and good, but in the midst of the interchange leading to the failed entry pass, Atuesta slips ahead of Blessing and Kaye, and the latter two drop back, positioning themselves well to gain control of the Sounders clearance. Once LAFC regain possession, the Sounders must scramble to find their marks with Atuesta, Blessing and Kaye all sitting between Seattle’s forward and midfield lines. At that point, Roldan and Svensson are overloaded and Atuesta finds Kaye in space, who in turn unbalances a desperately recovering Roldan before slipping Carlos Vela in behind for the first goal of the match.

Time and time again, Atuesta’s movement both behind and in front of Lodeiro and Morris allowed LAFC to advance the ball through Seattle’s midfield and also win possession back quickly on the counter press.

One key step the Sounders can take in eliminating Atuesta’s influence on the game is to pinch their own outside midfielders more centrally to help out the team’s holding mids. For example, on LAFC’s third goal, when defender Eddie Segura is looking to play forward from the back, he has all three LAFC midfielders, plus three forwards, plus one outside back to choose from. Each of those players are behind Jordan Morris, Nico Lodeiro, and Cristian Roldan, the last of whom got caught out of position pressing high.

Here, Harry Shipp and Victor Rodriguez must drop off and pinch in to act as almost stand in holding mids so they can force LAFC wide. Instead, Shipp is cutting off the passing lane to Cristian Ramirez (who’s in a wide area) and keeping an eye on outside back Harvey while Rodriguez ends up nearly as high as Roldan and out of the play all together. Segura proceeds to find Atuesta slipping between Shipp and Svensson and the rest is history.

If the Sounders do intend to use the wide players to clog the middle against LAFC this Sunday, then the so-far-unused Alex Roldan may be a good option. The younger Roldan racked up a team best 4.7 tackles per 90 for the Sounders last year despite playing the bulk of his minutes as an attacking midfielder. The next highest player on that list was Gustav Svensson with 3.2 tackles per 90.

But assuming Jordan Morris must start up top again due to injuries, then playing Alex Roldan out wide may lead to a lack of pace on the wings. Neither Rodriguez nor Shipp have a ton of speed to burn and even Bwana, though quick, is more of a 1-v-1 dribbler than a straight-line speedster. Henry Wingo could stretch the field if featured in the 11, but with only 144 minutes played in 2018, he would be by far the least experienced option.

Without a ton of speed on the wings, the Sounders must be better playing to feet and working as a unit to overload the wide areas than they were last Sunday when they played 22 more long balls and 186 less short passes than LAFC. Though LAFC will be sure to press the Sounders wide players aggressively without fear of getting beat over the top, Seattle can still work their way through that press with good combo play, especially if they get their outside backs involved. Last week, when the Sounders got Brad Smith into the play and used quick passing to carve through LAFC’s frantically pressing midfield, they ended up with a three on two heading towards LA’s goal and an easy Harry Shipp finish.

All in all, though, no matter how the Sounders choose to play against LAFC, the match will be difficult. Clogging the middle defensively will ask a lot of the Sounders outside backs in one on one defending against Vela and Diego Rossi, and trying to use combo play to beat a pressing team that doesn’t necessarily respect the long ball will be a big test.

Still, if the Sounders can accomplish those tasks, they can wrestle back control of the Supporters’ Shield race while proving their depth can pull out results against the league’s best. At the very least, while the glitz and glam of LA’s attack won the day in Southern California, the Sounders are guaranteed to make their home match of the series more of a grind. And with the Starks from both Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones on the mind, it may be best to end with this: Woe is the person who bets against a Schmetzer team on the brink of defeat.