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MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC

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MLS Cup tactics preview: How to win the possession-based war of attrition

The Sounders must be patient yet efficient against a smothering Columbus side.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, the Seattle Sounders are heading to MLS Cup. This time though, the circumstances couldn’t be more different. Besides the obvious burdens that Covid-19 has put on the league, teams, players, fans, communities, etc., the Sounders now face a shortened run-up to the final in a year where their form has looked shakier than in their previous MLS Cup runs.

For context, in each of the team’s past successful conquests through the Western Conference Playoffs, they cruised through the conference semifinals and finals with multi-goal aggregate or single-elimination victories. This year, they ground their way to a 1-0 semifinal win and pulled off an outrageous three-goal, 20-minute comeback to beat the Loons 3-2 in the final.

Did they deserve to win both games based on the entirety of the run of play? Yes. Would either performance get them a victory on the road in Columbus, where the hosts are now 12-1-1 including the playoffs? Probably not.

That assessment isn’t so much a knock on the Sounders as it is a compliment of the Columbus Crew, who are a very, very good team. Though Caleb Porter’s squad had a midseason dip in form largely brought on by injuries, they started the season gangbusters and seem to have found their form again at the right time. Anybody who watched the Sounders last year should know how dangerous a team like that can be.

Moreover, the Crew present a hazardous tactical battle for the Sounders. They like to keep the ball, but, unlike LAFC, are organized in the back. They’re well coached and tactically nuanced, but, unlike FC Dallas, have elite attacking talent at multiple positions. And they have enough speed, off-ball movement, and creativity to beat you on the break, but, unlike Minnesota United, have a Defender of the Year finalist to anchor a solid bunker when needed.

Narratively, all that means is that the Sounders will play their toughest opponent yet in the final — as it should be. Tactically, it means they must figure out how to slay the MLS equivalent of a boa constrictor — good enough on the ball to make you chase the game and squeeze the life out of your attack, disciplined enough in the back to limit your chances of wriggling free on the counter.

It’s a tall order, but one that the Sounders are more than good enough to overcome. Here are a few solid places to start:

Manage the tempo

The Columbus Crew will have spells of possession in the Sounders’ half. There’s no way around that. Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayàn, and Pedro Santos are too good on the ball for the Crew to get pinned in their own half for an entire match like Minnesota did. On the other hand, the Crew are less free-wielding and fluid than 2019’s LAFC or Toronto FC, whose 4-3-3 formations could be overwhelmed with good transitional play.

Columbus’s 4-2-3-1 is sturdy, despite the numbers they send in attack. That means the Sounders will have to find the balance between taking what’s given on the counter and not pushing so hard that they cough up possession needlessly and allow Columbus to dictate the game. There will be times Seattle will need to keep possession for possession’s sake in Columbus’ end just to force them to chase for a while. If those spells can end in shots, fouls, or corners, even better.

More importantly, the Sounders can’t afford to get pinned in their own half for long stretches at a time. That means João Paulo, Nicolàs Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan, and Joevin Jones (if he starts) will all need to be active in moving to receive the ball after turnovers. While the Crew are not a team that presses relentlessly in the mold of a prime LAFC squad, they will ask questions of their opponents’ build-up once they’ve got them pinned deep. That also means that if Shane O’Neill starts, he’ll need to be at his very best distributing the ball. If Xavier Arreaga starts instead, his wider range of passing will be an asset, but he’ll have to be extra careful with the fleet feet of Zelarayàn and Santos, not to mention the clever movement of Gyasi Zardes.

Win the Wings

While the addition of João Paulo has made the Sounders much more of a possession-based team, they’re still extremely lethal on the counter thanks to Jordan Morris. And though Columbus’ centerbacks will likely team up with Artur to cut out some of the easier outside-in runs to goal that Morris has scored against reckless sides such as LAFC and San Jose, the winger should still have plenty of space out wide to affect the game.

This is both because right back Harrison Afful will get into the attack when Columbus moves up the field and because Columbus tends to defend fairly narrow when they get behind the ball. If Morris can consistently get on the ball in transition, it will go a long way to pinning the Crew back and throwing them out of rhythm. If he can go beyond that and run at his defender, get to the endline, and put in that left-footed service he’s improved so drastically over the last two years, the Sounders will likely win.

On the other side of the pitch, Brian Schmetzer faces another lineup conundrum. On the one hand, JP and Roldan in the middle helps the Sounders build out of the back, not to mention having another player who can dribble or pass out of pressure in Jones. On the other hand, Jones hasn’t been in great form, and in a game that’s likely to feature a lot of crosses, having Roldan’s natural right foot on the right side combined with his goal-scoring instincts at the back post could be a major boon. Plus, if the Sounders are able to pin the Crew back, having Gustav Svennson to pivot the team side to side and sit on Zelarayàn defensively could be useful.

Either way, in a game that’s likely to be very tactical and offer slim margins, whoever lines up on the right needs to make their presence known. If it’s Jones, he must find pockets of space to get on the ball and make line-breaking passes in build out. If it’s Roldan, he’s got to run at defenders, crash everything in the box, and whip in crosses.

Defensively, the name of the game will be shutting down Pedro Santos. While Luis Diàz or Derrick Ettiene Jr. will both be more than capable of stretching the field down the right, neither should pose too big of a problem for Nouhou or Brad Smith, who have elite speed themselves. Santos on the other hand is a nightmare between the lines with a Víctor Rodríguez-like ability to cut inside and score and Kevin Molino-level quick feet.

Alex Roldan struggled at times with the shiftiness of Molino in the conference final, so if he gets another start, he’ll have to be more patient in his defending this go around. Kelvin Leerdam may be the safer option to start with Alex Roldan providing good defensive cover as a midfield sub if the Sounders lead or add an attacking spark as a right back sub if the Sounders trail. Either way, right back will be one of four or so positions that Schmetzer will need to make a tough decision on heading into the final.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

Utilize the bench

The good part of having that many lineup decisions ahead of a match is that no matter what, there will be experienced and high quality options off the bench. Against Minnesota, that made all the difference, though if the Sounders are down 2-0 against the Crew in the 70th minute, it will almost certainly be too late.

One thing to keep an eye on is how quickly Schmetzer does turn to the bench, particularly if the Sounders are losing. Against Minnesota, Schmetzer and Adrian Heath seemed to be in a proverbial staring contest with neither manager making a tactical sub until Heath finally blinked in the 69th minute. Schmetzer quickly responded by rapidly shooting Cyclopse lasers out his eyes with four subs in seven minutes that all worked spectacularly well. At that point, Heath was either too stunned to respond or just forgot that either party had blinked at all as he proceeded to watch his two-goal league methodically evaporate without making any more changes until his side was losing with one minute left to play.

All that’s to say Schmetzer has typically been cautious with subs, which, given his outrageous playoff record, is hard to argue against. Still, in his two (we can ignore the ultimately meaningless loss to FC Dallas in 2016) playoff defeats, slow subs were part of the story, with Morris not subbing on until the 71st minute against a 2017 Toronto side who were pressing the Sounders into oblivion and a tiring, and just-recovered-from-injury Harry Shipp staying on into the 80th minute against Portland in 2018 — just long enough for the Timbers to take advantage of his heavy legs in transition for a 78th minute equalizer.

In both cases there were mitigating factors — Morris’ uncertain fitness and form coming off injury in 2017, and the Sounders’ lack of wing depth with Morris and Roldan out hurt in 2018 — so it’s hard to be too critical. Even in the case of the late subs against Minnesota, the Sounders were working with a bench they’d never had before. Now, with the success of the attack-minded 4-4-2 that secured victory against the Loons, Schmetzer has a proven ace up his sleeve.

And beyond just one proven tactical switch, Schmetzer’s bench is emblematic of an advantage that may be the biggest of them all: talent. This Sounders team is insanely talented at every position. Even beyond positions, they’re talented from their coaching staff to their front office to their analytics and fitness staffs. Ultimately, that’s the stuff dynasties are made of, and with one more win, that’s what the Sounders will undeniably be.

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