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Schmetzer’s Smooth Moves: A tactics retrospective

The Schmetzer-era Sounders have gone through many ups and down, but always seem to peak at the right time.

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

As we continue to grind through the era of retrospective sports media content, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of Brian Schmetzer’s wildly successful first three and half years as an MLS head coach. These years have included two MLS Cups, three MLS Cup finals, and one shiny record for longest win streak in a singular non-shootout era MLS season.

During that time, the media has also often dubbed Schmetzer as a “players’ coach”, which seems true in that he’s commanded a mostly harmonious locker room; deflected praise and accolades to his players or staff whenever possible; and even proudly delegated leadership to not just one trusted assistant or captain, but a large network of positional coaches and senior players.

Of course the titles “players’ coach” and “tactics coach” have always created a false dichotomy. This is especially true for coaches who consistently win, which doesn’t happen without both high social and practical intelligence. And in the case of successful “players’ coaches”, one key set of truths is often ignored: You can’t keep a happy locker room if you don’t play the players who succeed; you can’t always play the players who succeed if you’re not tactically flexible; and you can’t be tactically flexible if you’re not tactically astute.

In other words, Schmetzer’s tendency to ride the hot hand in starting lineups is both indicative of a coach who is willing to let players play their way onto (or off of) the field and able to change philosophies in order to get his best 11 on the pitch. His consistency in doing exactly that has both gained him respect in the locker room and proven he can get creative in finding game plans to maximize the strengths of whichever 11 players earned the right to start a given game.

Are there underlying principles that have guided the team’s style throughout his tenure? For sure. Has that stopped Schmetzer from pivoting from possession-based play to counter-attacking and back again or sliding players into different positions for the betterment of the group? Absolutely not. As such, the Sounders have forged a unique identity in each season under Schmetzer. Here’s a look back on the trophy-laden tactical journey.

The consistencies

4-2-3-1

The 2016 Sigi Schmid Sounders experimented with variations of a 4-2-3-1, but it wasn’t until Schmetzer took over that the formation became integral to the team’s identity. While Schmetzer tinkered with other formations, most recently using a 5-4-1 look when hoping to grind out a road performance or lock down a late lead, the 4-2-3-1 has remained the primary option.

The formation matches Schmetzer’s coaching style in that it’s sturdy but flexible. If you want to win numerical superiority in the midfield, you can pinch both wingers in. If you want to hit on the break, you can keep them high and wide. Want to lock up shop? Make both your holding mids stay. Want to go for it? Let them both go. Same for the outside backs. Want to mix and match any of those scenarios? That’s very possible, and over the years Schmetzer have probably tried every variation.

The blocks of four

Every game demands its own defensive scheme and principles such as where to draw a line of confrontation and where to set traps to win the ball. That said, turn on almost any Sounders match from the last four years and you’ll see two neat and narrow lines of four rave green shirts set up to defend. This inside-out defensive approach can look passive at times, but it’s remarkably effectively. In every year but 2019, Schmetzer’s Sounders have been top three in the league in goals against average. Even in 2019, their 1.25 goals against playoff average would’ve been good enough for fifth best rate in MLS during the regular season.

Outside backs in attack

Credit to Sigi Schmid for continuing to push the envelope with attacking outside backs during his Sounders run. From Marc Burch and Joevin Jones on the left to Deandre Yedlin, James Riley, Adam Johannson, and Brad Evans on the right, having outside backs who could put good service into the box was hardly a new idea when Schmetzer took the reins.

Still, Schmetzer has taken the idea to a different level. His outside backs don’t just launch deep crosses from 25 yards out, they get to the end line and deliver pin-point cutbacks and score goals. Jones notched seven assists in 22 appearances as a left back in 2017, and Kelvin Leerdam scored six goals as a right back in 2019, both positional bests for the franchise.

2016

Emergence of Cristian Roldan

Roldan had already established himself as a big-minute player under Schmid in 2016, but it wasn’t until Schmetzer took over that he became a write-it-in-ink starter for the team, almost always as a holding midfield partner to Osvaldo Alonso. Establishing that duo in combination with the asteroid sized big-impact signing of Nicolas Lodeiro made the Sounders technical and tenacious through the spine.

Roldan has gone on to become the quintessential Schmetzer-era player. He’s a duel-winning machine who is equally comfortable controlling tempo or starting a counter-attack and can play nearly any position. His emergence as a key player in 2016 made the team more organized and scrappy, two key attributes of all Schmetzer teams.

Morris to the wing and a DP resurrected

Nelson Valdez, after suffering one of the worst scoring droughts in Sounders history, scored an incredible, emotional (maybe offside?) goal off the bench to push the Sounders past Sporting Kansas City in the 2016 playoff knockout game. Injuries to Andreas Ivanschitz and Alvaro Fernandez then pushed Valdez into the starting the lineup against Dallas so that Morris could fill in for the injured players out wide. Morris then proceeded to eviscerate Dallas from the wing, and Valdez played well enough to stay in the starting lineup all the way to the team’s first MLS Cup.

The move to slide Morris wide and put Valdez up top was made largely from necessity, but the decision to keep the two players there throughout the playoffs was vintage Schmetzer. Up until the injury crises, Schmetzer had no need to retry Valdez up top during the season, but in seeing the success he had against Dallas, wasted no time keeping a good thing going. Valdez up top provided better hold-up and pressing play than Morris, and Morris on the wing allowed the Sounders to counter with speed more than they could with Ivanschitz or Fernandez. The result was lethal.

2017

Dempsey the floating assassin

The 2017 Sounders were chaotic. It wasn’t that they played undisciplined soccer so much as they had massive roster turnover and a seemingly never-ending injury list. Their roster conundrums included but were not limited to: who should play striker among Will Bruin and Jordan Morris?; who starts at left mid if Harry Shipp and Fernandez are underperforming?; who plays right back if Brad Evans isn’t healthy?; and, most importantly, how do Nico Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey fit on the field together?

More often than not, Schmetzer’s answer to that last question was to play Dempsey as a free-roaming 10 and Lodeiro as a free-roaming right mid and have the two figure it out. They mostly did, and despite early season struggles, the Sounders were very good. At their best, Bruin provided hold up play, Lodeiro motored around wherever he wanted to create combination plays, and Dempsey drifted in patterns that looked aimless right until the minute he scored. The Sounders became very left-side dominant as Lodeiro rarely stayed put on the right, but that was OK, because they were also very good. The asymmetrical but lethal attack worked well and has reappeared many times since for the Sounders.

The double defender

Schmetzer made another move with lasting implications in 2017 when he put Jones at left mid and Nouhou at left back during the home stretch of the season. Since both had extensive experience as defenders and were also more than happy to get forward, the move made the oft-used left side of the Sounders attack unpredictable as it featured plenty of interchanging.

The two-defender, one-flank look made a subtle appearance again in 2018 when Roldan, who’s proven to be a capable right back in moments and a more than willing defender, started a string of wins on the right in front of Leerdam. In 2019, the idea made a second, more pronounced comeback when Jones manned the starting right mid spot in front of Leerdam for the duration of the playoffs.

2018

Goodbye to a legend; hello to another

The unconventional but effective Dempsey-Lodeiro tandem had a great run in 2017, but started to lose serious steam in 2018. With Morris out due to a torn ACL and Jones in Germany, the team lacked the speed to get in behind, meaning Dempsey had less second balls and crosses to devour and Lodeiro had no one to receive his through balls. The Sounders were accustomed to slow starts after the last few years, but three wins in their first 15 games marked a new low.

That’s when Schmetzer made arguably his biggest move as an MLS coach and began to sit Dempsey in favor of Lodeiro at the 10 and some combination of Roldan, Shipp, or Victor Rodriguez out wide. The Sounders still struggled to get in behind, but their small-ball lineup of short-passing, creative-interchanging maestros were able to manufacture enough magic to get the Sounders scoring again. It was a look in which a younger Dempsey could have thrived, but ultimately required more constant off-ball motoring than his legs could probably handle.

But as the saying goes, when one door closes, Nico Lodeiro bursts through the other door Kool-Aid Man style and elevates his status from great player to unquestioned leader and catalyst of the entire offense. Since mid 2018, the Sounders have been “Lodeiro’s team”.

He closed out that year by leading the Sounders (with the help of a new guy named Raúl Ruidíaz) to the best half- season in MLS history. Though the Sounders ultimately ran out of a gas with a few untimely injuries in the playoffs, the unprecedented late-season surge ushered in a new Lodeiro-centric era.

2019

Full circle Jordan Morris

The 2019 Sounders were really good at the start of the year and then predictably inconsistent when their roster was decimated by international tournaments and injury and then really good again when they got their players consistently back. On paper that’s not very interesting, but in reality, the 2019 Sounders went through as many stylistic changes as any Schmetzer team.

One of the more subtle but significant changes was switching Jordan Morris from right to left wing two-thirds of the way through the season. One intrepid writer may have predicted Morris would be more successful on the left, but admittedly, for the entirely wrong reason. (Spoiler alert: It was I!) Where I thought Morris, as a former striker, would do better utilizing his right foot to shoot from the left than to cross from the right, it turned out he was really at his best crossing from the left with his left. Who knew?

With his ability to cut in and shoot with his right and get to the end line and cross with his left, Morris became one of the most dangerous left wingers in MLS. He was virtually impossible to defend. Interestingly, Schmetzer sliding Morris to the left completed a full circle comeback for Morris after he had made a name for himself on the left in the 2016 playoffs but then struggled with inconsistency and injury in 2017 and 2018.

Committing to the counter-attack

Coaches and players often said they wanted to “control tempo better” early in the 2019 campaign. After all, the Sounders were winning, but spending large chunks of each game needlessly chasing the ball. Later in the year, they would proceed to lose a slew of summer matches in which they dominated possession and expected goals (most notably in a home loss to the Timbers). Schmetzer and staff must have decided it was more fun to win than to control tempo and lose, because they promptly pivoted even harder back in the other direction.

That shift happened most noticeably when the team exacted revenge on the Timbers with a road win that featured a very defensive holding mid pairing of Gustav Svensson and Jordy Delem and an eager-to-run wing pairing of Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan. The team would go on to crush their competition in the playoffs while also getting crushed in possession nearly every game. The style was a complete 180 from the record-setting 2018 Sounders, but perhaps better suited to the grit-and-grind nature of the playoffs.

2020

If you’ve read everything above and still not clicked away, congratulations. You are likely pretty bored which means you are self-quarantining like a champ. Thank you for your service.

Assuming this season starts up again, the Sounders are already poised to change things up once more with the signing of Joao Paolo. Although injury to Nico Lodeiro has prevented the team from running out the JP-Svensson, Morris-Lodeiro-Roldan midfield we expected heading into the season, it’s clear from the first few games that João Paulo’s passing ability should add a new dimension. In an ideal world João Paulo will help the team get back to dictating tempo while Morris and Roldan keep the team deadly in transition from the wings.

If we’ve learned anything so far, though, it’s that things never really go according to plan. At the very least, history tells us that no matter what happens, Schmetzer and staff will likely adapt, find a new way, and keep on rolling.

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