Normally, the fifth competitive match of a season is a time when patterns start to emerge around positional battles and tactical setups. However, this season, to state the painfully obvious, is anything but normal.
In addition to the discombobulated nature of Concacaf play and the four months that have passed since the team’s last match, predicting the current Sounders’ tactical approach has become a fresh puzzle thanks to Nicolas Lodeiro, their best player, becoming healthy enough to play for the first time all year.
Although the Sounders didn’t turn over much of their attacking roster last offseason, Lodeiro’s reentry into the lineup presents a new look for the team since João Paulo’s signing will most likely push Cristian Roldan to right wing. A front four of Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, Lodeiro, and Roldan has started matches for the team before, but never with a player as technical and creative as João Paolo behind them.
The last time that front four did start together was in a string of games from the second half of last year against the Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, and New York Red Bulls. In each of those matches, Gustav Svensson and Jordy Delem supported the front four as holding midfielders. Though the Sounders won all three contests while scoring an eye-popping average of 3.33 goals per match, the run of games also represented a stylistic shift towards becoming a more counter-attacking team.
That style of play made sense for the lineup, which featured one speed demon (Morris), one pure finisher (Ruidiaz), one throughball specialist (Lodeiro), one ground-covering machine (Roldan), and two defensive-minded holding mids. The formula was simple: win the ball (ideally in somewhere in midfield), play Lodeiro or go direct to Morris in space, and then sit back enjoy as the front four used their combined powers to score before their opponents knew what hit them.
Of the three matches the team started with that front six, the Sounders only won the possession battle in the slugfest against the Red Bulls in which neither team averaged better than 70% passing. (For comparison, the Sounders’ average pass completion for 2019 was 83.7%). These were exciting, but not necessarily beautiful performances.
But the difference between Delem starting at holding mid as opposed to his presumed replacement, João Paulo, is massive. Where Delem makes his mark with excellent work rate, crunching tackles, and dominant aerial prowess, João Paolo dictates the game with cerebral passing and deft skill in tight spaces. In both of the Sounders’ MLS matches of 2020, João Paulo finished top two on the team (and first of any non-defender) for completed passes.
With João Paulo supporting a front four of Morris, Ruidiaz, Lodeiro and Roldan, the Sounders should become more balanced in attack, able to dictate possession while remaining lethal on the counter. Though rust will make it hard form them (or any team for that matter) to score via long and fluid passing combinations, retaining the ball for extended stretches will be crucial in order to keep pressure off their fledgling backline and to save their legs from ball chasing in central Florida’s humidity.
In addition to the balance João Paulo should bring to the attack as a holding mid, Lodeiro’s presence as a 10 should balance the front four. In the Sounders’ first four matches of 2020, either Roldan or João Paulo started as the team’s central attacking mid. Where Roldan specializes in defensive presence and direct running as a 10, João Paolo specializes in dictating tempo and getting his teammates involved. What Lodeiro brings is a healthy hybrid of both styles, equally willing to harass opposing 6s and run at backlines as he is to drop deeper into the midfield to spray passes all over the pitch.
That’s what makes Lodeiro such an indispensable player. He does a little bit of everything in a role usually reserved for showy superstars who don’t want to do much other than create attacks (though he’s perfectly happy to do that as well). With their captain back in the lineup, the Sounders, who already lead the league for expected goals in 2020, should continue to be an offensive juggernaut.
Whether their new-look backline can hold up in the heat with João Paulo — who though fearless and feisty hasn’t shown a ton of lateral range as a defender — will be the challenge. Then again, if everybody makes it back from this tournament healthy and safe, that should be victory enough.