A couple months ago the Seattle Sounders added a TAM player in Nicolas Benezet and a U22 talent in Leo Chu. Since Benezet’s first appearance the club is 8-3-0, +12. During that stretch there have been 2.5 formations used (3-4-3 both wide and narrow and a 3-5-2).
That stretch is a microcosm of the full, strong season. The favorites for the Western Conference title have had 31 players suit up in the matchday 20 (with two others on loan for the full year), 28 have made an appearance, 26 of those have at least one start. Due to labor strife and Covid-19, the 2021 season was compressed more than ever. Squad rotation was a must.
Victory was still expected.
The compressed schedule meant that training was also limited. The team would have to fly during weeks with short rest, eating up precious time at Starfire.
Whether a U22, a TAM, a benchie, or a veteran returning to his adopted home the talent has somehow shifted in and out while results have held up. Sure, there are missed passes or the occasional running into the same space, but that happens on teams that know each other well and don’t use more than two dozen players while not playing 3 matches in 8 days regularly.
That’s got to be the Sounders’ system right?
Not according to head coach Brian Schmetzer.
“I think you’re giving us a little bit too much credit,” Schmetzer told reporters on Tuesday. “I mean guys come here they’re already good talented soccer players. I think what I would say, how I would answer your question is that organizationally, we’ve done a really good job of attracting talent.
“And I think that helps us as a coaching staff incorporate them into what our mantra has been — we don’t give up; we always fight; the relationship between the fans and the players is sacred. This team is built on winning. You know we have a winning tradition, we want to continue that.”
For the coaches past and present, there’s been a desire to amplify the talent on the squad and let them play. Other clubs may focus more on a strategic or tactical mantra. Or they just don’t trust the youth or newer players to integrate. For Seattle, there’s trust in the talent added.
“There’s all those little things that once they get here, but I think the start of the journey is always, you know, who we’ve been here and let people like to come here and play.”
Letting them play is part of why Benezet enjoys being here. That and the winning.
“I was happy, to be honest, because Seattle is one of the best teams in the league and when I got the answer from Colorado to say I could go, I said ‘Ok, let’s do it,’” Benezet told MLSsoccer.com after Tuesday’s training session at Starfire Sports Complex. “I need to play, I need to be happier because I wasn’t happy in Denver. I wasn’t enjoying the time there, especially on the field. I didn’t play a lot. I’m so glad to be here, I think it was the best team for me.”
Happier here and now there’s a flair to Nico’s play. He’s got a swagger to his field demeanor, just like the rest of the attack. There’s a boldness, brazenness, maybe a hunger. At times these players ranging from MLS superstars to journeymen are channeling Volta Football from EA’s FIFA video game. They’re vibing together even though they’re unfamiliar.
Most often playing underneath Will Bruin or Raúl Ruidíaz, alongside Fredy Montero, or Leo Chu, or Kelyn Rowe, or Cristian Roldan there could be some question as to how he could play with such a wide variety of players.
Frequent partner Bruin says that through the season they learn more about each other. There’s still the challenge due to squad rotation and formation changes.
“That’s probably the only tough part of having such a deep squad,” Bruin said after practice. “There’s so many different combinations and lineups and formations you can play. I won’t say it’s hard, but there’s new guys coming in, you got to be on the same page. Sometimes we have a lot of rotation, you know, just focus a little more and kind of know who you’re playing with and how they like to play as opposed to just having the same lineup every game. It’s something that you work on at training and I think it’s filling together for us now later in the season as the season goes by you, you learn more to understand more just being with them every day.”
Much of the change in formation this year has been about getting the talent on the field, getting them to know what spaces to use, what spaces to capture, and to know that no matter who is in the near spot or the far spot they’re going to fight and win, and vibe.
Playing at a different rhythm the team pulsates between possession and counter. Seattle’s tactics shift to a deep line of confrontation to high press. All of that comes from a coaching staff that embraces the talents on the pitch at the time, letting those players flow together, becoming a stronger force than their individual attributes indicate should be expected.
Yes, the core philosophy helps. As does having a coaching staff that isn’t wedded to tactical concepts that only work with specific talents. Every day as a Sounder there are a few expectations — work hard, have a great relationship between fans and players, and win.
Those expectations are true when the team is so shallow that there are three empty spots on the bench or when there four extreme hardship callups, or when they play their second road match in four days.