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Sounders defensive preview: Facing some big questions

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Three big questions about the defense ahead of the home opener.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The 2021 Seattle Sounders season is mere days away. With the limitations imposed by the ongoing pandemic, and the decision not to stream the few preseason games the team played, we have a lot of questions about what to expect from the Sounders this year. We know that the team will be without some of the stalwarts of recent history, as Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam, Joevin Jones, and Roman Torres are all gone (for the second time, in the cases of Jones and Torres). Brian Schmetzer’s side will also be without Jordan Morris for the foreseeable future following his injury while with Swansea City on loan. Fredy Montero, Spencer Richey and Kelyn Rowe have joined the team, but only Montero and Rowe are really expected to see significant time, and even Rowe is a bit of a question as he’s able to play in a number of spots on the field but isn’t necessarily first-choice in any of them.

What we do know for certain, thanks to numerous conversations about it, is that Schmetzer plans to use a two-forward formation to get the best out of his current roster and maximize the top-end talent on the field for the Sounders. Throughout preseason that’s meant a 3-5-2, although the possibility of a 4-4-2 diamond has been thrown about. The primary focus of either formation is to make use of the wealth of talent at forward, but the 3-5-2 in particular raises plenty of questions about the defense.

That defense will serve as the foundation upon which the team’s success will be built. If Schmetzer can get the best out of the talent available by using three center backs, that could be the first step on the road back to MLS Cup glory. With that in mind, there’s no better place to start.

What’s the point of using three CBs?

The Sounders defense was one of the best in the league in 2020. It was a weird season, and the 0-3 blowout in the MLS Cup final left a weird taste in or collective mouth, but by just about every measurement that involves keeping the other team from scoring the Sounders were among the league leaders. They allowed 22 goals in 22 games, with a goal difference of +20. Still, the Sounders defense committed some rather visible errors that led directly to goals. For the most part those errors didn’t prove to make much of a difference — think of the penalty against the San Jose Earthquakes in the game the Sounders won 7-1 — but eliminating those mistakes would go a long way toward building a more stable base. So the question is, how do you eliminate those mistakes?

Ideally playing with three CBs would simplify their roles and allow the guys in those spots to play to their strengths. Xavier Arreaga and Yeimar Gómez Andrade are both keen to charge out of the back, whether it’s to pursue a player, jump a passing lane, or carry the ball into midfield. That can be an issue when both fullbacks are being pushed forward and the CB partner also likes to make high-risk decisions. Having an additional body back there makes those decisions a little bit less risky, meaning they can be more confident and committed in those decisions. It’s not a silver bullet for whatever bad decision disease seems to flare up for Arreaga at times (and for Nouhou, and for Shane O’Neill, etc.,) but it could serve to mitigate the damage or prevent play from progressing to the point where it becomes an issue.

As a side benefit, there is reason to think that this new formation will bring with it an increased focus on possession — the Sounders throughout the organization have moved into a sort of 3-5-2 when in possession for some time — and the players in contention for starting spots along the back line are all well-suited to such a game. The seeming front-runners are Arreaga, Gómez Andrade, Nouhou, and O’Neill, and among them Nouhou’s passing completion % was the lowest in 2020, completing 84.7% of all of his passes. The numbers get even better if we focus on short and medium distance passing, where none of the players have a combined completion number below 89%. Playing to the strength of the passing from the back should also allow for Arreaga’s long-distance passing to shine, a trait that is fully capable of opening a game up. In 2020 Arreaga completed 85.4% of the long passes he attempted.

Who starts in the back 3? (And who backs them up?)

The four players mentioned in the above section are in contention for the three starting spots. Gómez Andrade seems like the locked-in number 1 starter based on his performances last season. He didn’t play with the First Team group in the friendly games against San Diego Loyal on Saturday, but that seemed to be a matter of having some experienced players mixed in with the young guys to provide some leadership and Gómez Andrade not necessarily needing to win his spot. Arreaga has also been consistently playing as part of the first-choice group during preseason, and based on the team’s investment in him and the clear potential quality and impact he can have, one of those starting spots is probably his to lose. Besides, I just went over how this particular system and formation is almost perfectly structured to limit his mistakes. That leaves us with a decision between Nouhou and O’Neill.

Deciding between Nouhou and O’Neill is essentially a choice of potential and a higher ceiling versus presumed stability and a higher floor. That’s not to suggest that Shane O’Neill doesn’t make mistakes — he was directly or indirectly at fault for his fair share of goals throughout 2020 through poor decision making and sloppy execution — but he’s the kind of player that you pretty much know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s a decent passer, and even if his overall performance might be at a lower level than we all want from a starter, Schmetzer has shown a continued appreciation for players that he can count on. Nouhou for his part is fulfilling the transformation once prophesied by Mark Kastner as he works to convert to playing as a left-sided CB in this formation. This sort of adds a further complication to the general discourse around the Nouhou Experience: players make mistakes when they’re learning a new position. Nouhou seems to be the front-runner for that third spot, which could be a signal towards some increased comfort with risk for Schmetzer. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Whichever of the four who isn’t starting will serve as a back-up, but with a three-CB formation the team’s going to need more depth than just that one player. What we know of the team’s preseason suggests that Jordy Delem could reprise the role he plays for Martinique and get depth and bench minutes on the back line. Josh Atencio has played in the back at times with Tacoma Defiance and could fill in in a pinch, but the Sounders appear to see his future in defensive midfield (we could even see him in that spot for the opener). That means that any other CB depth will likely come from outside of the current roster, but not necessarily from outside of the organization. Abdoulaye Cissoko has been a consistent part of the second-team group during preseason, and could sign from Defiance if he continues to show well. The 21 year-old French CB would require an international roster spot, but that might not be much of an issue with Raúl Ruidíaz recently receiving his green card.

So wingbacks, huh?

Nouhou moving inside leaves Brad Smith as the clear first-choice at left wingback, eliminating a frequent topic of debate over recent years: do you choose Brad Smith for his potential attacking contributions, or Nouhou for his defensive capabilities? With the move to a 3-5-2 Brad Smith is able to play as a wingback, where his primary responsibilities are to provide width, help keep possession, and occasionally put in a quality cross or a good tackle. The same goes for Alex Roldan, who appears to have the opposite spot locked in as the right wingback. The younger Roldan and Smith actually offer pretty similar qualities, even if how they go about it is a little bit different. They’re capable of contributing defensively, even if it’s not their strong suit. Both players are quality short passers, both can hit a quality cross — although the types of crosses they play and where they play them from differ — and were among the team’s leaders when it came to moving the ball toward and into the opposing penalty area.

We’ll look more at the potential offensive contributions when we look at the attack. For our purposes here let’s focus on how the wingbacks will impact the defensive side of things. In terms of pure defensive actions, it’s reasonable to expect them to perform more like defensive wingers. They’ll put in tackles, track runners, but ultimately they’re more there to help keep the ball moving, provide an outlet for the CBs or central midfield, and help create some attacking opportunities. They know that, and their teammates know that, which helps to clarify the roles of the people around them, meaning CBs don’t have to worry as much about shifting to cover for a fullback who’s stuck upfield. Don’t overlook the value of these guys in the possession game, though. Brian Schmetzer hasn’t taken some sort of super soccer serum and turned into Barcelona-era Pep Guardiola, devoted with his entire being to tiki-taka, but it is reasonable to expect an increased value placed on possession both as a way to create attacking opportunities and as a way to deprive the opponent of such opportunities. Using competent passers in the wide areas of the midfield as fulcrums in your possession game should allow the team to utilize the full field, while also limiting the likelihood of losing possession in a dangerous area.

For the wingback positions, the depth is a little bit less clear than any of us might hope. Kelyn Rowe seems like he’s possibly option 1B at RWB to Alex Roldan’s 1A, and maybe he could also fill in at LWB. Otherwise the second choice on the roster at LWB behind Smith is Nouhou, who is potentially also the first choice at LCB. Jimmy Medranda could also fill in at that spot, while Tacoma’s Alex Villanueva could potentially get the move up if necessary.

Additional notes

  • The young player apparently most likely to see significant minutes, at least at the start the season, is defensive midfielder Josh Atencio. With Nico Lodeiro “day-to-day” with an injury, Atencio started with the First Team group in the final preseason game, in addition to scoring a beautiful volley with the starters in the previous scrimmage. Atencio’s technically skilled, reads the game well, and has the physical size to hang with anyone, seeming a couple inches taller than his listed 6’1”.
  • The impact of the pandemic on the 2020 season can’t be overstated. The pandemic is still very much a part of our lives, but the opportunity for the defense to spend a lengthy preseason together — even if it involved fewer games than the team would have preferred — while players and their families are able to live something approaching more regular lives should be beneficial to everyone’s mental health and, in turn, to their on-field performances.