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Sounders offensive preview: Two forward-set will define offensive ceiling

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Three questions about the Sounders offense that will determine their potential.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Defense is good and an important part of soccer, maybe the second most important part. Defense can only get you so far, after all. In a sense a team’s defense determines the floor of its potential, while the attack determines the ceiling. In the previous installment we looked at the three major questions that face the Seattle Sounders defense ahead of the 2021 season, so now it’s time to dig into the other side of things.

The absence of Jordan Morris requires a significant change of plans for Brian Schmetzer’s side. Even before his injury, the Sounders were going to have to plan for life without one of the league’s top wingers. Amidst a pandemic that limits the team’s ability to scout and recruit players, it makes sense to lean into the strengths within the current roster. Adding Fredy Montero only made the case for playing with two forwards even stronger, while using a 3-5-2 to get two forwards on the field also allows for the trio of Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo, and Cristian Roldan to remain in their best positions without having to change too much about what their roles are. So how exactly is it all going to work? Let’s dig in.

What’s life like without Jordan Morris?

Jordan Morris was an MLS Best XI player in 2020, and was reasonably in contention for league MVP as arguably the best winger over the course of the season and one of the most dominant players in the league. Without him available for 2021 it makes sense to take an approach — at least for the beginning of the season — that doesn’t require finding another elite winger at such an inopportune time. Montero has come aboard, and Schmetzer has implemented a 3-5-2 to maximize the strengths of the talent available. What does that actually mean, though, and what might that look like?

Schmetzer’s Sounders teams have always valued the ball, and used possession to create goal-scoring opportunities, even as they were built to be able to transition from defense to attack quickly and be dangerous in those situations. Lodeiro embodies that approach, leading the team in passes (79.8) and progressive passes (8.18) per 90 minutes. Lodeiro’s not the only big passer on the team, as João Paulo was just behind him with 78.4 passes/90, and both likely starting wingbacks are quality passers — as are the CBs — and Montero was one of the best passing forwards in the league in 2020. All of this is to say that the focus on possession and quality passing is only likely to increase in 2021.

The Sounders will probably play less direct and less vertical, and while they won’t have the speed of Morris available, the pace of play is still likely to be relatively high. Expect lots of passing and positional interchange throughout the middle of the field — regardless of who’s available — from the forwards and midfielders, as the wingbacks stretch defenses and offer simple outlet passes. In 2020 the Sounders averaged 563 passes per game to their opponents’ 470. Expect those numbers to skew even more in Seattle’s favor, with a possible increase in total passes beyond that nearly frantic 1,033 combined passes per game.

What’s the best forward pairing?

Look, I know I’m the one setting up this question, so maybe it’s silly, but the answer is that it depends. Raúl Ruidíaz is clearly the No. 1 starter, so the question is who starts next to him, and the space between Will Bruin and Montero just isn’t that big. Both players can provide the end product that is expected of a forward, and while Montero’s technical abilities are more dazzling, more of his hallmark, both players are capable of contributing in the build-up or playing quick interchanges on the way to goal. We’ve seen Bruin pull off a clever back heel more than once in combination with guys like Ruidíaz and Lodeiro.

Bruin offers more of a physical presence, and he can set up higher on the field to occupy opposing CBs and hold the ball up while the guys around him make late runs into the area. While Montero might not be capable of the same type of physical play, he’s more than capable of popping up at the back post for a header. The difference, though, is that Montero is more likely to drop deep to receive the ball and pick out a pass. That ability from Montero is going to be particularly appealing when the Sounders have to go into a game without Nico Lodeiro to pull the strings, like they will at the start of the season.

Ultimately, who starts up top is going to depend on a lot of factors from the opponent’s strengths to who’s available. What’s absolutely certain is that any combination of the forwards at the team’s disposal will be a headache for the league’s defenses. The combined movement of Montero and Ruidíaz, both of their abilities to find cracks and gaps in a back line, gives me nightmares and I’ll never have to play against them.

The ability to use Bruin as a pivot point for either of the other two forwards to play off of in the box frankly makes my ribs hurt just to think about it. The fact that a CB pair could spend an hour trying to track the combined runs of Montero and Ruidíaz, to say nothing of the other players on the field, only to have Bruin sub in is the kind of thing that can break a person.

Regardless of who is on the field it seems certain that the forward combinations will serve to benefit everyone. While it will surely take time for them to fully gel and find their own space, they all seem well-suited to the new arrangement. As an added bonus, having two forwards in the box for crosses from Brad Smith and Alex Roldan should only serve to make those crosses even more effective.

Why not use a 4-4-2?

The idea of playing in a diamond, rather than a 3-5-2, as part of the effort to get two forwards onto the field has been thrown out by more than a few people. It seems, on the surface, to be just as good a fit for the roster as the 3-5-2. Besides, if the team’s formation morphed into a 3-5-2 from a 4-2-3-1 depending on the circumstances of the game, why couldn’t the same be true of a diamond midfield 4-4-2?

It seems even more clear when considering that Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 didn’t really use a double-pivot. Sure, both of the deeper midfielders shared much of the same responsibilities, often taking turns pressing up the field while the other sat back, but generally speaking one player sat deeper most of the time while the other made late runs into the box. Why not just have that deeper player stay deep and have two 8s help to move the ball? Especially with the signing of Kelyn Rowe, this seems like a good fit, and could easily flex into a 3-5-2 with the deepest midfielder dropping between the CBs in possession.

The answer comes down to who is best suited to what role. As discussed in the preview of the defense, playing in a back three ought to minimize the defensive shortcomings of all three CBs. It should also serve to allow the team to make better use of the high-quality passing of Xavier Arreaga in particular. Rather than having João Paulo, who is likely to be the deepest midfielder in an ideal XI, drop between the CBs where he’s capable of doing the defensive job required when necessary in order to get an additional player in the midfield, he can stay higher up the field where his own passing can be more effective. Similarly, having Arreaga as the primary distributor in the back three is valuable in possession, but when the team pushes forward they can still move into a sort of 4-4-2 diamond (or more accurately something of a 2-3-3-2 WM) with Arreaga stepping into midfield to spring attacks with an accurate long ball or break up an opposition attack with the knowledge that he has two CBs behind him if he isn’t successful.

Basically the 3-5-2 allows the best attacking players on the team to focus more on creating scoring opportunities while also increasing the ability of the players around them to contribute to the attack without hurting the defensive stability too much. It’s also important to remember that formations are just numbers, a construct intended to help us understand the game that’s become a crutch. Effectively no two formations are mutually exclusive, and what matters are the roles assigned to players and how well the players are suited to their roles. Brian Schmetzer has demonstrated a (generally) good understanding of what his players’ strengths are, and how to get the best out of them.

Sounders soccer is almost back. Congratulations everyone, we made it.