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2021 Seattle Sounders tactical preview

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The 3-5-2 offers lots be excited about (as well as a few causes for concern).

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Another Sounders preseason is in the books, but with the team playing no televised matches and having faced only one MLS opponent, this year’s run-up feels shorter than ever. Add a new primary formation — and the loss of four of the top 13 minutes-getters from 2020 — and you get a bevy of tactical mysteries heading into this Friday’s opening match against Minnesota United.

What we do know is that Brian Schmetzer will roll out a 3-5-2, which will serve as the team’s primary formation until further notice. We also know, based on lineups and highlights, most of who will fill out that formation and where they’re most likely to play. That’s enough information to make some educated guesses on how things will shake out, so here goes nothing:

Wingbacks

The best part of the 3-5-2 formation is that it puts Brad Smith, Alex Roldan, and Nouhou in their best positions. The second best part of the formation (or maybe the best actually) is that it also puts an end to the who’s-the-best left back on the roster debate that’s raged on somewhat insufferably since the start of the 2018 season.

Given Nouhou’s shutdown defensive capabilities and Smith’s attacking skills, there’s no question that both can and should start in a 3-5-2 (though Jimmy Medranda is talented enough to push for starter’s minutes as a left wingback). With a formation that allows Nouhou to start at left centerback and Smith to start at left wingback, both can shine at the same time.

Moreover, sliding Alex Roldan halfway up a line allows him to focus more on providing elite service and less on out-and-out defending.

All that’s to say, don’t be surprised if the Sounders’ wingbacks put up gaudy assist numbers this season. Smith and Roldan may be the best crossing fullback/wingback duo in the league, with Smith’s speed allowing him to get to the endline for lethal cutbacks and Roldan’s deep cross accuracy allowing him to launch some high-lofted bombs towards Will Bruin’s meaty forehead.

Plus, with no true wingers and no speed down the spine of the formation, the Sounders will have to utilize their wingbacks if they hope to play on the counter at all. This may end up looking similar to 2018, when, absent Jordan Morris, the team spent much of the season with two wingers tucked inside and a perennially green light for their fullbacks to get into the attack.

Embracing the regista

When João Paulo signed with the Sounders, he brought a skillset the team had never had before — that of a true deep-lying playmaker, also commonly referred to as a regista. Last year, that skillset was apparent but also muted at times as his responsibilities fluctuated depending on whether he played next to Gustav Svensson or Cristian Roldan.

This year, in the 3-5-2, João Paulo is more likely to have his own role carved out in the team as the three-centerback formation will provide enough defensive stability for Cristian Roldan to push up and play more in line with Lodeiro, in turn giving João Paulo more freedom to dictate build-up on his own.

Moreover, having two forwards will take some playmaking pressure off Lodeiro and allow him to embrace his natural box-to-box mentality. With Roldan given even more license to join the attack, Lodeiro more freedom to go wherever he wants, and João Paulo more opportunity to start play from deep, it’s possible this formation puts each of the Sounders’ three best center-mids in their most natural roles. As a bonus, up-and-coming homegrown player Josh Atencio is also well suited to play the deep-lying playmaker role, while João Paulo can easily slide up and play as a box-to-box midfielder next to Roldan in Lodeiro’s absence.

Two-forward combination play

Between Raúl Ruidíaz, Will Bruin, and Fredy Montero, the Sounders have three forwards who can bring something productive to a two-forward setup. Ruidíaz will always be a fox-in-the-box type striker, but with another striker to occupy opposing centerbacks, his movements will become that much harder to track. Bruin is a great target on crosses and his aerial ability will create havoc and second balls for his partner to finish. Montero has the ball skills and creativity to drop into the midfield, play like a 10, and drag defenders away from his partner. And all three can create and execute tight passing combinations in and around the box.

The striking core will need to maximize all of these attributes as they’ll be more responsible for playmaking without true wingers. In fact, one of the keys to the Sounders attack will be to create chances through the middle of the park in order to open up space for the wingbacks to be dangerous. Likewise, the wingbacks will need to present consistent danger with their crossing in order to open up space down the middle.

Of course, all teams need a balanced attack to be successful, but in a 3-5-2 with only one true speed threat (Smith), executing fundamentals in the final third will become more important than ever. In other words, there will be no Jordan Morris to create goals out of nothing if the squad’s boots are heavy on a given day. The positive is that, from front to back, the Sounders will be fielding one of their most technically skilled teams ever.

Arreaga the playmaker

Another player who may get extra opportunity to shine in a 3-5-2 is Xavier Arreaga. If he gets to play the central centerback role, also known as a sweeper or libero, there’s a good chance he’ll have more license to start the attack with creative passing and penetrate up field on the dribble if the space is open. That freedom would allow Arreaga to flex more of his technical skills, which are elite for a centerback. Flanking Arreaga with Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade — who are both capable of marking tight and defending in space — could also potentially shield the third-year Sounder defensively. If Arreaga can limit mental mistakes in this setup, he is poised for a breakout year.

Potential weaknesses / eyes on the academy

The biggest threat to the Sounders this year will be teams that can successfully clog the middle of the park and counter. Even if Seattle’s wingbacks are given room to attack, they may have trouble scoring against opponents who can defend crosses well and are mobile enough defensively to cut out passing combinations through the middle. Should this scenario play out and the Sounders get reckless throwing numbers into attack, opponents will be able to play in behind the Rave Green wingbacks, draw out the outside centerbacks, and capitalize on a numbers advantage in the box.

All in all though, there’s no question that the 3-5-2 is the formation best suited to the current Sounders personnel. When firing on all cylinders, Seattle will be able to overwhelm their opponents through the middle of the park and use their wingbacks to take advantage of the extra space and deliver lethal crosses. The rub will be if the Sounders can replicate their performances when injuries and absences inevitably pile up in the summer.

In that respect, much of the season may be defined by the success of the academy signings, who have a clearer path to first-team minutes than ever. If they struggle to step up and play in a system that requires highly synchronized passing and movement, the Sounders will need to bolster their roster with summer signings in order to compete for MLS Cup. But if the young players can past the test, the Sounders are built to compete now and will be well positioned for many years into the future.