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Stretching the field isn’t just about straight-line speed

Sounders are able to stretch opponents in a variety of ways.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Last week’s three-game stretch showed just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders can be in the attack. Even the loss at Colorado offered glimpses of how the team wants to operate. This team is built to stretch the field, which considering the overall team speed might seem counterintuitive.

Beyond Jordan Morris and Nouhou, the 2022 Sounders don’t field a particularly fast first team. Jordan and Nouhou scare opponents but rarely break away. The team’s lack of speed extends to the bench. The only substitutes with classical pace are Ethan Dobbelaere and Léo Chú, neither of whom has seen consistent minutes. Yet, this year’s Sounders stretch the field as well as any team in MLS.

When a casual fan hears the phrase “stretch the field”, images of fleet wingers or forwards streaking through open space toward an exposed goalkeeper flash to mind. This does happen against teams playing a high line. But the reality is this rarely happens against disciplined, veteran defenders who account for their opponent’s speed. The winger releases into open space to run onto a ball and finds the centerbacks and goalkeeper closing down the angles toward goal.

Often a well-positioned defense reads the pass and arrives to the ball before the winger. Young players with pace need to adjust to the reality that their direct attack yields only fractional results in better leagues. So is there more to stretching the field?

Soccer coaches preach the same adages year after year on practice fields around the globe.

  • Limit your touches.
  • Use the full pitch.
  • One runner crashes the near post. One runner crashes the far post. And a late trailer aims for the penalty spot.
  • Look for the pass that cuts through a line of defense.
  • Nothing moves faster than the ball.
  • Off-ball runs drag defenders out of position.
  • A scrambling defense is a vulnerable defense.

These adages approach cliche because they stretch the field at all levels of play. These tactics force the defense to stretch their resources to cover more of the field than the defense wants to defend. Ideally, they force a defense to commit players to cover one possible attack in a way that creates better opportunities somewhere else.

The Sounders’ goal against Houston illustrates the point beautifully. The play starts with Houston in decent defensive shape with three defenders across the face of goal in front of the keeper and two defenders marking Morris and Nouhou on the left. CR7 gets Morris the ball and then Jordan lays it off to Nouhou and feints an end line run. This feint starts the stretch.

Once the defender realizes that Jordan’s run is a feint, he moves forward to double team Nouhou. This leaves Morris behind the defense but onside. Nouhou splits the defenders with a square pass to Lodeiro streaking toward him across the top of the 18 yard box. Lodeiro’s run pulls the left hand central defender forward and Jordan moves into the space he vacates near the end line to the left of goal. Lodeiro hits Jordan with a one touch pass and then moves to provide Jordan an outlet.

At this point Houston still has a respectable defensive shape. The central defender and the keeper move to cut down Jordan’s angles to goal. The other two central defenders as well as the defender who started the sequence covering Nouhou move to cut off the passing lanes to Raúl in the center of the box. But all five defenders are in motion and Morris has a moment to operate. It’s all he needs.

Morris splits the GK and closest defender with a quick pass across the face of goal to Alex crashing the far post. The pass pulls the only defender on that side of goal away from goal. Alex’s one-touch pass behind the crashing defender to Raúl completes the unraveling as now only one defender is able to reach Raúl but his movement across the goal allows Raúl to nutmeg him. The defender’s trailing foot clips the ball. But that close to the center of goal he cannot keep the ball out. Meanwhile, the defender who lost track of Morris spent the entire sequence watching the play unfold.

Go back and look at our list of adages. Morris, Lodeiro and Alex all make key off-ball runs. Lodeiro takes one touch, Jordan takes two, Alex one and Raúl one. The entire sequence of 6 passes and a shot takes just 11 seconds. Jordan attacks the near post, Alex the far post and Raúl makes a trailing run up the middle. All of the Houston defense finishes the play scrambling yet all of the ball movements are faster than the defenders can run. Jordan and Alex both use the end line and the play starts out wide. Both Lodeiro and Morris make passes that cut Houston’s lines of defense. One sequence in a tight space hits every adage and stretches Houston beyond any semblance of effective defense.

Stretching the field relies upon breaking through the opposition lines of defense. Different players utilize different tactics to accomplish the break. Good vision and a quick pass often can be the key but it isn’t the only option. A quick player or a player who can change direction quickly like Raúl often uses a give and go. The moment the player makes the give pass, they spin or accelerate to break through the line ready to receive the return.

Fast players utilize their speed to outrun a defender and break the line. We saw Jordan do this repeatedly in Houston when the player guarding him didn’t leave enough space to account for Jordan’s speed. Players with average pace, like much of the Sounders midfield, use diagonal off-ball runs to break the line. If you can hit the line at full speed against a team playing a defensive handoff scheme, you can break the line while the defender taking over responsibility for defending you gets up to speed. And even if you don’t receive a pass, you will often pull defenders with you. Other players like João Paulo use great ball control and body position to break the line by beating their defender one on one and then marauding into the vacant space between the lines.

What happens immediately following a team breaking through a defensive line determines whether the play stretches or condenses the field. João Paolo’s epic Beast Mode Run last year isn’t an example of stretching the field. It’s an example of condensing the defense. As JP drove forward, the opponent committed more and more resources to stopping his run. Ultimately, he scored but it required a Herculean effort of individual brilliance. These runs havoc on a defense’s shape but they only constitute stretching the field if the player making the run capitalizes on the shifts.

The key rests in how many touches the player takes after breaking the line. Each touch and step allow the defense to adjust; reinforcing the gap, cutting the angles, clogging the passing lanes and closing down the available space. No matter how fast a player moves with the ball at his feet, the defenders will be marginally faster. Break the line and pass usually reaps more rewards than looking to challenge the next defender because the time it takes to reach the next defender gets converted into a better defensive posture by your opponent.

This also requires great off-the-ball movement. Your teammates need to move into spaces where they can capitalize on your quick pass. The Sounders thrive on this movement. Again and again we’re seeing multi-player transition goals this season. We’re seeing players move to draw defenders away from where the Sounders look to play the ball. We’re seeing great supporting movement and the Sounders exploiting seams.

Now step back and consider the entire Sounders roster. Jordan, Nico, Christian, Rusnák and Alex are routinely making line-cutting passes and killer off-ball runs. Their skill and creativity forces opponents to shift rapidly to close down their space to operate and this causes seams they can exploit. These players also make great diagonal runs. They crash the target areas. This broad base of skilled players makes it harder for teams to key on a couple Sounders. Nouhou continues to grow and he’s made some stunning crosses and key runs. Jackson Ragen sees the field with a midfielder’s vision and he’s shown a knack for line busting passes. Fredy, Will and Kelyn all possess a veteran’s understanding of how to stretch a pitch without speed and they routinely do.

There are available minutes to be had replacing JP, providing attacking options off the bench and through rotational spot starts. Who fills these opportunities will likely rest on who can provide the necessary defense and still support the team’s desire to stretch the pitch. One bright spot in Sunday’s loss to Colorado was the improved connectivity of the team’s younger players. Obed, Josh, Jackson and Leo all showed growth toward contributing to the Sounder’s ability to stretch the defense. If they continue to improve, we’re likely to see more examples of just what happens when a team learns to rely on letting the ball provide most of the team’s speed.