Seattle’s first trip north to BC Place this season was arguably the low point of the season. Playing their last match in a stretch of five games in 14 days, the team looked worn out in a 2-0 loss that could have been worse.
Now better rested and with a little positive momentum, they return to Vancouver to face a Whitecaps team that has not lost at home in MLS play since Matchday 1. With injuries and Gold Cup absences looming large for both squads, let’s look at what lessons may be learned from last weekend’s action, and how the Sounders might grab some points up north.
Sussing out Seattle
The Sounders finally found their goal against the Dynamo, but the attack is still a work in progress. Léo Chú is the key to the offense right now, as he is the only reliable provider of service from the endline. Playing with Nicolás Lodeiro and Albert Rusnák effectively operating as dual-10s produced some promising combinations, but the right side of the attack is still lacking.
Cody Baker, to his credit, got forward repeatedly but teammates were unable to connect their long passes to his runs behind the defense. When in possession out wide, his passing combinations were not sharp enough. In this sequence, a good pass from Obed Vargas to Baker was supported with open runs from both Lodeiro and Rusnák. But the timing and weight of the pass to Lodeiro were off, and the opportunity fizzled.
The Sounders’ left side, however, was a different story. The following sequence shows the dual-10 setup playing to Seattle’s current strengths. The Sounders are in their typical back-3 possession shape (Nouhou and João Paulo have swapped positions on this particular occasion). Baker and Chú take their positions wide and high up the field with Raúl Ruidíaz in the middle. Lodeiro and Rusnák have swapped sides and shifted left, allowing Nico to get the ball on his left foot and play Chú in behind the defense. Rusnák, now in a truly central position, has the speed to make the attacking run from midfield and arrive on time in the box for Chú’s cutback pass.
This setup takes advantage of the speed of Chú and Rusnák while Lodeiro’s relative lack of speed is not an issue. Nico’s constant running to find positions on either flank and his playmaking ability are rewarded. The same setup worked on the Sounders’ lone goal, as Lodeiro — playing a bit higher up the field in the second half — found a void between Houston’s defensive lines and worked a 1-2 combination with Chú, who found Rusnák’s trailing run.
The problem with this setup is that only one main route to goal presents itself, as the Sounders do not have a Chú clone to make attacking runs on the right. But Alex Roldan’s return may ease that burden. While he does not have Chú’s quickness, Alex is very effective combining with teammates in the attacking third.
What’s up with the Whitecaps?
Despite sitting in lowly ninth place in the Western Conference, the stat pages like the Vancouver Whitecaps. American Soccer Analysis’ models put them first in the league in expected goals per game, and good enough for fourth place in the Western Conference on expected points per game. But the Gold Cup has stolen away some key players. Team assist-leader Julian Gressel is with the USMNT, while Ali Ahmed and Javain Brown are with Canada. Defensive midfielder Andrés Cubas is out injured. Between Cubas and Brown, who typically lines up at centerback or right back, Vancouvers defense may be softened.
The Whitecaps’ road form took another hit on the weekend with a 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. The Caps started the match on the front foot, counter-attacking SKC and generating numerous half chances. But Vancouver’s typical 4-3-2-1 formation sprung a leak on the right side in the 33rd minute, and the floodgates opened soon after. The Whitecaps’ normally disruptive press was late to arrive, leaving space for Dániel Sallói, Gadi Kinda, and Tim Leibold to attack down the left wing.
The Sounders need to redeem themselves after their last match at BC Place, where their defensive pressure was woefully inadequate and Vancouver’s midfield took control of the game. Vancouver’s poor defensive performance on their right side against SKC is a hopeful sign for a team relying on the left side of their attack.
Keys to victory against Vancouver
Alex Roldan’s contributions in the final third have been sorely missed. While Cody Baker has burst onto the scene with tenacious defending and surprisingly good ball progression numbers, Alex’s expected goal contributions may help the Sounders be far more dangerous until reinforcements arrive.
But Roldan’s hectic stint with El Salvador makes a start against the Whitecaps unlikely. Alex has faded down the stretch in recent seasons. His minutes have mounted as a locked-in starter for both Seattle and El Salvador. He racked up 2 goals and 7 assists across the first halves of the 2022 and 2021 seasons but just 3 assists after the midway points. The emergence of Baker will hopefully mean that Alex has more opportunities to rest in the latter half of 2023. Against Vancouver, if Seattle can keep a deadlock until late in the match, Alex could be the substitute Brian Schmetzer needs to steal a goal.
Get Raúl more involved
Ruidíaz was quiet against the Dynamo, as he provided the central attacking runs that opened space for Rusnák to receive cutbacks from Chú. His occasional presence in the Sounders’ buildup showed a glimpse of the greatness we have seen over the years from Raúl and Nico.
If the Sounders play against the ball more often in Vancouver, Raúl will need to make many hard sprints to give Chú a target in the box and stay involved with fewer opportunities in possession.
Deal with the press
With Stefan Frei out with a concussion, Stefan Cleveland is the presumed starter. Brian Schmetzer hinted that Seattle may favor direct play in order to ease Cleveland into the match and avoid Vancouver’s press in the defensive half. Vancouver still loves to press. They are second only to St. Louis in combined tackles and interceptions per game. While Vancouver’s second-choice forwards were ineffective cutting off service to the wings against SKC, fanatical presser and team-leading goal scorer Brian White is back from injury and expected to start.
Still, successful direct play will not be easy. Chú needs support when he gets behind the defense, and the Sounders’ attacking front is not built to win aerial duels, especially without Jordan Morris. No Sounders striker is above the 25th percentile in aerial duels won among forwards. The Sounders’ attack may rely on the ability of Rusnák and Ruidíaz to arrive in the box in time to support Chú.
While the past two months have been frustrating for Seattle, the team could be tied on points for first place in the Western Conference by the end of Saturday. The trip to the fortress of BC Place is another daunting test for a struggling Sounders attack.
Note: all statistics via FBref.com unless otherwise noted.