The Seattle Sounders enter the 2023 MLS regular season with loads of optimism that comes from a fit squad, but a healthy amount of skepticism from a 2022 campaign that ended poorly. With a fully healed João Paulo and Raúl Ruidíaz, and another year of Albert Rusnák, the Sounders can tweak some things tactically to ensure the pitfalls from last season don’t creep into this one.
Brian Schmetzer has never been one of the most praised tacticians in MLS from the pundit class. Whether that’s deserved or not is a topic for a different article, but there have been some tactical tweaks that are happening this preseason that may have flown under the radar. Look, it’s difficult to draw conclusions after only seeing just one match that happened to be in a historic tournament the club has never played in before. However, some things happened in the Club World Cup match that I think are indicative of these tweaks.
Perhaps the biggest tactical adjustment we saw when the Sounders faced off against Al Ahly SC in Morocco was the use of the left flank, in particular the trio of Nouhou, Jordan Morris, and Rusnák. Seattle’s on-paper formation (whatever that means) is a 4-2-3-1, one of the most popular formations in the sport over the last two decades. Against Al Ahly, those three players took up interesting positions in possession to allow the Sounders to take advantage of their strengths. Nouhou’s weaknesses as a modern fullback have been obvious for a while, so instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, the plan seems to have him tucking into the backline as a third centerback when the Sounders have the ball.
With Nouhou as an added outlet for recycling possession and extra protection against the counter, it allows Rusnák and Morris to get into more aggressive positions. Morris becomes your highest and widest player on the pitch on the left side of the field, pinning back the opposition’s fullback or centerback on that side. All of that space created by Morris’ positioning allows Rusnák to operate sort of like a deep-lying left midfielder, giving him all sorts of options to pick out a pass to Lodeiro, the Roldans, Morris, or Ruidíaz.
With the left side of the Sounders being the most interesting tweak, that brings us to what I think is the most important tactical alteration — the central areas of the pitch. It’s not really controversial to say that if the Sounders experience success this season, the feet of João Paulo, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Ruidíaz will have an influence.
Over the past few seasons, their influence (or lack thereof) has been felt in more ways than one, but as they either recover from serious injury or age into their 30s, a lot of their tactical influence on a match needs to be shifted. As someone who has also aged into my 30s in recent years, I can attest to the ageless proverb: “Less is more.” Shifting more of the buildup responsibilities to systematic patterns on the left and right sides of the pitch (more on that in a bit) allows João Paulo, Lodeiro, and Ruidíaz to occupy more dynamic and dangerous areas of influence centrally. João Paulo cannbe expected to be his typical self, but with added cover behind him and more support on either side.
Lodeiro is a month shy of his 34th birthday and in the last year of his contract. He is coming off his least productive full season as a Sounder and that follows a season largely written off due to lengthy injury spells. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but in addition to rating very highly in terms of ground covered, he is also been near the top of the league in usage rates. Transitioning away from that in the near-to-long term gets the best out of Lodeiro now and whatever the future is for the Sounders, with or without him. He’s still Nicolas Lodeiro, and that means he’s going to do whatever he wants, but the ideas of this new system puts restraints on that. Expect to see a lot of Lodeiro picking up the ball 30 yards away from goal looking to play the final ball into the box.
Ruidíaz is very good at scoring goals and that should be his primary objective for the Sounders. Given the injuries he’s suffered and the flux in the midfield last season, he wasn’t able to perform at his best. With a much more structured build-up behind him, we should see Ruidíaz near the box at all times. Of course, in the one match we’ve seen these tweaks deployed, Ruidíaz was dropping way too deep in the build-up. I suppose that’s the difference between theory and practice.
The final tactical tweak comes from the right side of the field, where we have the Brothers Roldan. The biggest advantage a team can have on a soccer field is by causing some sort of overload in a certain area of the pitch. Creating 2-v-1, 3-v-2, 4-v-3, etc. advantages will lead to goals. From the sound of it, the Sounders want both Roldans playing the same position — at least in possession. What those two will be doing is made more interesting by what they’ve both said to the press in recent weeks.
“It’s worked well for us for the personnel we have,” Alex Roldan said of the newer tweaks. “It gives me a little more liberty to get forward and work in the attack. It gives us the tools and information to succeed to the best of our abilities. We all work well in this kind of formation. We’re trying to perfect it now and hopefully it becomes a fluid thing where teams are struggling to find a way to stop it.
“It might not seem I’m doing anything different but they are giving me liberty to stay high, come into the pockets, transition from an outside back into more of a right mid or a tucked-in right mid.”
Cristian Roldan had similar praise.
“Sometimes wide, sometimes in the middle when Nico shifts to the left side,” Cristian Roldan said of playing out wide. “It puts players in really good positions. Nouhou in that centerback spot, Jackson [Ragen] with his distribution, Jordan in isolation and then on the right side me and Alex doing the same thing. It puts players in a lot of good spots. It overloads the midfield quite a lot. It’s just a matter of transition. When we lose the ball how can we be in a good spot so we don’t expose ourselves too much.”
What remains to be seen so far is how the role players plug into this system. The Sounders have spent significant resources on Léo Chú and brought in Heber in the offseason. The Sounders also have an abundance of young central midfielders that need to see the field. How are their skillsets used? Can Chú be a solid deputy on the left? Is there a two-forward formation with both Heber and Ruidíaz? Will any of this work? These are all valid questions that hopefully will have answers sooner rather than later.