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Five things we learned from Sounders playing in the Club World Cup

Tactical adjustments, João Paulo, and more.

Seattle Sounders v Al-Ahli: 2022 FIFA Club World Cup Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Seattle Sounders made some significant history by becoming the first MLS team to play in the Club World Cup. Despite losing to Al Ahly SC, there are still plenty of positive takeaways from the performance. Here are the five things I saw on Saturday:

Changes in the attack are positive

Throughout preseason, Brian Schmetzer has alluded to it being too easy to figure out how to stop the Sounders. He mentioned formation tweaks, different patterns, and maybe different personnel as things to look for in 2023 to address that.

It’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions about anything from one match in a knockout tournament, especially if it’s the first competitive fixture a team has played in four months. However, if the attacking and possession patterns we saw on Saturday from the Sounders are a sign of things to come, there are a lot of reasons for fans to be excited.

When building out from the back or recycling possession, the Sounders had Nouhou tucked in as a left-sided centerack, instead of playing as an out-and-out left back. Jordan Morris was playing really, really high and wide up on the left wing, often being the farthest player forward in the attack. Nicolás Lodeiro or Albert Rusnák would float into the space that a nominal “left midfielder” would occupy. They would then look to progress the ball through the lines, with the other of the two floating into a half-space or Cristian Roldan coming across to occupy those spaces. It created a really interesting dynamic that both highlighted the strengths of several Sounders while also cleverly taking away their weaknesses.

When Seattle would eventually get the ball to the right side of the pitch, either through counter-pressing or buildup phases, Morris would dart into the center to occupy either of the opponent’s CBs and play off the last shoulder. Obviously, the Sounders didn’t score on Saturday, but there seem to be several tricks up Schmetzer’s sleeve to get attacking players in positive positions.

Sloppy decisions to be expected in “preseason”

As mentioned, this was the Sounders' first competitive fixture since October and in moments it really showed. Passing could’ve been sharper, runs could’ve been more decisive, and defending could’ve been tighter. Ultimately, it was a bit of sloppy play that Al Ahly was able to capitalize on in the closing minutes of the match to score the game’s lone goal. It’s a very disappointing way to lose, but I think some of these things are easily explained by the fact that the Sounders are still in their preseason.

The Return of João Paulo

João Paulo’s last match for the Sounders prior to tearing his ACL was the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League Final against Pumas. 277 days later he returned to competitive action for Seattle against Al Ahly SC in the FIFA Club World Cup, thus book-ending a grueling year of recovery off the pitch for JP and a grueling year on the pitch for Seattle.

Here’s to better days ahead.

Midfield, once a sore spot, now a strength

We spent basically all of last season bemoaning the midfield struggles of the Sounders, identifying that area of the pitch as the main reason the team missed the playoffs. Just a few months later and that area is now the deepest and strongest it’s possibly ever been for the Sounders, despite not adding a single significant player to the position.

João Paulo’s cameo came in the middle of the second half, and he only played about 26 minutes total if you include stoppage time. The Sounders had spent effectively an entire half controlling the tempo of the game from the 10th minute to about the 60th, largely due to the composure of Josh Atencio and Rusnák.

Fans were quick to criticize Rusnak on Saturday and I quite frankly couldn’t disagree more. He was my man of the match, but even then I can admit he scuffed his one shot. With the aforementioned tactical shifts in the attacking & possession phases, I think it gives Rusnak the ability to play in the areas of the field where he can be the most influential. Since positions and formations are invented and made up, let’s say he played as a 8.5 on Saturday. I’m hoping to see much more of this in the coming weeks and months.

History is still history

Losing on a deflected goal in the 88th minute really sucks. It feels like falling off a ladder from the top rung and having the wind knocked out of you. However, I think it’s incredible that the Sounders were able to compete on the world’s stage against one of Africa’s most storied clubs with an opportunity on the line to play Europe’s most successful club. There’s no consolation prize or anything (actually, maybe there is?) when you get knocked out, but even the most cynical of fan should be able to take a step back and realize how cool of a moment this was for the club.

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