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Sounder Strategy: Put the Whitecaps in the middle

Vancouver is a more dangerous side than their middling point total suggests.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Vancouver Whitecaps are a middling team in the Western Conference despite their underlying numbers, which suggest a team that is more goal-dangerous than they appear. Still, their poor defensive play in two recent road games is cause for concern. Meanwhile, the first-place Sounders have lost consistency over the last month and racked up some bewildering losses to Western Conference basement-dwellers. Let’s look deeper at the struggles of both teams, and how Seattle might end their week on a positive note in Vancouver.

What’s up with the Whitecaps?

Away in Dallas midweek, Vancouver went conservative with their typical 4-3-2-1 formation. Both wide attackers dropped into the midfield, staying narrow to force Dallas down the wings and leaving forward Brian White alone up top to chase long balls:

Vancouver’s narrow midfield was not enough to stop FC Dallas’ attackers, who took advantage of space on the wings.

But Dallas was plenty dangerous down the wings. Jesús Ferreira finished the game with two goals, and his second summed up a nightmare week for Vancouver’s centerbacks. Against Portland last weekend, Vancouver played less conservatively, but their back line still looked far too slow and passive:

Portland forward Franck Boli is left in too much space after Vancouver turn the ball over, and he makes the Whitecaps pay.

Vancouver’s conservative and direct approach has not worked particularly well, especially on the road, where they have not yet won this season. At home, Vancouver have employed a more aggressive and fruitful approach.

With a somewhat dysfunctional defense, it may come as a surprise that Vancouver is second only to St. Louis in tackles per match in the middle and attacking third of the pitch. That’s not to say that Vancouver has a similar pressing style to St. Louis. The Whitecaps’ are more picky with their pressure, but commit aggressively when the ball moves to a vulnerable player high up the field. In this sequence, defensive midfielder Andrés Cubas steps up quickly to cause a turnover on Timbers midfielder Cristhian Paredes:

Vancouver’s midfield draws Paredes into a trap, leading to a transition opportunity.

While their back line is passive, Vancouver’s active attackers create and sustain possession sequences with pressing and counter pressing. Once the ball reaches the final third, the Whitecaps’ strategy is to cross and cross some more. In fact, they have put in more crosses per match than any other team in MLS. A few days after surrendering a headed goal to Gyasi Zardes, Seattle’s centerbacks will need to be more dominant against Vancouver’s aerial assault.

Sussing out Seattle

Wednesday’s match against Austin was another example of a slow start against a struggling team. Austin’s lively midfield press disrupted the Sounders’ early possessions.

Austin’s midfield duo of Daniel Pereira and Jhojan Valencia cannot steal the ball from João Paulo, but their immediate back pressing wins the ball off Lodeiro.

It was nearly a half hour before Seattle found their footing, and Austin scored soon after. This was forgettable match by João Paulo’s lofty standards. A step slow on Austin’s first goal, and dispossessed in the build-up to their second, the midfielder also misplaced a surprising number of passes on the night.

João Paulo is dispossessed in the build-up to Austin’s second goal.

Any player can have an off night, but João Paulo is also five months into his return from knee surgery — dips in form are to be expected. With Cristian Roldan’s absence being felt as much as ever, Seattle’s midfield is missing some of its typical bite. The good news is that Seattle is still creating chances, and Fredy Montero is timeless.

Keys to victory against Vancouver

Trust the process

Expected goals and expected assists are a helpful measure of the quality of chances a player creates. The difference between expected and actual goals and assists gives us an indication of how unlucky a player has been to be left off the score sheet. The top three underperformers in terms of goals and assists under expected are set to feature in Saturday’s match. Héber is third in underperforming his expected totals, while the top two spots are held by Vancouver’s Brian White and Ryan Gauld.

Finishing in MLS tends to be more a matter of luck than skill, and there is nothing in Heber’s MLS history to suggest that he bucks that trend. In fact, he has slightly outperformed his expected goal totals in MLS prior to this season. For both teams this weekend, the best available fix for their frustrations on offense may simply be to trust the process for generating chances and hope that their luck turns.

Heber’s one-touch pass produces a decent chance for Dylan Teves, but Brad Stuver makes the save.

Hasten to press

In his press conference following Wednesday’s match, Brian Schmetzer stated that he was frustrated by the effectiveness of Austin’s earnest forward press compared to that of the Sounders. Vancouver, while struggling in their defensive third, are still a disruptive team in the middle of the pitch.

It is up to the Sounders to improve upon their performance against Austin with sharper passing and more deliberate pressure in order to advance the ball to the final third where Vancouver has been vulnerable.

It was too easy at times for Austin to play through the Sounders’ midfield.

Time for Baker to rise

With Nouhou appearing to be physically drained after a short substitute appearance Wednesday, it is likely that Cody Baker will get another start at left back. Baker will be tested by right midfielder Julian Gressel, who is Vancouver’s leader in assists, crosses, and progressive passes. Dealing with Gressel’s speed and physicality will be key to slowing Vancouver’s attack.

Gauld releases Gressel down the right wing, and his cross is turned in for an own-goal.

Seattle’s key players are on the mend, and we can all hope that the Sounders’ inconsistent play will soon be a thing of the past. With Vancouver’s recent defensive struggles, this match is a great opportunity to celebrate some goals.

Note: all statistics via

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