SEATTLE — Anytime a team near the top of the table faces one near the bottom, the specter of the “trap game” is summoned. In the buildup to Sunday’s game against Sporting KC, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer and various players were asked about it repeatedly. To a man, they all said they were well aware of Sporting KC’s quality despite the fact that they were coming into the match as the league’s last winless team and having scored just three goals in 10 games.
The Sounders came into the game 17 points ahead of last-place Kansas City, but there were some reasons to be worried.
Chief among those was the state of the Sounders roster. Newly added to the longer-term absences of Raúl Ruidíaz, Cristian Roldan and Nouhou were a yellow-card suspension to João Paulo and a knee injury to Kelyn Rowe.
Rowe’s absence meant the Sounders were missing their top two options at left back, which ended up leading to a trickle-down effect that contributed significantly to their 2-1 loss. With six players either new to the starting lineup or playing different positions than they had the week before, the Sounders spent most of the first half looking uncomfortable and out of sorts.
“As a coach you have to take some responsibility there,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “My immediate reflection was that we made changes on both halves of the field, had if I had to do it again I’d have only changed one of those components. There were too many changes in the makeup of the team.”
To Schmetzer’s point, the strategy seemed risky from the start. Before filling out the lineup, Schmetzer knew he’d have to have a relatively inexperienced player at left back. That’s just part of the roster calculus the Sounders made at the start of the season. When the Sounders had previously dealt with this situation, they moved Alex Roldan across the field and put Cristian at right back. Even though that didn’t exactly go great last time, Schmetzer went with that option again and gave Reed Baker-Whiting his first start of the MLS season at right back. My suspicion is that Schmetzer felt more confident playing Roldan out of position than asking the relatively inexperienced Baker-Whiting or Baker to match up against Johnny Russell. It was a logical gamble, even if it didn’t pay off.
While that situation was somewhat unavoidable — either way someone was going to be played nominally out of position at left back — the choices on the attacking side of the field were more purely of Schmetzer’s making. Presumably in an effort to put Jordan Morris back at forward where he scored four goals against KC the last time they played, Schmetzer opted to play Héber at the No. 10 spot and move Nicolás Lodeiro to right wing.
Just for good measure, Obed Vargas also got the start in midfield, the first time he’d started alongside Albert Rusnák this season.
All six of those changes could be rationally explained individually. But the collective impact could hardly have gone worse. There were long stretches where players didn’t quite seem to know where they needed to be, numerous occasions of players getting their body positions wrong and at no point did the Sounders look like the first-place team playing a last-place opponent at home.
“I tried to do my best,” Lodeiro said. “It wasn’t enough. In the first half, the whole team played bad, we were uncomfortable. In the second half we moved and we created more chances.”
Lodeiro was a good example of how the changes may have been over-thought. All season, Lodeiro has been a key influence on not just the way the Sounders possess the ball, but in how they defend from the front. When Lodeiro is deployed as a No. 10, he leads the Sounders’ press out of a 4-4-2 formation. The Sounders are second in MLS at creating “high turnovers,” arguably the biggest reason they rank near the top in metrics like Expected Goals Allowed.
This week, however, Lodeiro was on the wing and in that second line of defense, leaving Morris and Héber to lead the press. KC only ended up losing possession twice in their own end, and both of those came deep into second-half stoppage time after the game had been all but decided. Already weakened defensively, the Sounders made matters worse by changing things more than necessary farther up the field.
Frustrating as this result was, though, learning what not to do is still learning.