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Sounder Strategy: A visit to the other Washington

The Sounders need to win the battle in the air to get past D.C. United.

Last Updated
6 min read
Scott Taetsch / Sounders FC Communications

A week after a ruinous rivalry game, the Sounders face D.C. United without two starters due to red card suspensions. This is the first match of a grueling stretch of games that may either save or doom the season. D.C. United is a foe the Sounders seldom face. Their physical style is built on high pressing and aerial dominance. Let’s look at what went wrong last weekend against Vancouver, and how the Sounders can stop the bleeding with a result in D.C.

Sussing out Seattle

The first half against Vancouver looked like more of the same frustrating possession that has characterized the team for over a year. The Sounders advanced the ball into the final third, but were unable to find the final pass, even as teammates made dangerous attacking runs. The right side of the attack was particularly egregious, wasting opportunities inside and outside the box:

Cristian Roldan receives the ball in a good position, but his low cross is aimed at no one in particular while two Sounders loiter in space at the top of the box.

In sequences like this one where the Sounders found room to run, Cristian Roldan’s decision making let him down and Jordan Morris’ run goes unrewarded:

Roldan opts to slow possession with a safe pass, allowing Vancouver to snuff out the danger from Morris at the far post.

The choice to slow play down rather than be direct when the team has the initiative is beyond frustrating at this point in the season. With Pedro de la Vega at least a month away from starting, the Sounders have to use other means of chance generation beside cautious, contemplative possession. Albert Rusnák was notably quiet in the first half. The Sounders’ DP needs to be on the ball more, looking specifically for Jordan Morris’ runs.

When navigating around Vancouver’s narrow defensive shape – something that the LA Galaxy did very well against the Whitecaps two weeks ago – the Sounders could at least rely on João Paulo to get the job done:

João Paulo loops a ball to the feet of Cristian Roldan in a good crossing position.

Unfortunately, the team did not get nearly the same passing quality out of Obed Vargas:

Vargas under-hits his pass, and Vancouver clears.

The Sounders’ wounds in the second half were self-inflicted. After going down a man, Brian Schmetzer shifted his team into a 5-3-1 defensive shape. Vancouver, a team that usually is happy to cede possession, was forced to sit on the ball and maneuver around a back five to enter Seattle’s penalty area. Their side-to-side switches of play looked nowhere near quick enough to trouble the Sounders:

Vancouver switch the ball back and forth against Seattle’s back five, but find no way into the box.

At worst, the Sounders could have pushed for a disappointing, yet gritty home draw. But trying to play out from the back while Vancouver pressed with a man advantage? Unsurprisingly, that ended in disaster – twice. The Sounders’ stubborn ethos of always wanting to dictate play through possession is bold, but sometimes is just plain irrational. After turning down the opportunity to push for three points against FC Dallas, then self-destructing against Vancouver, the Sounders must start acting like the desperate team that they are rather than the intractably superior team they thought they were two months ago.

Some of that urgency must also result in changes to personnel. The Roldan brothers have been highly ineffective on the right despite taking a large share of possession. The right side needs a shake-up, and we will see one by default this weekend with the suspension of Alex Roldan. Obed Vargas should in no way be a locked-in starter next to João Paulo while Josh Atencio is healthy. Raúl Ruidíaz needs to make way for Danny Musovski when Seattle are better off playing more direct. The Sounders will be forced to lean on their bench over the next month due to fixture congestion, and they just might find a better combination of starters while doing it.

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