Sounderland Week 2: An Errant Back Pass

I’ve spent a couple of days trying to decide in which direction I wanted to take this week’s column, but I kept coming back to the same central thought: it’s still too early. The 2014 Sounders have played two games, there are 32 regular season games left, plus playoffs. It is simply far too early to reach any reasonable conclusions. But we can talk about what we saw.

The first half of Saturday’s match was disturbingly reminiscent of the collapse of last October and November. The collapse shaped many of the narratives of the 2013 season and this last offseason. While it has primarily been poor defending that has been blamed for the downfall, just as important was the Sounders rather anemic attack that plagued them throughout the 2013 season; an anemic attack that looks to have carried over into 2014 thus far.

A tale of two halves

Like last week, the game conveniently splits into different sets of talking points separated by half-time. Whereas last week I mainly glossed over the foul-fest of a first half, this week the first 45 came to define the game, and just like last year’s collapse it was about far more than just errors leading to goals.

Seattle can claim a certain hard-luck factor in falling behind 2-0, as they were temporarily down a man with Brad Evans receiving treatment for an injury when Toronto grabbed their first, then the game-changing own-assist from Marco Pappa that perfectly set up $8M man Jermaine Defoe for his, and Toronto’s, second goal. But this only tells half the story.

Seattle controlled the possession game through the strength of their fullbacks and holding midfielders. When Sigi unfortunately had to replace Evans with Pineda – using up his first sub in the 30′ down 2-0 – his side didn’t lose much in the passing and possession department. But just like last season there seemed a certain cluelessness in exactly how to go about turning that possession into attack. For instance, the Sounders launched 12 crosses in the first half, not a single one hitting a rave green target. Marco Pappa, easily the most disappointing Sounder through 2 matches, launched 12 total crosses in his 64 minutes of game time, not connecting on a single one. This was the kind of crossing that is indicative of an “out of ideas” approach. Work the ball in deep, run out of options, bang it into the danger area and hope for the best. It is almost entirely devoid of creativity, nor is it even remotely effective given the attacking personnel on the pitch. That it happened to work in the dying moments last week seems to have convinced this team it is a worthwhile approach, but it isn’t.

After 45 minutes the Sounders had not a single shot on goal out of 6 attempts, while Toronto managed four out of nine attempts. I’m not going to bore you with a breakdown of the manner in which Seattle pretty well dominated the distribution numbers, but suffice it to say they did. Yet, they almost completely failed at genuinely threatening the Toronto goal.

Just like last year, this puts enormous organizational pressure on the defenders and holding midfielders to control the game and limit opposition chances. When they are broken down by, say, an inches perfect pass through traffic from 22 year-old Canadian defensive midfielder Jonathan Osorio – my man of the match, by the way – to spring the $8 million man for an opening goal 17 minutes in, the fear certainly starts to set in.

For what it’s worth, the team actually seemed to respond well to being down a goal, although that didn’t necessarily directly translate to renewed attacking vigor. The defining moment of the game came shortly thereafter.

Mistakes happen, and dumb mistakes in your own end have a way of being punished on the score board. I have a hard time excoriating individual players for dumb mistakes – given the rather necessary human element to the game “these things happen” is an important thing to remember. But, in Pappa’s case, his blunder in combination with his lack of meaningful attacking contributions must put him in strong consideration for a spot on the bench when the team visits Montreal next weekend. It was the moment that changed the game. Yes, there were 21 minutes left to reduce the lead to one for halftime, but it usually takes creativity to unlock a team holding a two goal lead, something the Sounders attack has been notably lacking for a little over a year now.

Oh yes, the fouls

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the fouls. Oh, yes, the fouls. For the second straight Saturday we were treated to a soccer game with 40 fouls total, 25 of which were committed against the home side. Could the scab referee have called the game differently? Could he maybe have started showing a few more yellow cards for persistent infringement against players in Red? Could he maybe have done something about the choppy nature of the game before Clint Dempsey was forced to use one of the oldest retaliatory tricks in the book and then claim ignorance? Would any of this have truly changed the outcome of the game?

Toronto bunkers, passes the test.

Remember the 2nd half of the NFC Divisional playoff round back in January, the one where the Seahawks, enjoying a 16-0 lead, seemed to bunker down and almost DARE Drew Brees to beat them? Remember how uncomfortably close the game ended up being, but in the end, it almost seemed like the Seahawks had passed an important test? and in doing so, it lead directly to their success the next week when we beat the 49ers in our way to being Champions of America.

For the second 45 minutes on Saturday, Toronto dug in and bunkered. They parked the bus and completely conceded the possession game, given the Sounders holding mids and fullbacks virtually unlimited access to and time on the ball.

Watching from my Brougham End perch, seeing the Sounders continue to pound our end with sheer volume of balls into dangerous areas, I was a bit alarmed with the extent to which Toronto bunkered. It was as if they were trying to pass a test just as much as win a game. Of course it took a moment of creativity between Oba and Dempsey to produce a goal. An equalizer very nearly came in the 74 on one of Dylan Remick’s two effective 2nd-half crosses, but Cooper’s egregiously weak header from a very dangerous position trickled meekly across the goal mouth and out of danger. Cooper and last week’s hero Chad Barret had both come on as 2nd-half subs – Cooper in the 64′ for Pappa – and were playing nominally as wide attacking mids slash strikers, while Dempsey and Oba both sunk into the midfield to try to help build the attack – Oba playing almost as a false-9 at times. Dempsey, in his ideal role as 2nd striker/CAM did well to come back and find the ball, but all too often was too far away to launch a direct attack on goal, and mostly played as a distributor along the edge of the attacking third.

If we are relying on Barrett and Cooper to be the late-game difference makers for this team, I have my concerns. Cooper had seven total touches – none of which amounted to anything, really- rendering that spot in the lineup shared by Pappa and Cooper almost entirely useless. Barrett came on for Neagle in the 79 and managed to be more active with 9 touches, which included not a single shot and two more unsuccessful crosses.

Of course Toronto passed their test, and got the full three points. Seattle, once again, is left to bemoan their fate. An all-too familiar position for Sounder fans, it would seem.

Hey, what about tactics and formations.

Seattle’s 4-2-3-1, which is what we’ve decided to call it, came with a couple of twists. Those wondering how Cooper fit into such a scheme got at least a partial answer when he started on the bench. The team-sheet seemed to indicate Pappa as the LAM and Neagle as the RAM but their on-field roles were reversed. If Pappa – who is traditionally a left-winger – was expected to fulfill Mauro Rosales familiar RAM/playmaker role, that experiment can be said to have failed miserably. Neagle was hardly a highlight reel, and his activities as a WAM the last two weeks has further indicated that he is certainly best used as a striker. One wonders if he will ever actually play there with the glut of strikers on the roster, which was only added to this week with the addition of Kent product Cam Weaver.

Left Back Dylan Remick – who spent the week being feted in Sounderland as the second coming of Deandre Yedlin – was pretty good when given plenty of time, space, and very little (by which I mean none, really) defensive responsibility. But, hey, he’s following in the footsteps of his right-sided fullback companion – who actually came around to playing some good defense in his first year – so there is hope. Djimi Traore has had better matches but was also “beat” for both goals largely due to near-perfect passes to Defoe from out of the midfield (and its particularly tough to gauge Traore’s reaction when one of those passes came from his own teammate). Marshall and Yedlin both performed well, but the one-way traffic much of the match meant the Sounders back line wasn’t often tested. Yedlin did well to snuff out a handful of Toronto counters, particularly after set pieces when the center backs were pushed up.

Ozzie Alsono had one of his best passing games in a Sounder shirt, but of course that has to be considered against the realities of how the game played out. He completed 88 of 100 total passes, going 56 of 61 in the second half. Gonzalo Pineda seemed largely anonymous after replacing Evans.

There are no conclusions

To me, the expected storyline of Dempsey vs Bradley never panning out is the biggest disappointment from Saturday. The scoreboard changes everything. Michael Bradley was Toronto’s most active player and led the game with 7 tackles, but put up very un-Bradley like passing numbers. This is to be expected of course given the concession of the possession game which takes away the true purpose of having players like Bradley in the middle.

Any talk of how well the Sounders play, and how talented they are, will continue to fall on my deaf ears so long as this team continues to fall into their bad habits from last season. As someone who would’ve rather seen Sigi sacked after last year I may be a little quick and harsh on the man, but if next week brings no tangible improvements that It will be time to re-introduce the #sigiout campaign.

Next Week:

Seattle will travel to Montreal, a fine city in which the Sounders lost 4-1 on their last visit back in 2012. One wonders what sudden decisions will be made about our allegedly new tactics. I wouldn’t surprised if Sigi goes back to the diamond, given his side’s lack of effective WAM play after two games. There is also the question of Evans’ fitness and Dempsey’s consequences – the Disciplinary Committee is sure to take a close look at his infamous “groin swipe” which went unpunished during the match.