Thoughts from Sounderland Week four — Style Matters

On Saturday the Sounders faced off against a stylistically superior opponent, but if they had buried their first-half chances, they probably wouldn’t have lost.

Style points

From almost the opening whistle, Columbus looked to break down the Sounders with passing — it was what I call “death by a thousand tiny cuts” soccer. This was far beyond the Sounder approach of using possession to calm the game and defend proactively.  This was a system of not only “keep-away” but patient build up and trying to create chances through intricate passing.

Despite this, the Sounders countered the system in the first half in a ruthlessly efficient manner that could have seen them build more than a one goal lead.  The key to the Sounders approach was defending over the entire length of the pitch, never sitting back and absorbing pressure — they worked to force turnovers from which they created chances on the rush.

The first half was a compelling see-saw battle that saw chances from both sides go wasted.  After the first three matches had all proven to be rather desultory in at least one significant degree or another, its pretty easy to say the opening 45′ gives us some hope that we might actually see some good soccer this season.

Sounders will rue missed opportunities

Once again we saw Lamar Neagle as the danger man for Seattle.  With the same lineup as last week — but with Michael Azira in for Rose who apparently came up with a gimpy hamstring in warm-ups — we saw the axiom hold true that the closer Neagle is to the opposing goal, the better he is.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t find the back of the net.

Neagle’s first big chance came off a bad Will Trapp give away right at midfield.  Neagle pounced on the ball and dribbled straight for the Crew goal, eschewing a passing opportunity to an open Obafemi Martins to launch a long-range screamer that Crew ‘keeper Steve Clark put a finger tip to to send over the bar.

The goal would come just a couple minutes later on a strikingly similar type of play, but this time Cooper buried his shot because he used the threat of a pass to Neagle to buy some time and pick his spot. The turnover actually happened well into the Sounders end, with Oba deftly flicking the clearance into space on the left flank for Cooper to run on to.  Coopers finish demonstrated his quality as a goal scorer, waiting out the onrushing Crew defender and keeper, taking that split second to survey the scene, then burying his chance.

It’s fair to say that Cooper is far from a panacea for the Sounders attack, and his relative lack of involvement – at least in terms of his relative dearth of trackable actions – is noteworthy.  His isn’t a player that is going to be involved much from a distribution standpoint, but he can certainly dribble and shoot.

Neagle’s next great chance would come in the 39′ off another turnover, but this one not quite 10 yards outside the Crew penalty area.  It came from high pressure applied by Gonzalo Pineda, who played as a CAM in the midfield triangle ahead of Ozzie Alonso and Azira.  Oba was alert to the deflected ball and just managed to get a touch onto the ball into space in front of the Crew defender.  Alertly running into that space was Neagle, who couldn’t beat a well-positioned Clark for a goal.

In all, The Sounders had 4 shots on target out of 7 total in the first half, with Neagle recording 4 total and 3 on target.  Comparing this to the 6 total and just one on frame for Columbus speaks to the efficacy of the Sounders’ approach.  But just before half time would come a near equalizer and perhaps a warning for things to come from Columbus.

In the 43rd minute the Crew passing train lead by Frederico Higuain would break down the Sounder defense and create a chance that saw a rather astonishing miss keep the scoreline from going level.

The chance actually started with some rather meek defending from Dylan Remick, who responded poorly to a rather leisurely lofted switching pass out at about the edge of the final third.  A header, followed by a clever flick saw Higuain in behind the Sounder back line and one on one with a Stefan Frei, forced to come off his line to cut down the angle.  The Argentinian’s chip attempt rattled the crossbar but fell right to Crew left mid Bernado Anor, who couldn’t calmly nod the ball into a gaping net.

Higuain stands out as the clear choice for Man of the Match, and if it were up to me would be MLS player of the Month for March.  He embodies the stylistic approach of the Crew, and has established himself as certainly one of the players to watch this season.  Frankly, he would still be my Man of the Match even if it had been one of his teammates to knock in the penalty and take that quick corner in the dying moments.

Then it all went to shit

Columbus started off the second half with the clear goal of sticking to their stylistic approach, despite the dangerous chances Seattle created off of turnovers.  In the 14 second-half minutes before the penalty, they doubled the Sounders on successful passes in the attacking half, going 46 of 57 (80.7 percent) vs. 23 of 28 (82.1 percent). In keeping with the nature of the game, however Seattle looked to play more balls into the final third, whereas much of the Crew passing was patient build-up just outside the danger area.

That intricate passing game eventually lead to the moment that would prove to be the game’s turning point.

First off, Dominic Oduro was *not* offside.  Traore instinctively responded to a clever flick just outside the top of the arc by stepping back and playing Oduro onside.  Realizing he was beat and his ‘keeper left exposed, Traore tried to disrupt Oduro and in the process committed a clear challenge from behind with no play on the ball.  That’s a penalty.  Any time, any where, Traore’s foul is a penalty.

What happens next has drawn the ire of many in Sounderalnd but the bulk of the complaints are utterly unfounded.  First of all, Oduro did what every one of us should appreciate, as he fought through the contact and still managed to get off a shot.  For a sport with such a perception problem involving players throwing themselves to the ground at the slightest contact in the penalty area, Oduro did what should be considered “the right thing to do” by trying to stay on his feet and still get off a shot.

The referee did his job as well by letting play continue for a moment to see if Oduro could still score, and it’s important for Sounder’s fans to realize why this is a good thing. According to the FIFA law book:

“If the referee applies advantage during an obvious goalscoring opportunity and a goal is scored directly, despite the opponent’s handling the ball or fouling an opponent, the player cannot be sent off but he may still be cautioned.”

In other words, if Oduro had scored, Traore would not have been sent off.  Now, let that sink in for a moment.

This also means that if Traore had simply stood there, knowing he was beat and it was up to Frei to stop it, and positioned himself for a possible rebound, all would have been okay.

Let this stand as another demonstration of the maddening nature of playing center back.  The Joe Roth’s of the world want you to buy into a narrative of “running through walls” and winning through effort and fortitude.  Had Oduro calmly slipped a goal past Frei while Traore stood and watched the Sounderland scapegoating machine would’ve ramped up full force against Traore.  Problem is, standing and watching was actually his best bet on the play.

The subsequent red card for Denial of Goal Scoring Opportunity has also drawn some ire.  Let’s go back to the FIFA law book:

“Referees should consider the following circumstances when deciding whether to send off a player for denying a goal or an obvious goalscoring opportunity:

• the distance between the offence and the goal

• the likelihood of keeping or gaining control of the ball

• the direction of the play

• the location and number of defenders

• the offence which denies an opponent an obvious goalscoring opportunity may be an offence that incurs a direct free kick or an indirect free kick

Traore’s foul hits on all of the first 4 bullet points (the 5th bullet point is mainly a way of saying “any foul” can be DOGSO, even “lesser” indirect free kick offenses such as obstruction).  By rule, it was and is a red card.

Sounderland objections regarding the red card seem to revolve around the so called “double jeopardy” situation, with the penalty kick AND red card seeming like too punitive a measure to take against a team for one infraction.  The thing is, the Sounders are not the first, nor will they be the last, team to suffer this apparent injustice; and Sounderland will not be the first, nor will they be the last, fanbase to vigorously object.  This has been a frequent talking point for several years now, and I would suspect FIFA will reconsider this in the near future.  In the meantime, shit happens and soccer is a cruel bitch of a sport.

Down a man, out of ideas

At that point, with Sigi having to use his first sub to get Jalil Anibaba on for Traore at center back (when shorthanded you MUST build from the back forward, and Cooper was Sigi’s best bet to come off)) the Sounders were not necessarily in a position where their only option was to hope to just bunker and hang on for the draw.  There was no reason to believe that what had worked to that point wouldn’t continue to work.  Yes, being down a man makes fighting the possession battle just that much more difficult, but there were two subs still available.

The problem was the players on the Sounder bench. None of Sean Okoli, Chad Barrett, Marco Pappa, or Cam Weaver were going to necessarily help the Sounders stylistically. Except for Leo Gonzalez, all of Sigi’s choices were of the “fresh legs, more energy” type of substitution.  There were no real tactical options available.

Okoli came on for Neagle in the 76′ and was barely involved, recording just five touches in his 18 minutes on the pitch.  Even down a man, the Sounders created some chances, particularly off of set pieces.  In fact, the Sounders played “bunker and counter” quite well, all things considered, with the Crew going until the 81st before they created their first real good chance with the man advantage.

Let’s blame the ref?

Unable to play the game out in the midfield, It seemed like only a matter of time before the Sounders would allow another goal.  Of course, the hope in such a situation is for the final whistle to blow first.

Sigi didn’t use his 3rd sub until the 86′, and its hard to say why he didn’t introduce the team’s best defender from 2013 into the game sooner.  At that point, it seemed that a “like for like” shift was probably the best bet, inserting Gonzo at left back for the defensively suspect Dylan Remick.

To be fair, Oba was likely pretty tired.  Given his willingness and ability to drop back into the midfield and fight for possession, I would rather have seen him stay on — but honestly that’s an easy thing for me to say.  Gonzo came on in an ambiguous left-ish mid-slash-5th defender role in hopes to help kill off the game in a similar manner to his insertion in the lineup last Sunday at Montreal.

The Sounders weren’t fortunate enough to hear the final whistle before Columbus found the back of the net, although they very nearly made it.  If the referee was distracted and “not ready” for the quick corner, he certainly reacted quicker then the Sounders defense.  I have absolutely no idea where complaints about the referee on the final goal come from, but never underestimate the willingness and ability of Sounderland to pick scapegoats.

What have we learned

This is the kind of game that really gets me to put on my coaches hat.  Anger is a pretty good teacher in the often frustratingly arbitrary game of soccer.  Results are fleeting, but what persist is style and the tactical approach to the game.  After a superb first half, the game broke down for the Sounders.  Bad luck?  Maybe.  But there is a narrative that might indicate the Columbus Crew actively broke down the Sounders, with the games turning point the result of the pressure they were able to exert over the entire match leading up to that point.  It could be argued the Sounders could have, should have, scored more than one goal in the first half; but the fact still remains that the biggest miss in the game came from the Crew.

High pressure worked for the home team.  Fighting the possession battle in midfield against a good passing-oriented team gave the Sounders the best chance to win.  When that stopped, it was only a matter of time before their downfall.  The Crew look likely to be among the better teams in MLS this season and their stylistic approach earned them a deserved result, even in if the mechanism by which it came involved no small amount of fortune.

Looking ahead

And now we play Portland.  Given the way last season ended, there is a lot to talk about this week, and its worthy of its own article.  So stay tuned…