Thoughts from Sounderland week five — Winning in a draw

It was a remarkable match that really rather defies analysis but seemed to emphasize strengths and weaknesses of both sides.  It will be long remembered for its many goals and dramatic ebb and flow, but beneath the veneer of excitement lurked two teams who don’t seem to really have their shit together.

This past Saturday, the Seattle Sounders FC and Portland Timbers brought us the best Cascadia Cup clash to date with a dramatic 4-4 draw at Providence Park in Portland.

A picture perfect start

After last Wednesday night’s USA/Mexico tussle which saw both sides show off their corner kick prowess, we got to see Seattle take a shockingly early lead with their own well-worked corner kick play. Either that, or no one on the Timbers bothered covering Sounders center back Jalil Anibaba.  At any rate, forward Kenny Cooper was Johnny-on-the-spot at the far post as he guided in the header across the box from Anibaba — that may or may not have been going in on its own. Just like that, it was 1-0 to the Sounders.

Then it turned sour

Through the next stretch of the match, we watched Portland exert their influence and take control rather quickly and efficiently.  We knew from the Columbus match that Seattle needed to fight the possession battle and create turnovers high up the pitch.  We also knew that getting the ball to Clint Dempsey in dangerous positions — the same way we got the ball to Lamar Neagle in Deuce’s absence during the previous two matches — was going to be the most likely way to score.  Neither of those things were happening.  Other than a well-executed corner kick, the Sounders were a bit bossed around for much of the first 20 minutes Saturday.

Portland built their lead through part creating their own chances off of pressure and turnovers, and  part superior passing and attacking.  The game was remarkably open but the Timbers were getting the better of it, through the first 22 minutes Seattle were the better passing team but Portland had more and better chances and were wining more balls.

And then Seattle created a turnover and got the ball to Dempsey in a dangerous position — and just like that it was 2-2.  To be fair, Portland defender Noberto Paparatto cleared the ball directly to  Cooper, but even then it took an alert header from Ozzie Alonso and calm set up from strike partner Obafemi Martins before Dempsey’s cool finish.

Back on level pegging

The game then devolved into a bit of a hack-fest, then both sides seemed to realize the folly of embarking on a yellow-card arms race before a little bit of a disinterested final few minutes of the first half.  One can hardly blame the teams for being a bit shell-shocked from four goals in the first 23 minutes.

Then it hit the fan again

In a battle of formations — Seattle playing a 4-3-3 and Portland in their 4-2-3-1 — the Timbers’ midfield triangle got the better of Seattle’s, with the Rave Green’s Gonzalo Pineda’s rather rough match lowlighted by his poor handling of a throw-in creating the chance for Diego Chara’s first, and Michael Azira providing very little aside from the occasional take-away or foul. Portland’s Will Johnson was the game’s most prolific passer and tied Ozzie with four tackles. Diego Valeri scored a dazzling goal and was Portland’s second most active player and made numerous key passes.  It was Chara, in fact, who had uncharacteristically low distribution numbers, but he was also certainly his side’s man of the match.

Neither Pineda or Azira were in position to cover for Alonso on Chara’s second strike which put Portland up 3-2.  Alonso had drifted wide to cover for left back Leo Gonzalez who pushed forward — both pretty standard operating procedures in professional soccer. Of course, that meant no one was available close down Chara, who collected the ball just inside the attacking half with tons of space in front of him.

Maybe Leo should’ve covered for Alonso? Azira?  At any rate, at the moment Chara received the ball, Anibaba had an aggressive attacking run from the speedy Darlington Nagbe to deal with and was 20 yards away from the ball.  Once he handed responsibility to his center half partner in Chad Marshall, Nagbe switched his dribble to open a potential passing lane to Portland’s lone striker Max Urruti, who had gained a step of space on DeAndre Yedlin for a dangerous opportunity in the penalty area.  Anibaba seemed more worried about that possibility and hesitated in stepping out towards the shooter.

We know Cooper’s weakness is in the distribution game, so why is he the forward who drops the deepest into the midfield?  This makes absolutely no sense and creates dangerous situations his teammates then must cover for.  In fact, Cooper’s instinct to hold the ball for too long cost the Sounders dearly when Portland took advantage of an ill-advised back pass from Cooper to Anibaba that created the opportunity for Urruti to put that classy finish past Sounders ‘keeper Stefan Frei for Portland’s fourth goal, giving them a two-goal 2nd half lead. The easy analysis is to blame Anibaba — who may have been the victim of a foul as Urruti seemed to put in a good shove as he made his challenge from behind to the ball. Honestly, I’m one to believe Urruti somewhat baited Cooper into making that pass, as Cooper had managed to take at least one too many touches to close the doors to all other opportunities but his telegraphed distribution to a teammate with an opposing attacker lurking in his blind spot.

Climbing out of a hole

Down 4-2 and with Portland controlling much of the flow of the match, there seemed no way back in it for Sounders, and it looked far more likely we would see the Timbers notch a fifth before the Sounders could crawl back into it with their third.  Manager Sigi Schmid made his first change just a couple minutes after falling behind by two goals when he brought Neagle on for Cooper.  It was a nearly like-for like substitution between two players who might be competing for a starting spot next week. We know what Neagle can do as the highest forward on the pitch,  but his game is limited as a midfielder.

Sigi then brought newly acquired Marco Pappa on for Azira and switched to a 4-4-2, with Oba and Dempsey up top and Pappa and Neagle as the WAMs.  These substitutions had no immediate affect on increasing the Sounders likelihood to mount a comeback. Portland significantly out-passed and out-created the Sounders from the 60th until the 80th minute, all while holding a 4-2 lead. Things were starting to look a bit grim.

Then like a bolt out of the blue it happened

After a back heel turn stunned Portland left back Michael Harrington at the touchline and bought him some space back towards the middle, Neagle banged the ball into the danger area.  Frankly, it wasn’t much different than a lot of the crosses you see from the Sounders, somewhat hopeful deliveries that require no small amount of work from a teammate to turn into a meaningful chance.  Thankfully, Oba was up to that challenge with a clever flick right to the feet of Dempsey, who lifted it over an overreacting Weber and into Portland’s goal.

Just two minutes later Seattle were absolutely gifted an equalizer. Charra, sprinting back to stop a menacing dribble into the attacking third from Pineda, sent an inches-perfect unintentional through-ball into the path of an alert Yedlin.  The recently introduced Ben Zemanski was clearly in a very difficult situation, but he had better options than clambering into Yedlin for an obvious penalty. Pineda granted Dempsey the right the convert the spot kick and claim a hat trick.

Looking back and moving forward

What do we take from this match? Well, I can hope that Sigi certainly has learned some things, such as playing Dempsey in behind two strikers in a diamond is a bad idea.  The 4-3-3 was far from perfect — it would be particularly nice to get captain Brad Evans, or at least Andy Rose, back in the lineup — but the basic idea hardly failed, particularly the Dempsey part. I don’t think Anibaba was quite the problem some made him out to be — but it wasn’t a great day for center backs and ‘keepers overall.  It needs some tweaking, for sure, but its gonna be a while before we can really nail down what works.

At this point, one wonders if getting Neagle back out to play as the highest forward, swapping him in for Cooper, isn’t the next tweak to make.  The Sounders preferred attacking up the right on Saturday, and it makes some sense to have the fullback and winger both play higher on one side, having the midfield triangle adjust accordingly. Of course, if Cooper played higher there would be no compelling reason to replace him in the lineup.

Next Saturday the Sounders travel to Frisco, Texas to take on notably in form FC Dallas, first out of the gate in the Western Conference with 13 points through 5 matches and a +7 goal differential.  After dealing with creative playmakers like Federico Higuain and Valeri, the Sounders now get to take on March MLS player of the month Mauro Diaz, who makes things happen as the CAM in their 4-2-3-1.  Interestingly enough, Dallas had scored 13 goals while averaging the fewest shots per game —  just 46 total in their 5 matches. They are, statistically, the most dribble-happy team in MLS so far this young season, and five of their goals have come from set-piece opportunities with two of those from the penalty spot.

Look for a full match preview later this week on North and South of Royal Brougham along with my weekly analysis after the match.