Thoughts from Sounderland: Three points in Dallas

Saturday night was another gripping comeback for the Sounders and another epic personnel trumps tactics victory for Sigi Schmidt. If we have come to learn one thing, what Sigi apparently lacks in tactical acumen he makes up for in picking 11 guys to get a tough results against an in-form team on the road. It’s Sigiball, and it works pretty well. And, oh yeah, we have Clint Dempsey on our team.

It should have been obvious from the get-go that Clint Demspey would be at his best in MLS as a second striker in a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1. Remember how Fredy Montero used to play? yeah, drop Dempsey into that role and pull the chain.

Obafemi Martins is obviously a more than capable versatile center forward. It’s a finer point lost on most of Sounderland last year that neither Oba or Eddie Johnson were SECOND strikers; both were center forwards and that rarely works, chemistry-wise. Sure Oba seemed to *play* like a second striker but that’s also subscribing to the ideal of the one-dimensional center forward, which has gone virtually extinct outside of MLS. The difference between the two strikers has been formalized as the “default” formation in soccer has morphed from the 4-4-2 into the 4-2-3-1.

In fact, 4-2-3-1 is exactly how I would describe the Sounders formation on Saturday. The main reason for the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 is that it is very loosely defined. Frankly, its how the vast majority of contemporary 4-4-2 teams ended up playing. It fits Sigiball to a “T”: in fact I would argue that if not for our increasingly antiquated positional and formational nomenclature Sigi has *always* defaulted to a 4-2-3-1. The difference between 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 with two holders and a CAM in the central triangle is virtually indistinguishable when facing off against each other. Except for his brief forays into the diamond – which have never stuck for more than a handful of matches – Sigi Ball has never strayed far from 4-2-3-1.

Sigiball loves its Wide Attacking Midfielders; they have often been the defining feature of the attack. Sigiball uses four attacking players, but his choices at WAM this year seem startlingly limited at the moment. What we have now seems a far cry from the likes of Steve Zakuani, Alvaro Fernandez, or Mauro Rosales who used to man the position.

Both Neagle and Cooper are demonstrably better when employed as one of the two strikers in a 4-4-2, but according to the tenants of Sigiball this doesn’t matter. They are capable attacking players; they both give a good effort and have chemistry with their teammates. Thus the starting WAM’s are the third and fourth choice strikers. And if that just puts that much more pressure on the central holding midfielders then that’s why we have Osvaldo Alonso.

After Neagle and Cooper we saw that the fifth choice striker, Chad Barrett, is apparently the fourth-choice WAM. While this may seem the epitome of a square peg for a round hole, as long as Barrett can continue to provide late-game contributions to the scoresheet it seems unlikely Sigi will change his patterns. The only true WAM on the team – in a nominal sense at least – is Marco Pappa. It should be noted that in Pappa’s combined 44+ minutes the last two matches the Sounders have scored four of their seven goals and allowed none.

Neagle and Cooper were easily the two least effective Sounders for their time on the pitch, and only an incredible moment of generosity from the referee saved Neagle from being sent off in the 2seventh for his second yellow card. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, as the first half devolved into a bit of a shit show for the Sounders with a flurry of fouls and cards. Their recklessness culminated in a ridiculous swinging arm foul by Yedlin in the penalty area which helped grant Dallas their halftime lead. Dallas were hardly innocent victims in a pretty ugly first half, with 11 fouls and two cards to go with Seattle’s 12 and 3. Overall, each side committed 19 total fouls on the evening, a high number for even an MLS match.

Fortunately for Seattle, Dallas was wasteful with their numerous set pieces and squandered multiple chances in a first half they pretty well dominated. Dempsey’s free kick equalizer might garner consideration for Goal of the Year, take that away and its as ugly a half of soccer as we’ve seen from the team this season. While Dallas were a bit fortunate with their “shit happens” wind-aided first goal on a Stefan Frei mistake, they absolutely deserved to be ahead. The first half would end with six of 11 shots on target for the home side, while Seattle had only one other first half shot off target aside from Dempsey’s stunner.

Speaking of that wind, Kasey Keller sounded like a broken record on the TV commentary, urging us to consider the havoc the wind hath wrought. As it would turn out, he was right.

The first-half passing numbers were telling, with Seattle a pretty lousy 103 of 150 (.687) against FCD’s 151 of 212 (.712). That’s not a great percentage for Dallas but the Sounders were able to do very little with those turnovers. The second half was quite another story, with Dallas going 133 of 202 (.658) vs Seattle’s 201 of 263 (.764). The tables had turned with the change of ends at halftime. Now the Sounders were buzzing around the attacking end menacing the Dallas goal. The eventual equalizing own goal was quite fortunate but inevitable given the flow of the match. Dempsey had earlier rocked a shot off the crossbar on a chance that might’ve surpassed his first half effort had it found its way in. Stephen Keel’s own goal came after some sustained pressure eventually resulted in another “out of ideas” cross from Pappa eventually bouncing to Dempsey, who earns a de facto “assist” with a troublesome ball across the face of goal with eyes for Oba – who certainly looked offsides on the play (Barrett certainly was).

Five of Seattle’s nine shots were on target in that second half, but Dallas still managed to create opportunities by trying to break the Sounder’s defense with some intricate passing sequences. The Sounders were successful in keeping Mauro Diaz off the ball for long stretches in the second half, but the Dallas danger man still created some menacing opportunities of his own after the equalizing goal. Stefan Frei, despite his gaffe, was up to the challenge the Dallas attackers presented all night and must be credited for several good saves leaving the door open for the Sounders.

Dempsey would have one more statement to make with is game-winner, setting up for a lay off from Oba then a wall pass with Barrett to break open the Dallas defense. But that which is a triumph for Dempsey is a triumph for Sigiball. This is Joe Roth endorsed determination and “running through walls” with equal parts individual brilliance from perhaps the best American footballer ever. It wins games and grinds out enough results to keep the team in contention for silverware.

It’s still pretty hard to say where we go from here. It’s worth asking, windy or not, when this team is going to put together a complete performance for 90 minutes. At the same time, it hardly matters with 10 points through a pretty tricky opening six matches. Their current points per match rate has them on pace for 57 points for the season, good enough to match Portland’s Western Conference leading total from last year.

A looming question is where Brad Evans fits back into this. We’ve all witnessed Gonzalo Pineda play his way into a virtually default spot in the starting XI, but I’m left to wonder if his spot is solidified if and when Evans returns. Pineda’s distribution was a little too errant for a second holding midfielder on Saturday. It stands to reason that he would take a few more risks in his passing than Alonso, but his 76 percent passing percentage is a little low for someone at his position.

For that matter neither Cooper nor Neagle’s spots should be considered secure. I would be tempted to put Pappa back on the left in place of Neagle, but Cooper has been almost entirely ineffective as a WAM in the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1. Despite the result, there is no real reason to believe this is a lineup that can succeed in the long term. At the same time, Sigiball has won plenty of MLS regular season games, and where there is a will there is often a way. As long as Dempsey can produce, Ozzie can be the midfield rock of the team, and the back four can avoid too many mistakes, there is every reason to believe this team is a contender in the West.

Up next the Sounder get to visit a Chivas side featuring one Mauro Rosales, and my immediate thoughts go towards the potential matchup between him and the perpetually underrated left back Leo Gonzalez. Rosales has been a key man as the RAM in the 4-2-3-1, and striker Erick Torres is second in MLS behind Dempsey having scored five of their seven goals.

Seattle has given up the second-most shots per game so far this season with 15.8 – although they are well behind RSL with 18.7 – while Chivas has allowed the third fewest with 10.8. However, Chivas has also taken the second fewest shots per game at 10.7, ahead of only Dallas, and they have put only 20 shots on target through six matches, tied for worst in the league on a per-game basis. Chivas are also the second-worst possession team ahead of only Toronto, and have committed the second highest number of fouls per game with 17 (behind – you guessed it, SKC). Chivas has also only been called for offsides six times this season, also fewest in MLS on a per-game basis. It’s also worth noting that the Sounders have won the highest percentage of aerial duels so far at 59.8 percent, although they only stand fifth in total aerial duels won per match.

Next Saturday’s match in LA should be looked at as an excellent chance for another favorable road result for the Sounders. After disappointing with only three of a possible nine points in their first three home matches, in these early stages of 2014 the team looks to return to the road warrior ways of 2011 and 2012 when they were at the top of MLS in points gained in road matches. Chivas though were good enough for a road point in drawing the disappointing Timbers last week, so Sigiball will need to be in full effect if this team expects to take maximum points from last season’s Western Conference doormats.