Thoughts from Sounderland — Dempsey to the Fore

With the League’s best attacking player, Sounders are top of the table.

On Saturday we saw a brilliant performance on a sun-splashed afternoon that gave rise to great hopes for a wonderful summer of soccer. The home side lined up in what amounted to a very classic 4-2-3-1. Dempsey was certainly a 2nd striker but dropped very deep at times in the first half to help establish the passing and possession game.  Neagle and Pappa switched wings but both played pretty typical WAM roles, while Pineda and Alonso formed a distinctive layer with the fullbacks (while our outdated nomenclature insists on calling it a 4-2-3-1, it was for all intents and purposes a 2-4-3-1).

Colorado answered with a 4-4-2 diamond, albeit a bit of a lopsided one with Labrocca tucking in much more than Sturgis to help Mari at CDM.  Serna occupied the CAM role supporting the strike partnership of Buddle at center forward and Torres at 2nd striker.

That layer of fullbacks and holding mids helped Seattle control the game.  So often the quality of soccer comes down to the quality of passing, and Saturday was no exception.  The Sounder quartet of “proactive defenders” bossed the match, completing 270 of 301 passes – 89.7%.  The rough Colorado equivalent of Labrocca, Mari (replaced by Watts), and fullbacks Klute and Piermayr were 191 of 245 for 78.0%.

Of course, that only really tells half the story.  The other half is told in part by Key Passes, which are defined by OPTA as “the final pass leading to a shot at goal from a teammate” (assists are included in this number).  The Sounders generated 14 key passes vs. just 6 for Colorado; Martins and Pappa had 3 each, with Pineda and Dempsey each contributing 2.  In terms of quality and quantity of passing, it wasn’t even close in this match — a disparity that demonstrated itself clearly on the scoreboard.

On the other hand, the Sounders were just 1 for 19 on open-play crosses.  It has to be considered that crosses are a low-percentage play, the idea being that when they do work, a dangerous chance is often the result — and indeed the one successful cross was an official key pass by OPTA standards.  The idea behind the crossing game is often one of volume: by continuously banging the ball into the danger area eventually you are going to create chances.  Of course, it never hurts to send in a cross to keep the opposing defense honest, or if one is simply out of other avenues.

For much of the first half the Sounders were very patient in their passing and buildup. We have seen this team struggle to turn possession into meaningful attacks, instead relying on forcing turnovers and mistakes from which to launch quick strikes.  This seemed to be the case Saturday, until just before halftime they got their breakthrough.  Oba sent a through ball for Dempsey — who, it must be said, took advantage of some pretty poor positioning by Colorado’s back line.  Clint Irwin, left completely exposed by his defenders, aggressively charged off his line but Dempsey evaded him and got off a shot that the scrambling Drew Moor managed to keep out of the goal, only for Lamar Neagle to knock in a simple tap in.  For the second straight match, Neagle put himself in the right place at the right time for an easy goal.

All that good passing leads to shots, and the Sounders outshot the Rapids 20-10 on Sunday, putting 13 on target, against just 4 for the visitors.  It was Oba and Dempsey — as expected — leading the way in that department with the dynamic duo taking 11 of the 13 SOT’s.  Dempsey placed 5 of his 7 shots on frame while Oba was 6 for 6.  The only other two shots on frame were Neagle’s goal and Pappa’s shot that created the rebound for Dempsey’s first goal just after half time

The Sounders lead MLS with 6 SOT per match, ahead of LA Galaxy at 5.6 and against a League average of 4.45.  In fact, the Sounders also lead the league in percentage of total shots on target, placing 48 of their 114 total shots on frame good for a 42% rate, just ahead of RSL at 41.3%, and against a league average of 34.5% (worst is San Jose, with just 27% of their total shots on target).

It’s pretty easy to assume that any time a ‘keeper gives up four goals it wasn’t a good time, but Irwin looked pretty shaky Saturday.  In the 18th minute, he spilled a long-range Dempsey effort and an alert Oba nearly converted the rebound.  It has to be said the Sounders second goal came as a result of a keeper error.  Oh, but what about that clever little flick pass from Dempsey to open up Pappa for the shot attempt!  Dempsey did what good attacking players will do and was there to slam in the rebound, but Pappa’s shot wasn’t too strong that Irwin could’ve corralled it.

On Dempsey’s second, it seemed as though Irwin was caught off his line just a bit, although it was an inches-perfect looping header. And, frankly, who doesn’t love a bit of a double-header corner kick conversion — Pineda to Marshall to Dempsey to 3-0.

It’s tough to play ‘keeper when your defenders play poorly, and that was certainly the case on the fourth goal when a quick throw in from Neagle helped Oba cut through the Rapids defense like a hot knife through butter.

For whatever reason, Sounderland was a little concerned about Pineda a couple weeks ago.  In fact, I questioned his passing percentage and wondered if perhaps he might lose his spot to a healthy Brad Evans. Well, he certainly showed all of us. Pineda was excellent, and the two-man Ozzie and Pineda show looks to have the potential to be able to take on opposing three-man midfields and get results.  The Sounders simply eviscerated the Rapids diamond Saturday.

Pineda also lead the game with five tackles, and contributed five interceptions and nine recoveries. Then there is his value taking set pieces. If not for Dempsey’s performance, Pineda’s game was worthy of Man of the Match consideration.

Those enjoying the current MLS table may want to overlook the goals against column for the moment.  Twelve goals allowed in 8 matches isn’t terrible, but it could be a lot better.  Colorado had 2 “big chances” created by through balls, and they scored on one of them (OPTA defines a Big Chance “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range”).

Seattle is still allowing the second-highest number of shots on goal per match with 14.9, virtually even with Dallas at 14.8 — another team with 16 points through 8 matches and 18 goals for — but well behind RSL at 17.1.  Obviously when your team wins 4-1 no one wants to harp on the defending, but at some point the Sounders team defending needs to improve.  For now, we won’t worry about it… for now…

In other news:

Have the Sounders finally perfected the MLS business model? My thoughts after the match Saturday took me back to November of 2012, when the Sounders were ruthlessly dispatched 3-0 by an LA Galaxy side featuring the strike combo of Keane and Donovan.  After that I was forced to conclude the key to MLS success is to spend DP money on goal scorers, then build a team of 8 guys and a good-enough keeper who can grind it out behind them.  This requires a mix of specialists and skilled players but no small amount of running fast and trying hard.

Then, of course, last season the two most system-driven teams in RSL and SKC – both lacking “big money” DP’s – played for the MLS Cup.  Portland – another team in that category – finished top of the West, but NYRB won the Supporters Shield with Cahill and Henry.

The focus in MLS is certainly meant to be on a few star players, and the league seems to intend to function on sort of a “trickle-down effect” of greatness – hoping the brilliance of the handful of Donovans, Dempseys, Keanes and Henrys will reach down to lift up even the lowliest of league-minimum salaried players.

From an economic standpoint, the rather tight-fisted budget policies make it incredibly difficult to build a roster with any real depth.  This keeps the league model of competitive parity alive and well, but laughs in the face of anything resembling payroll parity. As revealed by the MLS PA earlier this month, Dempsey makes more than the total payroll of 15 of the 19 MLS teams, and makes just over half – $6.7M to be exact –  of the $11.8M total 2014 Sounders payroll for all 31 players.

In fact, the League’s eight highest-paid players (Dempsey, Bradley, Defoe, Donovan, Keane, Henry, Cahill, and Di Vaio) make $39M of the total League payroll of $115.3M – that’s just a tick over 1/3rd.

As good as those eight supporting-cast players looked on Saturday — and as important as some of them are to the team’s success — make no mistake about it: if the Sounders win silverware in 2014, it will be Dempsey and Oba (the 9th-highest paid player in MLS) that lead them there.

  • Reading this article today got me thinking.  American big-league sports leagues are run by and for the owners.  The League Commissioners work at the behest of the owners, the league’s business offices are essentially (or literally) “non-profits” representing the League owners’ interests.  Sure, sometimes the other owners decide they don’t like a guy and take away a Super Bowl that had been promised to the previous owners (the NFL agreed to hold a Super Bowl in the Kingdome when the Nordstrom’s owned the Seahawks but rescinded it because they hated Ken Behring) but they rarely will really do anything to hurt one another.  Despite rhetoric of regret at the moving of the Sonics out of Seattle, 28 of 30 NBA owners approved the move – the only two “nays” coming from Paul Allen (Trailblazers) and Mark Cuban) Mavericks.

Most of the North American Big League Sports leagues are monolithic.  The NFL is for all and intents and purposes one and the same with professional tackle-football, the NBA and NHL run sports with global footprints but are both recognized as far and away the top leagues in the world and even use different rules (and playing surfaces) than their international counterparts.  Major League Baseball is, well, major league baseball.

But soccer is truly a global enterprise, more so than any other sports venture.  The MLS imports concepts from abroad for marketing purposes like naming teams Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, not realizing these names are sniffed out as the work of poseurs by most educated soccer fans. Names like this have actual meaning where the come from, and aren’t just something cute to put on a scarf.

Another MLS affectation is the “F.C.” you see latched onto the official names of teams — or in two cases the entire team name itself.  Obviously this stands for “Football Club” which is all well and good until you consider that the MLS franchises are in no way, shape, or form anything resembling a “club” from the perspective of the soccer-football world.

MLS franchises, in fact, go a step beyond their more monolithic cousins and are still considered part of the “single entity” of MLS. This lends the MLS even more of a “central planning” vibe, more so than the strangely quasi-socialist realm of the NFL

So its all fine and dandy to be told the Sounders are a club of and for the people, since it can at least be true in a metaphorical sense particularly because we have a decent ownership group (for now).

Having said that, It wouldn’t surprise me that the MLS central planning committee pulled some strings to put Seattle and Toronto in position to win silverware this year.  So we have that going for us.

  • Next week we get our first midweek action as the Sounders pull the Saturday-Wednesday combo at home against Philly then Dallas before heading to a Mother’s Day match in New England.  As such, I have no idea how I’m gonna do this, but rest assured I’ll have something to say.

Before getting to that mouth-watering Dallas match we must deal with Philly, which is unfortunate because it’s a matchup I can’t get all that excited about.  Philly, lets face it, aren’t that good (but are still better than Portland) with just one win and five draws in their first nine matches.  Of course we all know how fortunes can change in the jungle of parity that is MLS.

Philly is of course the home of Maurice Edu, who played for the USA in the 2010 World Cup, and former Sounder Sebastien Le Toux.  In looking for something to note about this team I saw that on they list “defending against skillful players” as a weakness.  While normally we would be licking our chops, one must wonder what sort of squad rotation Sigi might have in mind for the upcoming three matches in eight days. Oba has played all but 10 of the possible minutes so far this season, while Dempsey had a bit of a break in the second half of March.  At some point it makes sense to give a rest to Marshall, Alonso, and Yedlin — who are the only players aside from Oba who have started all eight matches.

At any rate we get at it at 7:00 this week so no need for beers before noon.  In the meantime enjoy the week in sunny Sounderland.