Thoughts from Sounderland — Humiliating the Feckless Royals

Only one side came to play this table-topping fixture, so as gleeful as the 4-0 whipping was, how much can we really read into it?  Sure, Seattle was without Dempsey, Yedlin, and Traore — but RSL were missing their top two strikers, their starting CDM, keeper and their best center back.  The team that RSL did bring came prepared for a slog, perfectly happy to muck their way through a 0-0, but the home side had other ideas.

Before we got to the good stuff, we had to endure an awful opening half-hour which saw 14 fouls and a sum total of one shot at goal.  The game eventually started to open up for the Sounders and they got their breakthrough just before half time, when a combination of determination from Lamar Neagle and careless, reckless defending from RSL granted Gonzola Pineda the opportunity to put his side up 1-0.

After Marco Pappa extended the lead shortly after halftime with an expertly taken free kick, the Sounders had a chance to pad their stats against a battered and beaten opponent.  Chad Barrett got a well-deserved goal after Neagle was able to get loose on the dribble and suck in a free defender, opening acres of space for the chance.  Cooper came off the bench to hit Oba for a far-post tap in to pour salt on RSL’s wound just before stoppage time to complete what amounted to a walk in the park on a gorgeous late spring Seattle afternoon.  While RSL did hit the woodwork — although there were down 3-0 at the time — the Sounders left more goals on the field.  It could have been worse for RSL.

Roster flux

We finally got to see Barrett play as a forward after being used primarily as a right attacking midfielder, a position that doesn’t exactly flatter his skill set, and he did his job well.  Is there more to ask out of him?  Barrett plays within himself, never trying to do to much and minimizes his touches on the ball in order to maximize his impact.  Best of all, he’s a natural partner to a striker like Oba, who prefers the ground game and is rarely going to win an aerial duel against a center back.  That’s not to disregard Barrett as just a battering ram either — he has a job to do and he does it well, whether its hold up play, wall passes or just making himself as a target in the final third.

Meanwhile Kenny Cooper came off the bench and replaced Barrett in the 62′ and provided three key passes in his limited time, which lead the team.  Cooper is obviously a valuable asset, but is he a *necessary* asset?  The Sounders certainly didn’t need him yesterday — couldn’t Cam Weaver have come off the bench and helped finish off the game?

The scuttlebutt in Sounderland was the team needed depth at center back.  With the loss of Traore — and it strikes me there is a possibility he may not return this season — the team now needs a STARTING center back.  If we are looking to add a potential impact player — at least one who we could envision stepping into the team and starting within a couple weeks of training at the max — then we have to consider what we are willing to concede.  Kenny Cooper takes up $265K of cap room, and even though that may not be how much the player we need may cost in salary, we may need to be willing to give up a certain value in a player.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but Cooper is the most the valuable, least necessary player we have.

This isn’t an indictment on Cooper, who is a player that would almost certainly attract attention if made available.  Adding his name to the scoresheet as often as possible — as he did on Saturday — can only benefit the Sounders.

World Cup preview

My No. 1 player to watch in Brazil will be Andrea Pirlo of Italy, the 35 year old central midfielder for the Juventus side which laid waste to Serie A this season.  Pirlo is a man who has come to define a position: the regista — aka the “deep lying playmaker.” Italy will prove to be one of the most tactically flexible teams at this summer’s tournament, but at the center of it all — regardless of formation or personnel — will undoubtedly be Pirlo.

The kicker is he’s already won the World Cup in 2006.  He’s already had an international and club career which puts him up among the elite players of his generation, but guiding Italy to a second World Cup will place him amongst the elite players of all generations.  He’s recently written a book titled I Think Therefore I Play and is variously dubbed “l’architetto,” “il professor” and “Mozart.”  It should be fascinating to watch as he takes the reins for Italy — who must always be considered contenders and face a tough test in the group stage with England and Uruguay.

Meanwhile at Camp Klinsmann

Bloggers and broadcasters continue to talk about the alleged “diamond” formation being run by the USA in their two warm-up matches so far.  RSL run a diamond, with a very compact and structured back seven players — the “wide” mids are a pair of box-to-box players essentially lined up no wider than the center backs.  The CAM pushes high as an attacker, giving the diamond more in common with a 4-3-3 (specifically 4-1-2-3) than a 4-4-2.

What the USA run is, well, pretty much a classic 4-4-2.  The “diamond” moniker that won’t go away is due to the liberalization of Michael Bradley, who is allowed more freedom of movement due to the fact that his partner — either Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman — is being asked to stay put as the fifth defender in the “W” shape in defense.  So the reason we are being asked to buy into the new “diamond” is that Bradley and Jones (or Beckerman) no longer play a “double pivot” in a 4-2-3-1.

Of course, I’ve never been a fan of the double pivot nomenclature to begin with, as most double pivots are a CDM — ie the fifth defender — alongside either a regista or a classic box-to-box player.  Bradley spent some time with Roma in Seria A — if I were to send an American abroad to study for that role I would certainly send him to Italy — so he certainly has an understanding.

Furthermore, a true diamond doesn’t suit the other midfield personnel as neither Zusi or Diskerud on the right nor Davis or Bedoya on the left are at their best as wide mids in a diamond.  These players are all primarily WAMS — or at least that’s how they fit into the USA’s scheme.  Even Julian Green (who wasn’t picked ahead of Landon Donovan because Green is a midfielder and Donovan a forward — or so we are being asked to believe) fits into the team as a WAM.

So we have none of the elemental traits of a diamond midfield. Bradley is not a CAM, and the outside mids are WAMs and not a pair of box-to-box CMs.  So why are we calling it a diamond?

Men of the match

Getting back to things more local, Chad Marshall was the Man of the Match according to whoscored.com’s player rating system.  This is the third match in the last five that he has appeared in where he has been MotM.  On Saturday he won nine aerial duels — no one else in the game had more than four and RSL as a team had 10.  He also had five interceptions — also most in the game and one more than his CB partner Zach Scott.  He managed this without committing a single foul.

Marshall is now whoscored.com’s third highest-rated player in MLS so far this season, behind Mauro Diaz of Dallas (who is out indefinitely) and Clint Dempsey.  He is third in aerial duels won per match, behind forwards Steven Lenhart and Rob Friend, and is winning this duels at a 73 percent clip — a higher win rate that anyone else in the top seven in the league.

On the other end of things is RSL ‘keeper Jeff Attinella, who was awful on Saturday. He helped make the mess on the first goal — although again equal credit must be given to Neagle’s hustle play, and the real crime was Aaron Maund’s stupid challenge that was whistled for the foul (Neagle was facing away from goal and had nowhere to go with the ball). On Barrett’s goal he actually read the play and got himself in position to make the save, but couldn’t — watching that replay I just can’t help but feel like Rimando would’ve made that stop.  On Seattle’s fourth he did little more than wave at Cooper’s pass through the six-yard box to Oba — you can tell by his exasperation and Nat Borcher’s anger that it was his ball to take another step off his line and scoop up.  On a day when RSL needed their backup ‘keeper to step up, Attinella failed.

While Oba, Pappa, and Barret were all enjoying their afternoon against a meek RSL defense, Lamar Neagle had a very Neagle-esque performance. We already know he won’t add much to the distribution and possession games — but he doesn’t really need to.  Against the stifling diamond, he was 6-12 in passing and was dispossessed five times on just 33 touches (by way of comparison Javier Morales — who was pretty well contained all game — was dispossessed three times on a game high 97 touches).  Out of context these are astonishingly poor numbers, but he had an assist, a de-facto assist by earning the penalty and as usual put himself in the right place at the right time often enough to have a positive influence on the game.  Even defensively he isn’t necessarily a liability. I’m going to call it the Neagle effect — despite his often underwhelming metrics, the team is *better* when he is on the pitch.

Some more idle thoughts, bullet point style

• As I watched the RSL foul total methodically march toward the 20 mark, it occurred to me that if MLS wanted to clean up their game a bit they might consider actually punishing excessive fouling, and there are two fronts on which this could be combatted.  First, force teams to play a man down after the 20th foul — this wouldn’t be any one player getting a red card, but rather a sort of “fouling out” situation where the offending team would be forced to pull a player — at the manager’s choice — if they exceed the 19 total foul mark.  The other would be that on any players fifth foul he receives an automatic caution.  While I will be the first to admit that MLS is unlikely to adopt these types of rule changes — given that FIFA wants the game played the same way everywhere in the world (and for good reason) it strikes me that this is the sort of “outside the box” thinking that MLS actually needs to improve their product.

• Marco Pappa is down on the free-kick pecking order, behind Dempsey and Pineda at least, so I found it somewhat amusing that he literally took the ball out of Neagle’s hands and placed it for his free-kick that staked the Sounders to a 2-0 lead.  It seems like he had been waiting for this chance for a good while, and he executed it to near perfection.  It was a sublime strike which broke RSL’s back.

• Proving that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, lowly Montreal ended New England’s seven-match unbeaten run — which included five straight wins — with a 2-0 win over the weekend.  On the subject of unbeaten runs, the longest in the league now belongs to the Vancouver Whitecaps who are currently on a 3-3-0 streak, good for 12 points over that span — just one less than Seattle.  The Whitecaps ended the Timber’s own 3-3-0 streak with their Cascadia Cup victory in Portland.  Meanwhile Dallas continues to plummet in the midst of eight straight without a win. Since opening the season with four wins and a draw, they have lost 7 of 10 and have just five points to show for it.  Out East, SKC continues to hang in the mediocre conference despite being on a 0-2-3 streak in their last five.

• Speaking of the very lively looking Vancouver Whitecaps, they have now surpassed the Sounders as the leading team in shots on target, with 73 in 12 games (6.08 per match) vs 82 in 14 (5.86).  Seattle is still the most fouled team in MLS, suffering 15.8 per match.  Seattle has also been steadily moving up the charts in defensive takeaway numbers, ranked fourth in both tackles and interceptions per match, and are third in combined tackles and interceptions behind Montreal and Toronto.  It so happens that Montreal and Toronto are two of the worst teams in possession this season in MLS, while the Sounders rank a respectable seventh.

• I realize its a fool’s errand to try to engender any real sympathy for Sounders opponents, but again on Saturday we saw another team hold a player out of the game due to concerns about the X-Box pitch.  RSL manager Jeff Cassar made the tough decision to leave CB Chris Schuler out of the lineup, ostensibly because of ongoing foot issues and an impending double week with matches both Wednesday and Saturday.  The condition of the X-box pitch — widely considered substandard by opposition coaches and players — is an issue most of Sounderland would prefer to sweep under the rug, if not outright deny.  My question is, why?  The standard answer is that if prominent players don’t want to play here, then that only increases our chances of winning. But is that *really* the best way to grow soccer in America?  One of MLS’s most marketable teams, that plays every League home match in front of a crowd that is double average attendance, shouldn’t be playing on a questionable surface.  To my mind, this has nothing to do with sympathy for the opposition.  The people who pack the stadium every week deserve better.  Maybe that’s not a popular take on what many around here would be consider to be a non-problem, but I don’t care any more.  The bad turf is a problem we should stop ignoring.

Looking ahead

The Sounders have taken a commanding lead in the MLS table, at 2.07 PPM the gap down to second — RSL at 1.85 — is the single biggest gap between any two teams in PPM across the League.  At this point the Supporters Shield has to be the stated goal of this team going forward (we’ll worry about MLS Cup once the playoffs start).

With one more match before the World Cup break the team will travel to Chicago — Bridgeview, actually — for a very winnable match against a very middling side that have drawn 7 of their 12 matches this season.  With RSL making up their game in hand this week, and now five points back, a draw would guarantee the Sounders stay on top — although RSL could draw level.

Last season the Fire were the very definition of a direct team, and so far this year they aren’t strayed too far from that course.  They concede possession but not a lot of shots, and create a lot of shots for themselves without needing a lot of passes.  This match will present a clash of styles that the Sounders will need to win.  Chicago will be traveling for a midweek road match at Colorado, so fatigue could be a factor for them.

As good as this team looks right now, in MLS the next pratfall is only ever a match away.  Last weekend we saw the hottest team — the Revolution — lose to the worst.  The MLS is built around mediocrity, all in the name of parity, and it takes extraordinary luck, ability, or both (it’s usually both) to pull away from the field like the Sounders have.  It was just four weeks ago we saw a rather brutal regression to the mean in the Mother’s Day massacre.  The soccer gods may be considering giving this team something to think about before the break.  Ponder that possibility while enjoying your free haircut this week.  Once on top the imperative is to stay there.