Thoughts from Sounderland: We’re back, and we brought a cup

In winning the Open Cup, the Sounders have accomplished their tertiary objective for the season, with the primary objective being a Supporters Shield, hopefully followed by a playoff run to the MLS Cup.

While I certainly appreciate the importance that Sounders place on this historically significant tournament, I don’t believe the Open Cup is of relatively high importance to a great number of MLS teams.  As the Sounders learned last year, one of the more intriguing aspects of such Cup competitions are the opportunity it provides lower level teams to play and potentially beat higher level teams in a competitive match.  The USL Sounders were certainly adept at upsetting MLS teams in Open Cup play, and the history of success attached to the team name has been carried over to the MLS era, but now that name is on a first-division franchise capable of winning it on a regular basis.  The Open Cup has become an important part of the Sounders brand, and hopefully future successes in the competition become a part of the tradition of this team.

At the same time, I also think we need to be honest.  If this season ends in another bitter disappointment, and this team fails to win either the Shield of the MLS Cup, then this season can only be seen as a failure.

The primary value of the Open Cup is the CONCACAF Champions League berth attached to it, and I feel that if MLS and USSF ever take away that CCL spot, the tournament will fall into relative irrelevancy.

The CCL has been an important part of the development of this franchise, and it has been very disappointing to me to have missed out on qualifying the last 2 seasons.  Now that we’re back in it, and with a new MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement due this offseason, it’s time for MLS to allow some of their teams to break the proverbial chains.  Don Garber, et al. seem to think that marketing and PR will make MLS a “world class league,” but knowledgable soccer fans know this strategy is nonsense.  The cracks are already appearing by bending rules for certain teams — like the Sounders — so it seems like high time to start rewriting them or getting rid of them altogether and remove the chains of economic repression holding back some franchises in the name of blessed “parity”.  If Garber really wants a world class league this is how it will happen, and no amount of marketing and PR will accomplish what ambitious teams and success on the pitch will.  The Sounders are in a unique position to help take the MLS into that new era.

Meanwhile, unveiling a new logo is a transparent and insipid “branding exercise” that achieves absolutely nothing in the long run.

The Philadelphia Union should quite rightly feel as though the Open Cup slipped from their grasp, and they will likely rue their missed chances for some time.  I’m not positive about this, but I’m willing to believe the worst six or seven minutes the Sounders have played this season came at the end of regulation time.  Philly came agonizingly close to taking a late lead by jumping on several egregious Sounder give-aways in their own half in stoppage time.

Aside from that debacle that the Sounders were more than a bit fortunate to escape, this game followed patterns that are familiar to those of us in Sounderland. The Sounders are a team that is adept at playing small-ball with short passes and possession, but aren’t particularly good at creating chances with it.  Their best scoring opportunities usually come from quick attacks — often off of turnovers — and rarely from patient build-up play.  They end up playing the possession game as a form of proactive defending but then need to open up the game to try to create better chances, which then leaves their defense exposed.

In their win over Colorado a couple weeks ago, the Sounders demonstrated the efficacy of a “boring is good” possession-based approach against a bunkering team.  The win over Real Salt Lake was more a lesson in chance creation — and the Sounders created more and better chances than RSL, but let RSL enough chances to keep the game level.  The red card was a direct result of sustained Sounder pressure, but then they oddly went away from the type of passing game that could’ve better taken advantage of their extra player by playing an impatiently direct style.  Even the stoppage time game winner came off of an unsuccessful cross, with a dubious assist awarded to DeAndre Yedlin when he might not even have gotten a touch to the ball.

The RSL win also saw an absolute cracker of a goal from Lamar Neagle — evoking memories of his 2011 breakout season.  Neagle is an interesting case study in how roles fit into Sigi’s “4-4-2.”  Last season, he proved his mettle as a striker by providing a better partner to either Eddie Johnson OR Obafemi Martins than they were to each other.  In fact, 3 of the 5 Wide Attacking Mids that Sigi has used this season are really best used as one fo the two forwards in a 4-4-2: Neagle, Chad Barrett, and Kenny Cooper.

So what does this mean?  There is virtually no substantial difference between what the Sounders are running as a “4-4-2” and what you could except to see out of a team using a “4-2-3-1”.  Sigi uses 4 attacking players, and in the mold of Steve Zakuani, Neagle is an extra striker who fits into a WAM role in Sigi’s system.

It’s also worth noting that Brad Evans has excelled in his role as a WAM.  I was never sold on Evans as a WAM until these last few games starting with the 4-2 win in Portland. I would go so far as to say that either Marco Pappa and Evans *OR* Neagle and Evans as WAMs is preferable to Pappa and Neagle.  Plus, Evans can play either fullback spot and the box-to-box central midfield spot with Ozzie Alonso, although that spot has become the domain Gonzalo Pineda.

The true importance of Gonzalo Pineda is perhaps best described in that he is the first player the Sounders have brought in to successfully take Evans’ spot in the central midfield spot along with Ozzie Alonso.  It started with Pete Vagenas — although to say he was “brought it” isn’t accurate as they were both on the inaugural roster.  In 2010 Nathan Sturgis took the spot when Evans was injured, so again, he can’t really be considered in that regard.  But I’m relatively sure that Alvaro Fernandez *was* brought in with the idea he could play the box-to-box CM role, despite the fact he almost exclusively played in one of the outside midfield roles.  The Erik Friberg came along in 2011, but was gone at the end of the year, having essentially split the duties at CM with Evans.  In 2012 mid-season DP acquisition Christian Tiffert excelled in the box-to-box role, but for whatever reason parted ways with the team the following offseason.  That opened the door for Shalrie Joseph, who was mostly unreliable and underwhelming.  As an aside, remember how Sigi tried to use Tiffert as a second striker/CAM in that ill-fated 4-5-1 against LA in the 2012 playoffs, then for some baffling reason tried to play Joseph as a forward against Portland last playoffs?

At any rate, it feels as though Pineda has been the CM to play along with Alonso that this team has seemingly always been looking for.  This may seem to be an odd thing to say considering that the Sounders are clearly better with Evans in the lineup — because they absolutely are.

But Pineda, at this point, has my vote for ECS Player of the Year.  I believe that he was *the* key offseason addition, and his play and spirit exemplify what Supporters always want out of players.

Of course, Pineda is no spring chicken, and was probably over-used a bit earlier in the year, so it has been very once to get Andy Rose healthy and back into the rotation to deputize for Pineda.

A big talking point from the Open Cup final match was Yedlin’s impressive display of speed in hustling back to deny a Christian Maidana breakaway, but the play was a result of a rather horrific touch from Yedlin himself to present the counterattack opportunity.  I’d rather he not make the mistake in the first place and save that energy for overlapping runs into the attack.  Also, credit needs to given to Leo Gonzalez, who kept a good defensive angle giving Maidana nowhere to really go, which helped Yedlin make up those last few steps to win the ball.

Yedlin seems to have regressed a bit in his decision making since coming back from Brazil. In the attack he far to often just dribbles into dead ends, then is either dispossessed or ends up banging in a low-percentage cross.  He is a great athlete, but that only gets you so far — particularly in Europe.

The biggest takeaway from the Open Cup final is the scintillating strike partnership of Clint Dempsey and Oba, who once again demonstrated their worth in extra time.  Dempsey looked a bit out of sorts without Oba to work with, but its also hard to argue with the way Sigi worked the lineup on Tuesday night, and Chad Barrett’s abilities in the penalty area drew the game level shortly after half time.  If you are wondering “what about Dempsey” in the aforementioned topic of players brought in to take Evans’ spot, you’re just wrong. So wrong. I don’t know where to start.  If anything, Dempsey’s abilities as a classic second striker only go to demonstrate what an ill-fated idea trying to play him as a CAM behind two strikers was.  I would really rather not revisit this subject, so can we just move on?

I remember watching the L.A. Galaxy end the Sounders season in the 2012 playoffs and deciding that the key to MLS success was to spend your money on goal-scorers — ideally with a dynamic strike partnership who can control games like Keane and Donovan did in that 3-0 defeat in the first leg of that playoff tie.  Behind them you need to figure out how to build a solid squad of mostly supporting-cast players under the salary cap.  I would say the Sounders have done pretty well in following this model, and while they may not necessarily be making the most efficient use of their money (*cough* Kenny Copper *cough*) it’s hard to argue with results.  But let’s make no mistake about it: Dempsey and Oba are the reason we’re playing for the treble.

Why don’t we get actual kickoff times for Sounders games?  Last Friday night we were told the game was at 7:30, but kickoff didn’t occur until 7:53.  We are essentially being lied to — the game time we are given is when the broadcast starts, and depending on the length of the pre-game show inanities, actual kickoff can be anywhere from 5 up to 25 minutes after the time we are told the game starts.  Why is this?  The cynic in me says its because the networks want a game-ready crowd to help build the drama while they discuss whatever it is they feel compelled to discuss before kickoff.  All I know is that it it was pretty refreshing during the World Cup to see a game time listed as 1:00 p.m. and that’s actually when kickoff happened.  If you wanted to watch the teams walk out and anthems, then you knew to tune in 10 minutes earlier.  It wasn’t difficult to figure out.  So please stop lying to us about game times.

Also, a soccer team’s record is given as wins-draws-losses.  The American affectation of giving records as wins-losses-draws is incredibly annoying.  Can we stop doing this, please?  MLS, I’m blaming you here.  The Sounders current record is 17-3-7.  I would appreciate it if we would do this correctly.

The way that “power conference” big-time college football is set up is ripe for corruption.  It employs an almost anti-competitive caste system of rich and powerful “programs” that position themselves to stay at the top by any means necessary, sporting or otherwise.  The very notion of “parity” is almost entirely irrelevant, and there exists a bizarre world of power-brokers (or outright money-men) that have positioned themselves in key, if not somewhat tangential, seats of authority surrounding the game  But American’s love college football, and seem more than willing to put up with the confounding hypocrisies and philosophical inconsistencies that exist within – and in fact are inherent to – the framework of its higher levels.  In fact, if you added a system of promotion and relegation into and out of the so called “power conferences” it would be strikingly similar to how European soccer is set up.  Just something that’s crossed my mind since the start of tackle-football season.

As a final thought for this week, the recent debacle in the NFL has really got me thinking about what exactly the role of a sports league commissioner is.  The inevitable conclusion is that he works to protect the business interests of owners.  Our “big league” franchise model is a system where the leagues are run by an oligopolist cabal of extremely wealthy owners, and more and more I just find it strange that we do it this way.  As the superb book “Soccernomics” points out, soccer is “the worst business in the world” and soccer teams should really be treated more like art museums than grocery stores.  If Don Garber wants to talk about a new era for MLS then maybe this is something to ponder.  Maybe we can buck the trend of society and actually make “major league” soccer in America the people’s game.