Entering the match against Portland last Saturday, Sounders FC had some issues with defending counter-attacks against athletic forwards (think way back to Colorado and Vancouver). Although the club solved many of those issues, Timbers Head Coach Caleb Porter found a new way to counter.
He attacked the weak point of the diamond – the flanks in front of fullbacks. Both of their goals came from entry passes in a space where in the flatter 4-4-2 – typical to Sigi Schmid’s side – would have both a winger and a full back, now just had a full back. Sometimes one of the wide midfielders slipped back to cover that space when a full back went forward.
To give the Sounders a chance – a chance that must be recognized they have – they need to shore up that weakness while still generating the opportunities in attack that they had in leg one. There are two basic ways to do that.
The first method is a bit simpler. Don’t have the fullback or wide mid on the non-ball side cheat in quite as much as they did on Saturday night. This is easy to say, but harder to execute. It is natural to work towards the action. Full backs do this for two reasons. It gives the centerback on their side the ability to cover a channel a bit better and for themselves to cover within the 18 yard box.
It also makes the passes to them after their team wins the ball a bit simpler. That’s important for a team that is trying to push the action forward into the attack quickly, like Seattle does. They need simple passes that require just a single touch before being passed onwards. Extra touches result in the opposition reacting. A poor touch could force a long pass to dump the ball out rather than move it into danger.
More demanding on the team as a whole is to close space more quickly in the central third of the field. When those players for the Timbers are trying to switch the ball, they are less likely to succeed when under pressure. A mistakenly lofted pass gives the defense on the opposite side time to adjust. A complete mishit gets picked up by Osvaldo Alonso or another midfielder.
But this is physically trying. That level of pressure throughout the match puts strain on the shape and wears on the legs of the players involved. While some may be capable of doing this it could also reduce the effectiveness of the man at the point of the diamond. Clint Dempsey’s energy is almost certainly best used in the attacking third.