For a significant amount of time, stretching back to at least the beginning of the 2016 season, the Sounders have hardly had to spare a second thought for the defense.
While the attack thrashed in the dark for consistency over the first half of the season, the back four essentially picked itself. Allowing for a few injuries and form issues, Joevin Jones,Chad Marshall, Brad Evans and Tyrone Mears have been more or less unquestioned as the first-choice defensive front. It wasn’t perfect, maybe, but then again the Sounders’ defense was never really the issue pulsing at the core of Seattle’s struggles.
Things have changed.
The arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro dramatically altered the attack, so much so that it’s now become a secondary concern. The Sounders have 12 goals in their last six games, a 3-1-2 run that launched them back into the playoff race. In their 11 previous games before that run, they’d only scored 10, and half of those came in one deluge against FC Dallas.
The defense has not been quite as reliable in interim coach Brian Schmetzer’s six games in charge. In that span the Sounders surrendered nine goals and have yet to post a clean sheet. The results have largely been there, so the criticisms haven’t been as pointed, but it’s hard to miss the somewhat creakiness of the back line in recent weeks.
Luckily for the Sounders, they have an international break this weekend to tinker. And don’t be surprised if the back line you see in San Jose next weekend isn’t the old standby.
Let’s take a look at what might change.
Using previously held conventional wisdom, this is what a likely first choice lineup would be in the coming weeks if everything stayed the same. Note I’ve removed Clint Dempsey for the time being while we await news of his irregular heartbeat. This is essentially our jump-off point.
The return of Roman Torres at the half of the 4-2 loss against the Portland Timbers last weekend answered one burning question the Sounders could not have known until he hit the field. There was no way to know whether Torres would be 100 percent after missing nearly a full 12 months with a knee injury, but he was unquestionably the Sounders’ best defender over those final 45 minutes.
Torres has to start. That was never more obvious than it was on Sunday. And this is where things get muddy (and where the weekend off is a blessing).
Inserting Torres back into the XI means somebody has to sit. Which means Schmetzer will almost assuredly have to play with his back four, something he was no doubt itching to do anyway. In that instance, the question could come down to who’s the least malleable in terms of position. It’s at least one metric.
Six months ago, this question might’ve been easier to answer. Simply move Evans upfield to his more natural central holding midfield role and kick Cristian Roldan to the bench. That’s a much more difficult call to make now that Roldan’s established himself as a key contributor to the first team and a natural partner to Osvaldo Alonso. Even still, benching Evans is a difficult sell. He’s still first team quality and as the team’s emotional leader and captain, that’s probably not much of an option either.
So if Evans should start, and Roldan should start, and Torres should definitely start, where does that leave us?
Evans is the easiest to move, without question. He established himself as an international right back with the U.S. Men’s National Team, and he’s capable of playing either central or on the right in the midfield and not lose much of anything.
So what to do?
If Schmetzer wants to keep the back line more or less how it is, with the only change being Torres’ insertion next to Marshall, this might be his best bet. Since the right midfield slot left tenuous by Dempsey’s uncertain status is maybe the most malleable position, simply move Roldan to move Evans.
Roldan’s played here under Schmetzer before, notably in the midweek 1-1 draw against Houston. He will collapse the right to find the central midfield, but Lodeiro was doing that anyway when Dempsey was healthy and playing centrally. With this personnel the Sounders rely on fullbacks, not wide midfielders, to provide width and crosses.
If Schmetzer thinks this is enough to soothe the defense’s recent ills, he can probably stop here. It’s the most equitable formation to allow the regular contributors to keep their spots while shifting enough to expect more defensively. Evans hasn’t started in the midfield in some time, but your most comfortable position is something like riding a bike. It all rushes back pretty quickly.
But if it’s not enough of a defensive shift to satiate the coaching staff’s assessments, there’s another option. And it requires benching Mears.
Mears has had a good year on balance, and his forward runs have laid the foundation for a few quality chances in the last couple weeks. But there’s an argument to be made his choppy form over the last couple games and inability to play another position leaves him vulnerable to a shift if Schmetzer wants to shake things up. Further, Evans’ history at right back makes that an option, which means the formation could look like this.
The point here is that Torres’ reintroduction provides a nick-of-time outlet for a defense hunting a shutout as the Sounders reach toward the regular season finish line. In truth, the back line isn’t far off from recapturing the form that made it the league’s stingiest in 2015. A tweak here or a shift there and the Sounders could easily rekindle that flame.