Brian Schmetzer’s lineup hit with the concussive force of a neutron bomb. Everyone knew the Seattle Sounders’ interim coach faced changes, but like this? No one quite saw this many of them coming.

The Sounders had just two full days of rest between their Knockout Round victory over Sporting Kansas City and their first Western Conference Semifinal leg against FC Dallas. This fact guided Schmetzer’s thinking, meaning a small shuffle was likely to preserve legs and give fresher ones the opportunity. But the lack of fully healthy Roman Torres and Andreas Ivanschitz made life difficult.

In the attacking third, Schmetzer crafted an entirely new battle plan. He’d shown more predilection for giving Nelson Valdez minutes than his predecessor Sigi Schmid, and so Valdez started up top. But the lineup sheet showed Erik Friberg in the central attacking role with Nicolas Lodeiro wide right and Jordan Morris on the left flank.

It was unorthodox to say the least. And it led to an eight-minute cloudburst of goals that gave Seattle a 3-0 edge heading into Sunday’s second leg in Frisco, Texas (6 p.m. PT; FS1, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM).

To get at the heart of why Schmetzer’s experiment was so bold, you have to understand what he did. Friberg is not a wide player, nor is Lodeiro. So the fact that one was displayed as the right attacking midfielder in this setup was something of a lark. Lodeiro actually finished the match playing inside Friberg, who cannot (and will not) stay wide.

This clogged the central channel and tilted everything to the left flank toward Morris. This is where, at least on paper in the pregame reckoning, the trouble was located.

Morris’ positional history this year is a reflection on his rookie status. He started the season shoehorned into a right winger in a 4-3-3 that was supposed to be for Obafemi Martins. When Martins departed for China in February, Morris was the natural replacement. He played the first three games of the year in that 4-3-3 right wing slot with Valdez in the middle and Clint Dempsey on the left. All three games were losses.

Morris was largely ineffective in this particular role. Given the fact that he was a rookie, and that he’d been playing exclusively as an over-the-top forward at Stanford for the past three years, you understood. So when then-coach Schmid trotted out Morris as a center forward for the first time against Houston in the fifth game of the season, it marked a significant turning point in his season.

Since that Houston game on April 10, 22 of his final 27 regular-season games were played as either a center forward in Schmid’s 4-3-3 or as the lone striker in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1. The lone departures were not particularly fruitful. Under Schmid, Morris played right winger eight times, and Seattle went 1-7-0.

Schmetzer largely scrapped the project, but not before throwing Morris into a brand new blender. In his first game in charge, a 1-1 draw against the LA Galaxy on July 31 (which also happened to be Lodeiro’s debut), Schmetzer tried Morris at left attacking midfielder for the first time all season. Morris was, unsurprisingly, positionally awkward and routinely found himself joining Valdez as a pseudo second striker.

As you can see by his average positioning map, Morris (13) didn’t stay wide at all.

Brian Schmetzer’s tactical gamble pays off as Jordan Morris’ shift wide yields best performance of season -

It was a short-lived endeavor. Schmetzer tossed it almost immediately, returning Morris to the lone striker position he’d begun to occupy naturally under Schmid. Morris was reinstalled as the forward in the very next game, a smashing 3-1 road win over Orlando City in which he had two assists to Dempsey, and played the next 14 games in that role. Partly with the added attacking juice provided by Lodeiro, the Sounders went 9-2-3.

That streak ended on Sunday against FC Dallas. So you can understand some of the slightly surprised glances at the lineup sheet.

Morris had already played nine of his 32 games this season on the flank, so it wasn’t as though he was entirely unfamiliar. But only one of those was on the left, and it was not a performance to remember. Morris didn’t stay wide, only even attempted 25 passes and didn’t so much as get off a single cross, successful or otherwise. As good as Morris has been as a goal-scorer this year, the skepticism wasn’t exactly unwarranted.

But if Schmetzer has ever proven his bonafides as a tactical manager, he did it here. Remember that previous average touch map the last time Morris played at left wing? The one where he tucked so far inside he might as well have been a striker?

Get a load of this, from the FC Dallas game on Sunday.

Brian Schmetzer’s tactical gamble pays off as Jordan Morris’ shift wide yields best performance of season -

That No. 13 high and wide on the left is of course Morris, who turned in maybe the most impressive shift of his season considering the stakes and playing out of his natural position. He still didn’t get in any crosses (an unlikely eventuality on the left considering he rarely uses that foot), but his determination to stay wide and provide a rip-roaring outlet to challenge FCD’s right defensive flank made all the difference. It gave Lodeiro an outlet to switch the attack, which was especially important because there were basically no wide right options save an overlapping Tyrone Mears.

All three of Seattle’s goals were generated from Morris’ flank, which was no accident. And the Sounders’ second goal was only possible because Morris hugged the left touch line and made himself available for a lung-burning run off a leading Valdez touch.

Morris is still best as a forward, which is where Schmetzer will seek to deploy him in the best of circumstances. But with its unique schedule and late-season injury impact, the playoffs are rarely played under the best of circumstances. Morris’ emergence as a legitimate threat on the wing makes the Sounders that much more dangerous as they push toward their first ever MLS Cup.



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