The Seattle Sounders will travel north of the border on Friday to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps (7 p.m. PT; Q13 FOX, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM) in their first Cascadia clash of the season.
Vancouver enters at 1-3-1 and is coming off a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake in a snowstorm and a midweek loss to Tigres UANL in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Carl Robinson’s squad is rather banged up offensively at the moment, with Brek Shea out indefinitely and Erik Hurtado nursing a foot contusion, but the Whitecaps are still capable of scoring at home, as they showed two weeks ago in their 4-2 win over the LA Galaxy.
So if you’re the Seattle Sounders, who also have just one win in five matches and are coming off two hard-fought draws, how do you take down your Pacific Northwest rivals on the road?
You send to contain Alphonso Davies on his side of the pitch, prevent Vancouver from hitting on the counterattack and send runners down the flanks offensively.
The Whitecaps utilize the same 4-2-3-1 formation as the Sounders so much of what Seattle will see will look similar to how they line up in practice. The ‘Caps love to push outside fullbacks Sheanon Williams and Jordan Harvey forward. The offensive midfield trio of Cristian Techera, Christian Bolaños and Alphonso Davies love to stay compact in the center of the park along with defensive midfielders Andrew Jacobson and Matias Laba to make room for their overlapping fullbacks.
Here is how the Whitecaps will likely line up on Friday:
KEEP DAVIES OUTSIDE
Davies is similar to his Sounders formational counterpart Nicolas Lodeiro in that the 16-year-old Canadian loves to work inside and interchange with Bolaños. Davies’ movement is steady and fluent and rarely if ever parks himself wide. His constant lateral motion means back lines need to be communicating tirelessly, either running with him or ensuring marking responsibility has been passed off.
In the Whitecaps’ match against LA, look how far inside Davies starts during a throw-in on the far side of the field. He is on the other side of the penalty arc, leaving tons of room in behind him.
Then when the ball is won back by Vancouver, Davies is still on the opposite side of midfield and plays the ball wide to Techera to set up a great opportunity in the box for Bolaños, who has shifted to the right.
Here’s another example. Bolaños receives the ball and is attacking hard down the center of the Galaxy defense. Davies starts at Bolaños’ right, but rather than make a run out wide and let Bolaños go 2-v-1 on LA left back Ashley Cole, Davies opts to run against the run of play and into the space behind center back Jelle van Damme, freeing up Williams to sprint up the rear and take Cole out of the play completely. If not for great defensive tracking by midfielder Jermaine Jones, Davies would have been clear in on goal.
PREVENT VANCOUVER COUNTERATTACKS
The Whitecaps don’t pose too much of a threat from the normal run of play, but they love to hit the home run ball on the counter. Let’s take a look at the Whitecaps’ opening goal against LA. Cole has the ball 10 yards into the Whitecaps’ half and there is zero pressure on him as nine outfield Whitecaps sit deep behind the ball.
Cole, being the traditional British left back he is, decides to play in a long ball to the right side of the box. When a header off the cross is corralled by goalkeeper David Ousted, he releases a quick outlet pass to Williams, who has tons of space in front of him. Williams picks his head up and sees Techera with room behind the LA defense and fires a cross-field rocket. Young Galaxy goalkeeper Clement Diop makes a meal of the pass, sure, as Techera slots home into an empty net, but only because the run of Techera and the look from Williams has severely compromised LA’s defending.
Here is another example of how quickly Vancouver can get up and down the pitch. Galaxy midfielder Romain Alessandrini receives an opposite-field pass and one-times it to Jones, who is just yards outside Vancouver’s penalty area.
When Jones’ subsequent pass is cut out, the Whitecaps waste no time, getting the ball to midfield in just two touches. Hurtado coolly beats his man and is 2-on-1 with the final LA defender. Hurtado attempts an audacious midfield-length shot, but had he looked up, he had Techera wide open with 40 yards of space in front of him.
EXPLOIT THE GAPS BEHIND THE WHITECAPS FULLBACKS
Once you know how to stop Vancouver, the best way to attack them is in the vacant space on the flanks behind the fullbacks and out of the reach of the center backs. Let’s look at LA’s first goal against Vancouver.
Jones receives the ball at midfield and again, the Whitecaps have nine outfield players behind the ball.
So what does Jones do? He sends a beautiful cross-field pass into the run of Alessandrini, who has time to gather himself as Harvey recovers. Alessandrini takes Harvey 1-on-1, and without any adequate help cannot stop Alessandrini’s subtle move to free himself for a shot that beats Ousted near post.
The only way this will work is a team has a No. 6 capable of picking out 50-yard passes on a dime. The Sounders have two in Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan and a center back in Gustav Svensson, who continues to prove an offensive threat with how effective he is switching the point of attack.
Let’s take a look at another example of how vulnerable the Whitecaps are that pocket of space near the 18-yard-box extended. Cole has the ball just beyond midfield and is guarded by an oncoming Davies.
Cole passes to Jack McBean, while Whitecaps defender Williams has pushed all the way up on Emmanuel Boateng on the touchline. This forces center back Kendall Waston to try and close down McBean and leaves a giant hole in behind.
Cole recognizes this and continues his run past Davies, who is late to react. McBean slots a simple ball through and seemingly out of nowhere Cole is on goal.
Cole sprints to the end line and shows his class with a nifty move to get past a recovering Davies and then picks out Jones at the top of the box for a wide-open one-timed shot that just misses the target.
So how do the Sounders factor into this? The Whitecaps’ vulnerabilities match how Sounders left back Joevin Jones wants to play. Jones is arguably the best attacking fullback in MLS and is constantly searching to create opportunities down the left flank alongside midfielder Harry Shipp.
Let’s take a look at a play against the Earthquakes. Alonso has the ball in the middle of the field and sees Jones high and wide, farther up the pitch than even Shipp.
Alonso picks out Jones, and you can see Simon Dawkins communicating with Lima about whose responsibility Jones is. Jones gets the ball off his feet quickly before San Jose can react and whips in a cross that is just out of the reach of Morris.
There’s no absolute formula for success in rivalry matches, but if the Sounders can stay disciplined defensively, not allow the Whitecaps to counter and exploit the space afforded them on the wings, the Sounders may very well take three points back to Seattle.