Editor's Note: The following is the third in a series of features looking back at the Seattle Sounders' season, broken down by position. Here's the first in the series, examining goalkeepers and the second, which takes a look at the Rave Green's defense. Look for more in the series this week on SoundersFC.com.
The midfield is the engine room. It is neither the genesis of the attack along the back, nor is it the face of the goal itself, an honor more often than not reserved for the forward line.
In this sense, the midfield is more like the wheels of a given team than anything else. Consumers don’t buy a car because of the well-greased wheels, and it isn’t the first thing you notice, but it’s impossible to run a car without them. And in 2015, Seattle operated for much of the year with at least one depressurized tire.
Defensive midfield cornerstone Osvaldo Alonso missed all of March and June, most of August and all three playoff games through injury. Tricky winger Marco Pappa, who tends to play on both flanks in a given game, missed half of July for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and a league suspension took a six-week chunk out of his season in late July and August. Gonzalo Pineda battled injury early in the season. Transfers Andreas Ivanschitz and Nelson Valdez, both of whom played most of their matches on the wings of the 4-4-2, also battled injury in truncated seasons.
That reality was so present that Brad Evans, who’d been moved to center back before the season, was pulled back up into the central midfield in June when Alonso went down again. Rookie Cristian Roldan platooned in the middle as a partner with Pineda and Alonso as well as on the right flank. Erik Friberg was added in June to prop up a battered central midfield.
Ultimately, Seattle’s midfield at season’s end was utterly unrecognizable from the group that started the season. And it still managed to form the backbone for a postseason run that came an eyelash from advancing to the Western Conference Championship.
Once Alonso returned to health in April, Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid’s first-choice midfield included Pappa on the left, Pineda and Alonso playing off each other in the middle, and Lamar Neagle on the right. Six months later, by the time the playoffs arrived, all four positions had turned over due to roster additions, injury or form.
Ivanschitz, with his crosshair-accurate free kicks and lethal left foot, had taken over the left wing. Valdez, who started his tenure with the Sounders at forward, had settled on the right. And Friberg paired with Andy Rose in the middle for all three playoff games, an unlikely duo earlier in the season that found a rigid defensive shape and grew in confidence as the postseason progressed.
It was perhaps due to these changes that Seattle struggled at times in the summer to define its shape. While the space between the back line and midfield was never really a question, central midfields without Pineda and Alonso paired together tended to have trouble connecting with the forwards. Without Clint Dempsey - who missed most of the entire summer - Seattle became increasingly more direct.
That was troublesome at first, but eventually the midfield adjusted and settled into a more back-to-front, direct style of play. By September, a more arrow-like counter-attacking approach with Alonso’s partner bombing forward became the norm, and Seattle went unbeaten in 11 matches before being dumped out of the playoffs in early November.
Using a wider postseason lens, the Sounders’ midfield was a mixed bag in 2015. On one hand, players like Alonso displayed an intensity of play the team sorely needed in the postseason. Alonso completed nearly 93 percent of his passes in 2015, which was the best number in MLS by four percentage points, a significant lead on the field. Pineda averaged north of 54 passes per game, the 11th-best total in the league. Ivanschitz and Valdez gradually became indispensable threats on the edge, grafting themselves onto the club’s plans going forward.
But there are some critical questions to be answered this offseason at the central midfield position, more so than any other spot on the field. Club leadership allowed after the season that it is listening to offers for Alonso. Pineda is now 33, and he became more and more of a role player the closer the team got to the postseason. Rose and Friberg worked as a stopgap late, but neither is all that comfortable as a dedicated No. 6, preferring to run box to box in lieu of breaking up attacks.
One rookie who proved he earned a spot on the team going forward was Roldan, who improbably fell to the Sounders at No. 16 in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. The University of Washington product did a bit of everything this season. He played deeper as a central holding midfielder, played as an advanced creator against the Philadelphia Union during the summer, and most notably slotted in at the wide midfield positions later in the season.
Roldan even played left back in the frantic final moments of extra time in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals against FC Dallas. In a sure sign of his versatility, he kept Michael Barrios from scoring or assisting on another goal.
There’s little question that even though both are on the other side of 30, Valdez and Ivanschitz have the two wide spots in the midfield locked down for the foreseeable future. If Pappa is kept around, Seattle has all the depth and talent it needs on the flanks. The question then turns again to the central midfield.
Dempsey proved late in the year that he’s best if he doesn’t drift too deep into the midfield to collect possession, and the team’s direct approach late on allowed him to largely stay off the shoulder of Obafemi Martins. Still, Seattle is best served with a dedicated holding midfielder next to more of a barnstorming box-to-box player capable of driving into the heart of the opposition’s defensive midfield. That provides the link for possession soccer, and it’s not something Seattle was able to rekindle after such a fantastic start to the season.
Will Seattle retool the midfield in the offseason or simply look to perfect the system with the pieces it already has? Plenty of questions left to be answered in the coming months.