Central midfield keys Seattle Sounders to crucial win over Chicago Fire

The postgame celebrations were subdued. Some handshakes, a few smiles, some short nods from the sideline to acknowledge the win. There was nothing in the wider body language to indicate this was anything other than a routine win at midweek over the team with the worst record in MLS.

But the undercurrent flowing beneath it all was far more significant. Indeed, Wednesday’s win was the Seattle Sounders’ most momentous of 2016.

For the first time all year, Seattle is above the thin red line. At least for the next few days, the Sounders are officially inside the playoff picture.

The Sounders dropped the visiting Chicago Fire 1-0 on Wednesday to fully close the gap on the Portland Timbers and take up occupancy in the sixth and final playoff slot with four regular season games left. That includes a game in hand on Portland, meaning the Sounders could conceivably be at least three points up on Portland with another win against visiting Houston on Oct. 12 if the results fall right.

The bottom line, though, was that another pillar fell in the Sounders’ almost miraculous late-season surge to the postseason. Here are three things we learned on Wednesday.

Nicolas Lodeiro Owns the Night

As much as the Sounders might have outwardly trudged on without complaint in the wake of Clint Dempsey’s announcement he’d miss the rest of the season, it was hard to ignore the wider impact. That left a gap in between Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris the Sounders would have to account for, and you don’t simply lose someone like Dempsey overnight and expect to improve.

It almost seemed like Lodeiro heard the message, because he was ubiquitous on Wednesday. In the first half, 44 of his 50 total passes came in the Fire’s half of the field. That’s 88 percent, a frankly ridiculous number he hasn’t come close to hitting this year. At the end that number  fell slightly to 81, but consider this: Lodeiro ended up with 62 passes in the attacking half. That total was 13 more than any Fire player had period, and nearly more than any other Sounders player. The scoresheet won’t show it, but this was among Lodeiro’s finest holistic performances of the season. He ran the show without reservation.

Take a look here. Lodeiro’s heat map. That’s a lot of influence on the wrong side of the field from Chicago’s perspective.

The Fire had a tough job to do on Lodeiro, who’s less mobile than he is assured in his positioning. Lodeiro sets up shop where he wants to operate in lieu of driving into space. This dares opposing defensive midfields to step to his movement and push him deeper. A good defensive performance against Lodeiro isn’t denying him the ball - as the Fire often tried to do by jumping passing lanes - but to deny him positioning by pushing him deeper. That didn’t happen, and Lodeiro was able to basically go where he pleased.

Alonso, Roldan Partnership Bearing Fruit

Last year, the Sounders’ quiet, purring engine was oiled by the connection between Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda. The two shared an unspoken draw that linked them in the central defensive midfield in an almost preternatural way. The reason the Sounders were able to build from the back and knit together so many coherent attacks was almost always down to the fact that Pineda and Alonso were at the base of the attacking spine.

The full-time partnership between Alonso and Pineda’s replacement Cristian Roldan took a few months to crystalize, but in Wednesday told us anything it’s that the tie between the two has never been stronger.

On Wednesday, Alonso went 61-66 passing, while Roldan was 43-53. That’s a combined engine room of 104-119 passing. Those aren’t quite Pineda-Alonso numbers at their height, but it’s darn close. The key to this attack - under interim coach Brian Schmetzer as it was under Sigi Schmid - is to establish a baseline just above the back four from which to launch attacks. Before, it was Dempsey dropping in to facilitate - for better or worse - and now it’s Lodeiro. Either way, the Sounders operate best when they can use a double pivot to initiate the action. That’s why the 4-3-3 was such a struggle at times early this year, and why the 4-2-3-1 launched the team’s playoff-bound renaissance.

Here’s the compete combined distribution map for both Roldan and Alonso.

There’s just remarkably little fluff here. Both were accurate, measured, calm and well positioned throughout. The Fire surprisingly tried to press a bit at times, and neither were all that moved to mistakes. In fact, there were only three incomplete passes on the entire left-hand channel all night. That, friends, is efficiency.

Defensive Sloppiness on Counters

As much as the Sounders will relish the win and the fact that they’ve essentially brought the playoff race with Portland back to a level playing field, that doesn’t mean there won’t be moments for reflective improvement on the whiteboard this week.

As a tactical construct, the Sounders are one of the more susceptible teams to counters league-wide. Few teams push their fullbacks like this, with both Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears often setting up average touch positions north of either Alonso or Roldan. This helps stress opposition midfields, but it also opens pockets of space.

This is what that looked like against Chicago, which - as we’ve established with its work on Lodeiro - dropped deeper to then press and hit on quick-strike counters for most of the match.

As you can see, Jones (33) was high on the left while Mears (4) was stationed on average at the half field stripe.

At halftime, Schmetzer told the TV crew he was disappointed in how open the match had been at times. It was the only way the Fire had chances going the other way, when the Sounders would break down in their attacking sets and leave space for a quick, hurtling chance going the other way. It was often less than organized from Chicago’s perspective, but they still managed to create a few tense moments.

There were a few in the last couple minutes, and perhaps the scariest was a free kick Jones gave up just outside the box that Arturo Alvarez fired into the side netting. The Sounders managed to get off the field without being bitten, but closing down on counters before they become dangerous should be a point of emphasis on transition defense this week.

Still, the win was as impressive as it was impactful. Another three points, another step closer to the playoffs.