When Sounders FC Head Coach Brian Schmetzer addressed the media after training on Tuesday, he was peppered with questions that centered on how the team will cope with the absence of Defender of the Year finalist Chad Marshall.
Marshall, who underwent meniscus surgery Tuesday morning, was substituted during the first half of Leg 1 in Portland. For most teams, this would be a devastating blow that immediately derails their postseason ambitions. But with Román Torres, the captain of the Panama national team who guided his country to its first ever World Cup in 2018, the Sounders have a more-than-capable replacement ready step into the starting lineup, as evidenced by his dominant second-half display against the Timbers.
Torres' interceptions (blue), clearances (purple) and recoveries (yellow) from Leg One against Portland.
“That’s one of the reasons why we brought him here in the first place back in 2015, because he was a big, big player, said Schmetzer. “He has shown that over the course of his time here; he was such a big part of our success. That’s one of the reasons we signed him.”
According to S2 Assistant Coach and Sounders FC Broadcaster Wade Webber, who played center back for the Sounders from 1994-96, it’s a level of defensive depth that is unmatched throughout the league.
“When you can drop in an international captain at center back, that’s a positive,” he said. “It’s unusual to have the luxury of having someone like Román come and fill in. There is not a single team in MLS that would not start Román Torres. So, you can’t bring a guy like that in and not feel comfortable about your team’s defensive capacity to do what’s needed in Leg 2.”
One tactical decision that arises from Marshall’s absence is whether Kim Kee-hee or Torres will slot in as the left-sided center back. It may seem inconsequential, but few right-footed center backs are as comfortable in the build-up phase from the left side as Marshall.
However, any potential disruption in possession will largely be mitigated by Osvaldo Alonso, who regularly drops into the left back spot so Nouhou can push higher up the pitch, even with Marshall in the lineup. So, regardless of whether Kee-hee or Torres lines up on the left side, they’ll consistently have the Sounders’ captain, who completed 92.14% of his passes during the regular season, as a simple outlet in possession.
The other tactical wrinkle presented by Marshall’s absence is the individual roles within the center back partnership.
When Marshall and Kee-hee line up together, the latter often tracks forwards into midfield and defends on the front foot, while the former shades across and covers the space in behind. Torres shares a lot of defensive characteristics with his Korean counterpart, but with Kim’s abundant pace and tactical awareness, he will likely occupy the Marshall role as the cover defender. And while Portland forward was effective in his hold-up play for large chunks of the first half, he struggled to cope with the Panamanian center back's physicality and willingness to battle for the ball.
“Román might be a little rusty, but he’s a game guy,” said Schmetzer. “He sees a lot. He reads the game well. And the safety valve is [then] Kim Kee-hee.”
Tense aggregate series are often determined by which team capitalizes on set pieces and individual moments. As Torres has shown time and again – whether it’s his penalty in the 2016 MLS Cup, his last-gasp goal for Panama to book qualification for the 2018 World Cup, or his assist on Clint Dempsey’s 94th minute equalizer against Portland in 2017 – he knows how to step up when his team needs him.
“Torres is known for big moments in big games,” said Webber. “He won’t be intimidated this stage at all.”