Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union - 03/08/2014

The Portland Timbers are the favorite of many to win some silverware this year. Last year's complete overhaul by Caleb Porter changed the playing identity of the Timbers to a possession-based side with a high line of defensive confrontation. Philadelphia Union, on the other hand, played very direct last season. They brought in several new players who look to put their stamp on the Union brand of soccer and get them back to the playoffs this season.

Final score: Portland 1 : Philadelphia 1



Philly attack up the right

The entire first half, Philadelphia was finding plenty of success attacking up the right side. Nogueira would frequently drift out wide to combine with both Le Toux and Gaddis. All three seemed to be trying to exploit the space between Fernandez, who was often pushed high or inside in possession, and Harrington. They were successful on their overloads, combining out wide before finding someone up the line or Edu in the middle. During the first half it seemed as though Philly was intentionally keeping the ball on their right side, rarely looking to swing the ball across the back to change the point of attack. Berry and Okugo were particularly guilty in not finding players out left as they would frequently ignore open players on the left (primarily Fabinho) and opt to play central or right.

In the second half, Maidana switched the the right. As much possession and space as Philly found there in the first half, they could have been a lot more dangerous from that area. Le Toux simply doesn't have a precise enough touch on the dribble or incisive passing to be the difference maker there. Maidana looks like he can be that player and the switch was a great move by Hackworth to attempt to exploit Gaston's lacking defense. 

Portland slow to transition to defense

This was a major factor in Philly's chance creation in the first half. Portland simply stunk at their transition after losing the ball. With Portland's possession style, they get plenty of players forward in attack. Last season, they were able to mitigate a lot of potential counter-attacks by doing two things simultaneously: place immediate pressure on the ball, and have their weak-side players and holding-mid pivot drop off. In the first half, they were ineffective at both.

Nogueira touched the ball more than anyone else on the field. That simply shouldn't happen against a team playing three central midfielders, especially when one of them is Diego Chara. The lack of immediate pressure on the ball allowed Nogueira to find gaps in the center of the field. It was exceptionally notable that there were yards of space for Philly to receive the ball in transition between the centerbacks and the holding mids. The centerbacks were correct in their decisions to drop off and leave that space because there was inadequate pressure put on the ball, which means the player in possession can find a ball over the top much easier.

Portland lack penetrating movement and urgency

Last year, Portland were known for their patience on the ball, waiting for an opportunity to find someone making a run in behind to slip a simple through ball to. They had the first part of this down, but there weren't many runs in behind. There was just no urgency anywhere on the field to penetrate lines.

Nagbe, in particular, was guilty of lack of energy. He seemed completely disinterested for most of the first half and was content to hang out 5-10 yards off the Union defenders. In the second half, he was switched to the left with the introduction of Alhassan for Urruti. He suddenly looked like he wanted to score. He made lots of good runs in behind and combined well in the second half.

Conclusion

Philly looked a lot better than I think they probably are in this one because Portland lacked intensity for large portions of the game. Their signings all look to be good pickups and should push them into playoff contention this year, at a bare minimum. Caleb Porter won't let Portland come out that flat next week and Portland's tactical awareness and technical ability will shine through.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

PRESEASON: Seattle Sounders vs. San Jose Earthquakes - 02/05/2014

Both of these teams have a lot of new faces that have a shot at locking down starting roles or first-choice subs. The first half saw lineups that were very different from what these teams put out last year. Both teams looked like they were playing the same general style as last year.

Final score: Seattle 2 - San Jose 1
Full stream available here 


SAN JOSE TRIES TO PENETRATE MULTIPLE LINES WITH ONE PASS

This should come as a surprise to no one who watched San Jose over the last two years. They look to get the ball forward, cutting out as many defenders as possible with one pass. Lenhart was his typical self, moving around to be a target forward and knocking balls down for his midfielders to run on to. However, that seemed to be the second option for San Jose to move the ball from the back 6 to their forwards. Billy Schuler was dropping deep into the hole created from San Jose's empty bucket midfield. They tried to find his feet early and then allow him to lay the ball off for a midfielder. Don't expect him to start as Wondo is just away on international duty.

Seattle allowed San Jose's defenders and holding midfielders to ping the ball around the back until they could find Lenhart or Schuler in a favorable situation. Pierazzi and Martinez kept the ball well by playing simply. Seattle had absolutely no urgency to try to win the ball until it was within their own half. That allowed San Jose to render Seattle's forwards useless by penetrating that first line of defense with a pass. Seattle was already up 2-0 halfway through the first half, so I imagine the urgency would increase if the scoreline was flipped.

COOPER AND MARTINS TAKE TURNS DROPPING DEEP

Kenny Cooper looked like a straight up baller in this half. He was the focal point of Seattle's build up as he was the one usually dropping into the midfield to collect the ball. He simply looked to combine with the midfielders and always presented himself as an option after playing the ball. I'm not sure how Dempsey's presence might change the way Cooper is deployed. It should be interesting to see if we play a diamond midfield, an empty bucket like we've seen for years, or maybe a switch to 4-2-3-1 is in order. Time will tell.

Martins also dropped into the midfield to collect the ball when Cooper was electing to stay high. The two of them did a good job coordinating who would stay high and who would go low. Martins would also just look to combine with the midfielders and found some success doing so with Neagle out left and also an overlapping Dylan Remick, who put in a great cross for Rose to head back across the face of goal for Oba's second goal.

SEATTLE'S WINGBACKS VS. SAN JOSE'S FULLBACKS

The two teams utilized their outside backs in two completely different styles. San Jose's stayed relatively deep, as the Quakes weren't trying to combine their way up the field. This ultimately made it more difficult for Neagle and Bowen to get involved in the game as they weren't able to exploit space behind an over-committed outside back.

Seattle's outside backs got forward and tried to overload San Jose's outside backs 2v1. Remick tended to get higher on overlapping runs than Anibaba, who tended to just be a wide passing option. The space was often there for him to run into as Bowen tended to drift high and inside much like we saw Rosales do last season to allow Yedlin to bomb forward. Anibaba didn't have any glaring mistakes, but I imagine Yedlin would have put himself in more dangerous positions.

SECOND HALF

The second half was full of reserves, substitutes, and rookies just trying to make the squad. Lots of sloppy play, misplayed balls, and miscommunication. Interestingly, San Jose played the second half completely different from the first and were actually looking to string passes together instead of just longballs to a target forward. They were much more dangerous in this half. They had a stand out performance from Colombian trialiast, Baena. I thought he was the best player on the field in the second half and was more effective than anyone else for San Jose on the day. If he plays like that consistently, I'd give him a contract. For Seattle, Long Tan had a couple decent opportunities. Other than those two, no one really stood out that much.

CONCLUSION

Seattle look like they will be a playoff team again this year, provided Obafemi Martins is healthy enough to play 3/4 of the games. The midfielders should have plenty of opportunities to get into the attack and score some goals. San Jose will be an interesting squad this season, and much of their success will rest on how well Lenhart/Gordon/Jahn can knock down balls for their teammates. Their wingers look like they will struggle to create much on their own. I'd place them just on the bubble of making the playoffs.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

PRESEASON: Portland Timbers vs. Sporting Kansas City 2/1/2014

Preseason is underway! Lots of new faces in many teams and lots of guys still trying to make their squads. These two teams kept their core intact, so there won't be a whole lot of changes for either this season. Kansas City, in particular, will look very similar to last year. Portland will be a bit different with the addition of Villafana (who I expect to start at left back with Harrington at right back for the season), Gaston Fernandez, and Norberto Paparatto.

Both of these coaches are system coaches who look to employ the same core tactics, regardless of opponent. SKC's starting 11 should already be familiar with how Vermes wants them to play. For the few new players Portland brought in for the season, Porter went and found players who fit the system (something I'm a huge proponent of), instead of finding players and then altering the system to fit them.

Final score: Portland 1 : Kansas City 1
Full game stream


BOTH TEAMS PRESS HIGH WITH A HIGH DEFENSIVE LINE

If you watched either team play much last season, this should come as no surprise to you. It is a tactic that worked well for both teams last year, as they were the two best defenses in the league. Both teams try to win the ball as high up the field as possible and spring an attack from there. Any time SKC cleared the ball away from their penalty area you could hear a coach screaming "UP!" or "STEP!" to make Portland work to break into the attacking third again. Both teams use their center forward to cut the field in half and try to keep play on one side of the field. That allows for the rest of the team to pack that side of the field to make it difficult for their opponents to find space to work in.

ATTACKING LEFT BACKS

 Both coaches encourage their outside backs to get forward and join the attack. In the first half, the left backs were especially attacking. However, they did it in very different styles. SKC had Sapong drift inside or try to get in behind, which allowed for Sinovic to run the line as he pleased. Several times, the SKC center backs tried to pick him out with diagonal balls unsuccessfully, despite the huge amount of space he often found himself in.

For Portland, Villafana saw fewer opportunities to get forward than his counterpart. When he did get forward, he looked to combine instead of looking to cross the ball and find someone for a header. In the latter part of the half, Alhassan (who had very little impact on the game) switched sides with Nagbe. When that happened, the Portland attacks switched from primarily the right half of the field to the left half of the field and Villafana pushed forward a bit more often.

BIELER AS A CENTRAL ATTACKING MIDFIELDER

Vermes employed Bieler as a CAM for the first half. This was one of the few surprises of the game for me. Bieler did fine in combination play, as would be expected with someone of his technical ability. However, his workrate remains a concern as he didn't find the ball all that often. I'd also be very nervous as an SKC fan if Bieler gets locked into this role, as it ruined the high pressure that SKC was using. He looked very uncomfortable defensively and didn't understand where he was supposed to be. Portland found lots of simple passes (Gaston moved to collect the ball then combine very well) to break the first and second lines of SKC's defense, who responded by conceding plenty of fouls. Expect SKC to repeat as the fouling champions of the league this season.

SECOND HALF

The second half was full of draft picks, reserves, and trialists. And it looked like it. The play was sloppy, and often looked like a high-level Sunday league game. There really weren't that many talking points about tactics in this half, as both teams often resorted to trying to send a long ball over the top for someone to run on to. Portland's speed of play was very slow and there wasn't much movement up top to receive the ball from the back. SKC were less patient than Portland and tried to find Sapong early and often. Neither teams were very effective in the second half.

Schillo Tshuma was the steal of the draft, in my book, and I was surprised he fell that far. I think he would fit better elsewhere (Colorado, Columbus, or Montreal) but he should see some minutes for Portland this year. He played the wide role differently than Nagbe and Alhassan did in the first half, choosing to stay wide almost the entire time. Portland tried to find him on through balls, and eventually found him on a brilliant, perfectly-weighted chip from Long (who also had a decent game as a calming presence who simply kept the ball for Portland) for a goal. Aside from those two, Peay looked competent despite his slow speed of play, and Kotlov had a few flashes of individual skill.

Kansas City played the second half with 10 men, after Collin was sent off for a second yellow, both for denying opportunities after he got beat. No one from Kansas City really stood out to me as having more than just a decent half.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Comparing MLS height bias to European leagues



Earlier this week I started to look at the issue of bias within the US soccer system based on a player’s height. While it was clear that tall players are favored over short players, it wasn’t clear whether that was true globally and to what extent. To do that, we'd have to look at other leagues around the world.

METHODOLOGY

I examined players playing within the league of their nationality to remove the potential issue of a league transferring in a bunch of short or tall players from abroad. It is widely accepted that height within a specific region (like a country) is normally distributed. So, I found average heights and standard deviations for 10 different nations in Europe to compare the US to so we can see if this is just an American issue. By using standard deviations, we normalized the data across nations to account for that particular nation’s height profile so it makes sense to compare different nations. For those who are unfamiliar with normal distribution and standard deviation or need a refresher, click here.

What I’ve done is created a category for players within one standard deviation of the mean in each direction and then another category for players who are more than one standard deviation from the mean. What we should see is about 68% of players should be within one standard deviation from the mean. We’ll call them “average players” in terms of their height. This was pretty close to true across the leagues. Where it becomes interesting is when we look at players that are more than one standard deviation from the mean.

Again, I will be using location quotients to compare the US to the European leagues. Smaller values (less than one) mean there are fewer players in that height group than should be expected. Values close to one mean there are about as many players in that category as would be expected. Large values (greater than one) mean there are more players in that category than should be expected.

HEIGHT BIAS IS PRESENT IN THE 10 EUROPEAN LEAGUES EXAMINED

The results show that, pretty much across the board, there is some bias toward choosing taller players (more than one standard deviation from the mean). This shouldn’t be that surprising as there are obviously some positions (mainly keeper and, to a lesser extent, center back) where it is advantageous to have a bit of height. Interestingly, Portugal and Italy have a pretty strong favor for tall players whereas Finland, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden don’t seem to care all that much about player height.


USA’S HEIGHT BIAS IS STRONGER THAN THAT OF EUROPE

Alright, so many readers peppered me with questions wondering about how USA stacked up against foreign leagues. Here it is: we have a higher likelihood to see tall Americans in MLS than what is experienced from these ten European nations, on average. On the flip side, we see a much lower likelihood of short players in MLS than in Europe. If we combine all 10 European countries into a single group, we see that it is roughly three times less likely to have a short player in the US than it is in Europe. Even with the inclusion of the relatively more tall-favoring leagues of Italy and Portugal, the USA had a higher concentration of tall players than Europe

Pretty damning evidence that the qualities valued in the US soccer environment are based more on physical characteristics than they are on soccer abilities.


In the next post in this series (likely sometime next week), I’ll be looking at where exactly the short players get weeded out from becoming pros in the top domestic league in the US.

Note: the leagues chosen for this examination were purely based on which nations had the necessary height data available and that I found.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Does MLS have a bias against short players?



Edit (12:10 am pacific, 1/29/14): Additional graphs added at bottom to show USborn players in MLS relative to US population and also Netherlands-born players in Eredivisie relative to population.

This post was inspired by a story about how Enrique Cardenas felt slighted by not being drafted into MLS speculating that he was too small. There was (as always) some decent discussion on the topic in reddit.com/r/mls that discussed whether smaller, technical players are squeezed out by MLS. MLS Analyst, Matt Doyle, is someone who I generally agree with his opinions and analysis, but our initial reactions about this topic differed – he felt that small players got a fair shake, while I felt they didn’t.

MLS PLAYERS ARE RELATIVELY TALLER THAN MALES AGED 20-29 IN THE US

It seems pretty obvious just by looking at the players on the field that they tend to be a bit bigger than the average guy. As an economist/statistician, the eye-ball test usually doesn’t satisfy me. The chart below shows the percentage of people at a given number of inches for both MLS players (listed as “active” on mlssoccer.com as of 2pm eastern 01/28/2014) and the US male population aged 20-29. It is absolutely clear that MLS players are taller than the general population. 


The height at which MLS players overtake the general population in terms of percentage of the total sample is from 5’11 and 6’0. My mind immediately thinks there’s two potential factors at play in this particular break. The first, is that MLS teams might fudge a player’s height by a tiny bit to list some players as 6’0 when they are really just under 5’11.5.  The second, is that MLS scouts have a mental propensity to think of guys under 6’ as “small” in the same way that people tend to think something priced $4.99 seems significantly cheaper than if it were priced $5.00.

NCAA PLAYERS ARE RELATIVELY TALLER THAN MALES AGED 20-29 IN THE US

Reddit user "wacksoff" suggested that the small players get weeded out earlier in the US development system than MLS. I looked at the height of all players for teams in the final 32 of the 2013 NCAA division 1 tournament and compared them in the same manner as I did MLS players in the above section. We find the same general trend of NCAA players being taller than the general population and there is again a big difference between 5’11 and 6’0. So, it seems pretty clear that the smaller players do tend to drop out before they get a shot at MLS.


MLS PLAYERS ARE RELATIVELY TALLER THAN NCAA PLAYERS

Alright, so we’ve established that MLS isn’t completely at fault for height bias. Do they share at least some of the blame? We can’t draw an official conclusion based on the data I used. This is largely because many players continue to grow into their early 20’s, so surely some of the shift from shorter players to taller players is simply due to the physical growth of those individual players. However, we can’t say for certain whether the entire shift is due to that or if MLS does indeed tend to have a bias in favor of taller players.



PLAYERS UNDER 5’9 ARE DISCOUNTED HEAVILY IN MLS

So how screwed are small players by their size? For this section I borrowed something from economics called a location quotient that is most often used to identify industries of importance for an area and is also very useful for studying demographics. It is a ratio of ratios that basically measures the density of one category in a particular area to the density of the same category in a different area. So, what we are measuring here is how much more (or less) dense players of a certain height are relative to the total population. Values less than one say that the density is lower and values greater than one say the density is higher. Players that are between 5’9 and 5’11 are pretty close to having similar densities within MLS and the general population, which means they don’t get any different treatment based on their size. Players that are 5’7 or 5’8 are at a massive disadvantage because of their height, with ratios of 0.35 and 0.61 respectively. That means a player who is 5’7 is about 3 times less likely to be an MLS player than would be expected based on the distribution of the overall population.



IS THIS A BAD THING?

This is a question impossible to answer based on the data I’ve used. Assuming technical and tactical ability are distributed normally across the US population, it makes some sense that there’s some bias toward bigger players since they should be able to simply do more things like push small players off the ball and win more headers. The extent of that bias is the real meat of the problem. Personally, I think the US soccer system discounts smaller players too heavily and instead focuses on physical attributes rather than soccer ability. This is based on my personal experience as a competitive boys U14 coach and women’s university coach. I plan to further explore the idea of US soccer discounting small players in a post to follow.

Note: US height data from the US Center for National Health Statistics

Additional interesting tidbits related to the topic:
  • There was almost no correlation between average team height and points earned.
  • The tallest team was Columbus at 71.96" on average
  • The shortest team was Philadelphia at 70.41"on average
  • Keepers were the tallest on average at 73.94" followed by defenders (72.13"), forwards (71.57"), and midfielders (70.01")
The data for "additional interesting tidbits" are for players with 200+ minutes played in 2013.

COMPARISON TO NETHERLANDS

A couple people on reddit wanted to see some comparisons to other leagues around the world. I only had time to do one tonight (finding and entering this data is time consuming).

This first graph shows MLS players who were born in the US compared to the US male population aged 20-29. Clearly, the graph shows that MLS players tend to be taller than the population, which is to be expected from our findings above. The second graph is Eredivisie players who were born in The Netherlands compared to the Netherlands male population aged 20-30. We find that Eredivisie players are actually shorter than the population, in stark contrast to in the US. I will be looking at more leagues as I have time, but this small sample size supports the hypothesis that small players are at a disadvantage in the US compared to large players in the US and when compared to small players in other countries (so far only proven true for Holland). This does not tell us when exactly they get pushed out of the game, but the NCAA data above suggests it is largely sometime in the NCAA recruiting process, high school, or even earlier.




Thursday, October 31, 2013

Seattle vs. Portland playoff preview

The dream match-up has been locked in. Seattle vs. Portland. Sigi vs. Porter. These are two sides who have a plethora of tactical options available to them, so I'm highlighting a few of the big ones in the build up for the Cascadia clash in the playoffs. The graphic is just my best guess at how the teams will line up.



Will Evans line up at right mid or right back?
This is the most important question from Seattle's side of the ball. When Yedlin had to be subbed off at half due to injury, Brad Evans was shifted to right back. This was the preferred option of just bringing on Zach Scott because of Deshorn Brown’s pace. Rodney Wallace isn’t nearly as quick as Brown, so I expect to see Scott start at right back if Yedlin isn’t good to go. 

Seattle’s new 4-3-1-2 is built around the attacking trio holding the ball up to allow the deeper midfielders to get forward into the attack. Evans is one of the best trailing runners in the league and Burch simply doesn’t have the acumen to make the proper runs while in semi-transition (we saw this last night on a breakaway in the second half where a simple diagonal run toward goal would have seen him 1v1 with Irwin, but he instead ran away to hide out on the left wing where he is comfortable.) If the Sounders are going to mount anything in attack, Evans has to be in the midfield, whether that means Yedlin is fit or Scott plays right back doesn’t matter.




Will Chara and Johnson sit a bit deeper to mark Dempsey out of the game?
The tactical and formation switch of Seattle is a clear message that the playmaking is on Dempsey’s shoulders as Rosales rides the pine. Dempsey was able to collect the ball all over the field against Colorado and bring other players into the attack while pulling the defenders out of their defensive shape. Portland has already shown the willingness to track Dempsey wherever he may roam as demonstrated by the tackle that separated his shoulder on the sideline last time these teams met. They’ll have to do the same again or Dempsey will exert his will on the game like was saw against the Timbers last time before the injury.
However, tracking Dempsey as he tries to find space means there will be space for Seattle’s deeper midfielders to make runs forward. Evans/Burch and Moffat will have to exploit the space left by Johnson and Chara tracking Deuce. Eddie Johnson and Lamar Neagle will have to realize their runs need to be timed off of Evans and Moffat collecting the ball, not Dempsey.

Will Portland’s wide forwards be able to pinch the field on defense?
A huge part of Portland’s success this season is the defensive responsibilities and execution of their wide forwards. They have played very wide and cut off the passing lanes to other teams’ wide players and forcing their opponents to play through the middle or send long balls (see the first half of the game vs. Colorado on 9/20 for an example of this in effect). In MLS, the trend has been for playmakers to play wide, so this tactic has cut off the supply to their opponents’ most dangerous threats. Seattle has elected to shift things central under Sigi’s new formation. The closest approximation to this attacking style is RSL, who have scored 7 goals over 3 games. However, Seattle are also more willing (and successful) than RSL to send long-balls into the corners for their forwards to chase. 

Additionally, Portland tries to cut the field in half on defense and trap their opponents to one side of the field. Seattle will have to either try to work in these tight spaces or they will have to try to open up through the middle and switch the point of attack. Seattle’s midfield plays very narrow with all 4 midfielders essentially playing as a center mid. They should have the opportunity to combine between them until they can release a fullback breaking forward or find a ball in behind Portland’s back line.

Will Portland’s outside backs get into the attack or sit deeper?
This is the follow up to the previous point. Last night against Colorado, Seattle clearly demonstrated they have no qualms about trying to catch a defender out by playing through the air for Johnson and Neagle to run onto in the corner. Harrington and Jewsbury will have to choose to get into the attack, which may be necessary for them to break Seattle’s defensive 8, or risk getting beat over the top.

Will Seattle’s narrow 3 defensive midfielders neutralize Valeri and Nagbe?
If Porter instructs his outside backs to play deep, that allows Moffat and Evans to stay pinched narrow and eliminate passing angles into Valeri and also clog the space that Nagbe likes to drift in to. Sigi Schmid doesn’t give much defensive responsibility to his forwards, which means Portland will have a bit of a staging area to build their attacks and find their attackers.

If Valeri and Nagbe are denied the ball, Portland’s attack won’t amount to much and they may end up just holding possession in the middle third without any penetration. This would put a lot of onus of collecting the ball on whoever ends up playing the striker for Portland.

Who will play striker for Portland?
This is probably the biggest question from Portland’s side of the ball. They have three very different options to play up top. They have Ryan Johnson, who has subpar finishing, but can try to get in behind Seattle’s outside backs when they venture forward. They have Piquionne who is their best option for hold up play while still being able to match up physically with Hurtado and Traore. They have Valencia who is more technically sound, but still has questionable decision making in a possession-based system. And finally, they have Urruti, who likes to drop into the midfield to collect the ball and distribute from there. 

Urruti may end up being the most dangerous option as Seattle’s center back pairing of Traore and Hurtado have had a lot of trouble this season staying connected when the forwards are dropping in to collect the ball. Traore in particular is willing to step very high to follow the forward and Hurtado (and subsequently Yedlin) often lags to slide over to fill the gap. A prime example of this is Kekutah Mannah’s second goal against Seattle. This leaves a lot of space for someone like Valeri or Nagbe to run into and run onto the ball to be 1v1 with the keeper.

Which coach will get it right?
Sigi has shown himself to be rather un-flexible tactically (I’m sure he’s terrible at yoga too) inside of games during his time in Seattle. Caleb Porter has shown himself to be able to make astute tactical changes, especially at half time. I’ll hazard a guess that Seattle’s new system will thrive early in the game as Evans and Moffat are able to find space between Portland’s fullbacks and wingers. I’ll also hazard a guess that Portland will make adjustments at half time to hold possession for longer spells. Ultimately, Seattle is the home team and has to get the result at home so they will go for it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Sealt Lake - 09/06/2013


This is the matchup I always look forward to most in the league. Both teams try to play attacking soccer and neither team is overly physical (except against Morales in this one). It often brings out some high quality games from both teams on both sides of the ball. There’s plenty of talent on both teams and solid role-players to complement their teammates. Unfortunately, Saborio was out and Dempsey and EJ were on the bench after returning from their national-team triumph.

Final score: Seattle 2 - RSL 0


Seattle’s forwards check deep to receive the ball and beat RSL’s pressure

The big story of the first half was Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle both checking back into the midfield to receive the ball from Seattle’s defensive third. Beckerman wasn’t able to cut off the angles to both forwards and the center backs for RSL could only hope to keep Seattle’s forwards facing their own goal.
This allowed Seattle to completely bypass half of RSL’s team and put them ahead of the ball on defense with a single pass – not a good thing for a defense. Seattle then sent their wide men streaming forward to exploit the space left by RSL’s wide midfielders would pinch in to pressure the ball. Seattle’s second goal is a perfect example of these points where Seattle’s forwards check back, RSL’s midfielder pinches in, and Seattle exploits the space on the wing.


Morales marked (and mauled) out of the game

From the start of the game, Seattle basically played to force someone other than Morales (and to a lesser extent, Plata) to beat them. Osvaldo Alonso and Andy Rose took it in shifts to always make sure Morales was pressured by two people any time the ball was played to him. Seattle’s holding mids chased him around the field, making sure he didn’t have time to pick out his passes. Even when he would drift wide to the side the ball was on, one, or often both, of Seattle’s defensive midfielders would go with him. That left a huge hole in front of Seattle’s defenders that RSL could have exploited, but failed to send the weak side midfielder or Beckerman high enough into that space to be dangerous.

Seattle basically dared Gil, Grabavoy, and Findley to try to beat their defenders 1v1 as Seattle paid close attention to Plata and Morales. RSL’s wide midfielders aren’t known for their speed or exceptional dribbling skills to take people on, and Seattle’s outside backs were able to not only stop them, but also win the ball and play out from the back for the vast majority of the match.

Seattle finds easy outlets wide

RSL’s diamond midfield tends to play very narrow. That means there is usually some space out wide for their opponent’s midfielders to collect the ball and start attacks. Seattle was able to immediately relieve pressure after winning the ball by finding easy outlets to wide midfielders, in addition to their forwards checking deep to receive the ball as highlighted above. Having two outlets for Seattle was a problem for RSL during the first half. Seattle was able to easily and quickly transition from defense to attack and let Obafemi Martins welcome Carlos Salcedo to the league by losing him on counter-attacks on multiple occasions. 

RSL switch to 4-3-3

Credit to Jason Kreis for recognizing that Seattle’s success on the wings was due in large part to their success in finding the feet of the forwards checking back to collect the ball and cause RSL’s defense to be pulled out of shape. He decided to switch formations to a 4-3-3 to push Grabavoy central and help Beckerman limit the service to Neagle and Martins in between the defensive and midfield lines. Switching from four midfielders to three was Kreis basically saying, “fine, we’ll concede the space to your wide players to make sure we can maintain our shape.” The tactic worked as Seattle was unable to find Neagle and Martins as first options. Seattle were still able to utilize their wide midfielders as outlets, but a player is far less dangerous with the ball out there than where Seattle’s forwards were collecting the ball in the first half. Sure, Seattle’s wide mids were able to find more time on the ball out there following outlets from the defense, but at least RSL was able to transition to defense and get men behind the ball – something they weren’t able to do consistently in the first half.

A side benefit of switching to 4-3-3 was having another man in the attack. This caused Seattle to change two things offensively. The first is the outside backs couldn’t get forward as often or as far. RSL’s outside backs were no longer regularly facing 2v1 or 3v2 situations. The second is Andy Rose wasn’t able to get forward into the attack as often and provide support or a late run into the box on counter attacks.

Conclusion

In the end, Seattle’s defenders were just individually better than RSL’s attackers on the day and prevented RSL from digging themselves out of the hole Seattle dug for them in the first half. Seattle’s movement up top in the first half was the key point to this game and RSL’s formation switch at halftime was too late, as the damage was already done.