I find it kind of strange that bitter rivals would schedule a preseason friendly against each other. This isn’t the first time these two teams have faced off when it counts for nothing but a bit of pride, and it didn’t stop a couple hard tackles in the spirit of this Cascadia matchup. Keep in mind that this was a preseason match and the players generally looked like they were still trying to find their rhythm and individual touch.
So far this preseason, Caleb Porter’s revolution in Portland looks exactly like most people expected it to – lots of combination play in the middle with a high-pressure defense. This was Seattle’s first pre-season match, but without wholesale changes to players or coaches, the same general strategy should be expected out of the Sounders. This game was played in three stages all based around wholesale changes to almost the entire squad of one of the teams.
Both teams came out in the general formations they are expected to play this season: Portland in a 4-2-3-1 and Seattle in a 4-4-2 with two deep center-mids. This first half of the game was mostly first-choice players for Portland and a mix of first-choice and first-subs for Seattle, as both were missing some players to national duty.
The main talking point in the first half was the positioning of Mauro Rosales, Darlington Nagbe, and Khalif Alhassan. All three wingers drifted centrally so we essentially had seven players trying to find the ball in the same space. This effectively eliminated time on the ball for the most creative players for both teams, making it difficult to link anything through the middle.
With Rosales drifting high and inside on the offensive side of the ball, it created space on the left of Portland’s middle third in transition. Strangely, this space was not exploited by Nagbe who struggled to find the game all day, but rather by Michael Harrington. Portland was able to find Harrington both in transition and on switches after circulating the ball to the right side of the field. Harrington wasn’t really able to do anything with all the space afforded to him aside from a couple poor crosses (and good central defending by Seattle) and generally playing too slowly to exploit the Sounders’ defense all sucking over to the same side of the field.
The other result from having so many players central was that Seattle chose to play long balls to the forwards or rely on Zakuani to beat players 1v1 on the left. This should be nothing new to Sounders fans as that style of play is how they played in most matches last season. The only difference was that last season the left mid tended to drift more central while Rosales was the creative player out wide. The tactic wasn’t successful in this game as Portland’s backs are big and athletic enough to muscle Ochoa and the diminutive Estrada while the ball was in the air.
Portland’s line of confrontation was also a key point in this half. Their line of confrontation was about 20 yards inside Seattle’s half, which is much higher than almost everyone else in MLS played last season (notable exception of Kansas City). Portland was able to unsettle Seattle’s defenders with the high pressure and didn’t allow them to pick out the forwards with accurate long-balls. Seattle’s line of confrontation was around the midfield line, pretty typical for MLS teams. This gave Portland’s defenders a staging area to collect the ball and find a midfielder’s feet without worrying about much pressure from Seattle. This allowed Portland the platform to start or continue their quick, short passing game and dominate possession. Seattle’s defense remained organized through the middle and forced Portland’s attacks to come from crosses which were dealt with by Seattle’s center backs well enough.
Portland ran out the same line-up in the second half while Seattle did a line-change and brought in a bunch of guys just trying to make the squad. The difference in quality of touch and decision making was apparent right away. Portland kept good possession for the bulk of this period in or near their attacking third, playing Porter’s desired style of short passes on the ground until someone picks their spot for penetration. Seattle was defending in two deep banks of four while their two forwards were strangely putting pressure on Portland’s back line. This created a big space for Portland’s midfielders to work in and circulate the ball from side to side. This ultimately led to a corner kick that resulted in a broken play and Seattle’s inability to clear the ball outside the 18 gave Portland a few shots on goal before finally putting one away.
At this point, Portland made a line-change of their own and brought us into the final stage of the game where most players will be spot-starters and substitutes at best. Estrada came back on for Meloto but played left mid while Burch shifted to left back and Remick switched to holding center mid. The play was sloppy and more about hustle than skill.
Portland employed the same tactics they had all game with short passes, high pressure, and wingers cutting inside. Seattle, however, were able to find much more joy in this period than the prior two. The Sounders’ outside midfielders stayed much wider and allowed a bit more space to combine with the central midfielders. Sodade and Bowen started winning some of the longballs out of the back. The outside backs started getting forward into the attack and creating 2v1 and 3v2 situations along the wings for quick and simple combination play to beat Portland’s defenders. Unfortunately, Seattle's positive play in this final period rarely resulted in possession in a dangerous area.
Ultimately, this was a preseason game and it looked like a preseason game. Seattle rarely was able to get anything going offensively due to Portland's numbers advantage in midfield and their high line of confrontation. Portland experienced some decent combination play in the middle of the field but their final ball was lacking and allowed Seattle's defensive unit to easily clear the danger. The players' preseason form caused a lot of sloppy touches which made this an ugly game to watch.