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.

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