I've been waiting for this game for weeks now, in anticipation of how the tactics would play out. This season has been two different tales for these teams. Seattle has been able to capitalize on their good combination play in their opponents half. Philly haven't. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have been on an absolute tear over the last couple weeks, combining with ease in the attacking third. Philly knew they'd have to stop that from happening if they hoped to have a chance in this game.
Final result: Seattle 2 - Philly 1
Philly center backs don't step with Deuce
Clint Dempsey has been dropping into the hole all season long to collect the ball, provide an easy outlet, and bring the midfielders into the attack. It was, quite frankly, amazing how much space he was able to find all game. Philly's center backs were simply letting him go and collect the ball so often that I lost count. Add on that Edu and Carroll were stepping high to Pineda and Alonso which gave even more gaps for Deuce to find the ball.
It seemed like Hackworth's instructions were to prevent Seattle's attackers from combining to get in behind the center backs. For the most part they accomplished this. However, Evans and Neagle (who was particularly poor on the night) gave the ball away so cheaply in the first half, that Seattle were killing their own chances more than Philly were stopping them.
Dempsey was involved in 112 actions according to the chalkboards. That is an absolutely ridiculous number for a forward. Those are defensive midfielder numbers. He happened to have more actions than anyone on Philly's team, but lagged slightly behind teammates Yedlin and Pineda.
Seattle's plan B is to find Martins in the channels
There were a few times where Seattle wasn't able to find Dempsey early because Philly's midfielders were applying adequate pressure in Seattle's half after losing the ball. When that happened, Seattle's strategy was to play the ball wide to Neagle, Yedlin, or Evans. When that ball was played, Martins would then run into the channels because Philly's outside backs had to step to the ball. The offball movement saw a shift from Seattle's outside mids to push up and play in the space a forward traditionally occupies, as well as Dempsey returning to play as a center forward.
It seemed like Seattle was often building up the right through this fashion, pushing Neagle up high. He's played as a forward plenty of times for Seattle and it seemed like Dempsey was comfortable dropping off into space again to collect the ball as Oba held the ball and allowed Seattle's mids to get forward.
Once Seattle had the ball in the attacking third, the attackers playing right on the defensive line almost always had their backs to goal. They looked to combine in zone 14 (the area right on top of the box) then make a run after releasing the ball. This is the meat and potatoes of how Oba and Dempsey have been combining all season and bringing in midfielders to distribute to wide before making runs toward the mouth of goal.
Nogueira finds space out right
The last game I previewed also included Philly and I highlighted how Nogueira was sliding out right to collect the ball in transition. The exact same thing happened against Seattle. With Neagle pushing up high in the attack and Remick providing balance to the defensive shape while Yedlin also pushed high, there was a giant chasm for Nogueira to exploit. He's been the key piece all season for Philly, but all season they've struggled to create and finish quality chances.
Philly looked like they wanted to counter when they won the ball, but once they got forward, the urgency of runs died. They were able to find the ball on top of the box plenty in this game after building through Nogueira on the right, but ultimately settled to blast it into Chad Marshall and rarely tried to penetrate Seattle's defensive line.
Just to compare to Dempsey, Nogueira had the most actions for his team at 105.
Edu a complete non-factor
Honestly, I hardly noticed he was out there. The announcers hardly mentioned his name. He generally looked in no-man's land in the middle of Seattle's empty bucket. He saw the ball far less than any of the other starting midfielders in this game and just didn't seem to be making those dangerous delayed runs to the top of the box like he was early in the season. If he's going to hang out in the middle, he's got to do a better job of cutting off passing lanes against teams who try to find the feet of the forwards like Seattle does.
Remick out injured, Pappa on, Evans to left back
A major key to the second half was how high Seattle's left back played defensively. We can't tell if Sigi gave those instructions at half time (I'd hope he did), or if it was Evans' intuition telling him to step higher. However, what we can tell is that it prevented Philly from building so easily down that side. Seattle dominated possession for long stretches in the second half. Evans stepping higher forced Philly to try to play through other channels, rather unsuccessfully.
The other piece of this was bringing Marco Pappa on. This took Evans out of the attacking positions (where Williams was doing an excellent job of pressuring him into making mistakes) and into an outside back position where you have more time and space. Pappa did his own part, finding opportunities to open up the field with a good switch or some simple combination play.
Don't let Dempsey run free or Seattle will win the possession and chance-creation battles. Because Seattle pushes so many players so high, there's plenty of gaps to exploit on the counter. Philly just weren't good enough (and haven't been all season) to do anything in the attacking third after finding the gaps in the middle third to spring a counter. They don't have excessive speed up top and they don't really try all that hard to play a possession game.
The Union kind of have an identity crisis in what exactly they want to be doing in the attack and they won't get many results until Hackworth picks a set of tactics and runs with it. Seattle, on the other hand, will just continue to keep throwing men forward to benefit from the combination play of Oba and Deuce and dare their opponents to outscore them.