Match previews

Preview: Union at Seattle Sounders

Photo: Michael Long

After missing out on two chances to grab all the points from fellow strugglers, Philadelphia Union travel west to Seattle to challenge the hottest team in MLS. The Sounders’ front men have gotten a lot of the credit for the team’s good form, and the praise is deserved. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Seattle will have to rely very heavily on Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins all season, because their defense’s underlying statistics are a bit worrying.

The Union, beneficiaries of a hot striker early in 2013, have had no such luck this season. To challenge the MLS points leaders, Philadelphia will need to play fluid, communicative defense and learn how to counterattack.

The Seattle Sounders are in the zone. They have won three in a row off the back of a 4-4 tie with Portland. Their offense has struck a balance between speed and precision driven by Osvaldo Alonso’s absurd passing range and the constant movement of Dempsey and Martins. At Seattle’s best, they can turn an extended offensive possession into something that oddly resembles a counterattack, knifing through even compact and structured defenses. Watching them at work, it quickly becomes obvious why Clint Dempsey has one fewer goal than the entire Union squad.

Movement

It is the single skill that separates very good offensive players from the rest of the pack. Smart movement is about more than just finding space, it is anticipating where the spaces will be.

Grab your pencil and some scratch paper. Now imagine that Amobi Okugo has just received a square pass from Aaron Wheeler. Draw in where you think the rest of the Union team is.

Union typical offense shape

Union typical offense shape

Does your drawing look like the one on the left? The ideal option is to hit Edu on the half-turn. The backup options are Carroll and Williams. Thus far, teams that track Edu’s checking run and prevent him from turning have forced the Union into tight corners and created turnovers high up the pitch. This is very bad for the Union. When New England did not pressure Edu (most of the first half of that match), the Union blossomed. As soon as Lee Nguyen pressed the American midfielder, Philly looked lost.

Seattle does two things extremely well when they are in sync: First, they move the ball around the back with speed, eventually finding a space where a defender can play the ball into Alonso’s feet when he’s facing upfield.

Next, they are already making runs when Alonso collects the ball. And runs does not mean running away. It means that when Alonso looks up, he already has a short option and a square option. If any defenders have followed Dempsey too deep or overcommitted toward Alonso, he can quickly move the ball to Traore and Marshall who quickly flip it over to Gonzalo Pineda. These two steps happen with speed, meaning a poor defensive decision that leaves a hole in the formation will be punished.

Potential problems

Seattle was utterly, totally dominant against Colorado, particularly in the second half. But in their previous four matches, the Sounders were surprisingly vulnerable to a counterattack up the wings.

Well, maybe not so surprising. Seattle doesn’t deploy your run-of-the-mill wingers. Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa will ballhawk, and all that offensive movement comes at the cost of a quick defensive shell. So teams that can push quickly up the wings will find they can get good matchups against Seattle’s fullbacks, though Yedlin, Evans, and Remick are all good scrambling defenders in a pinch.

Although the Sounders average over 14 shots per game, they also give up over 14 shots per game. The biggest difference thus far this season is that Seattle puts their shots on net; they lead MLS with 6 shots on goal per game.

Additionally, the shots Seattle gives up are not good ones. No team in the league gives up a lower percentage of shots against inside the 18-yard box (51%). For comparison, the Union give up the joint highest percentage of shots in the box at 69%. This means that while Seattle gives up openings on defense, they protect the dangerous areas well. Shots from outside the box have a much lower chance of becoming goals than those inside.

Teams that like to get set up and play possession against the Sounders… well, they better get it right. Seattle had six interceptions and 18 ball recoveries in the Colorado half last week. That is what good pressure looks like in the numbers. (Compare to the Union’s 5 picks and 12 recoveries against a Montreal team that looked barely functional going forward, spending only 21% of the game in the Union’s final third in a home game.)

And remember: This is a team that knows what to do with a turnover. Alonso’s 90% pass completion rate isn’t just dinking it around the midfield. He is averaging 7.8 accurate long balls per game (62/76). That means he is completing the same percentage of long passes as noted pass genius Vincent Nogueira, but with 22 more attempts.

How to earn points in the northwest

First, the Union need to know their defensive roles by heart. Anybody chasing wildly will get burned. Seattle can generate opportunities wherever you give them space. Second, the Union need to strike the right balance between defense and counterattacking. The Sounders have already scored six goals off set pieces this season, so the Union must defend well then break out with speed. Philly has the personnel to counterattack well, though Andrew Wenger has not been the most reliable target man so far. Finding a way to use the young striker to release the wingers upfield will make Saturday’s game much more competitive.

Finally, the Union need to be tough. Against Seattle, you are going to take some knocks. If their pressure doesn’t win the ball back quickly, the Sounders will stop play so they can get set up in the back. Philly needs to keep calm and deliver some blows right back – but far from goal. While only Vincent Nogueira is fouled twice a game on average for the Union, five Seattle players suffer two or more fouls per game. Dempsey, Martins, and Neagle – they will go down easy in the final third. So the Union have to get their licks in up the field, pressuring Alonso and Pineda and shrugging off any calls in the process. Forcing those two midfielders to look over their shoulder will disrupt the Seattle rhythm.

Prediction: Seattle 3-0 Philadelphia

So far this season, my optimistic predictions have all come up short. I’m swinging the other way. Let’s see if all the Union players that read this column (…anyone?) take this as a challenge.

Union predicted lineup vs Seattle

Union predicted lineup vs Seattle

33 Comments

  1. sorry friend, union will this one handily

  2. philpill says:

    Preview of Hackworth’s post-game comments if they lose by at least 3?

    • “A 0-3 loss doesn’t man you got outplayed, it just means we didn’t put our only shot attempt in the back of the net. We didn’t connect on any of the 40 crosses we sent in, most of the attackers were standing still when Nog had the ball and I started a converted striker at CB instead of the experienced former rookie-of-the-year against the best offensive team in the league, but boy did those guys work hard in practice this week. Eventually the shots have to start going in the back of the net, so we’re going to keep standing around and waiting for that to happen.”

  3. sieve!!! says:

    I got a video game where I perfected the Unions strategy for the match.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeDEj6EoIjU

  4. 3-0 would be a moral victory! I predict 4-0.

  5. Berry needs to start.

  6. Call me crazy but I’m feeling a nice game for Maidana here. He played well with the 10pm EST start in Portland, maybe these later starts match up nicely with his old sleep schedule.

    Or I’m just grasping at straws here, trying to find something positive.

    • Hey, nice name.
      .
      Hmmm… That’s an interesting observation. I was born on the West Coast and have cited that as a reason that I’m a natural-born night owl (now living on the East Coast). Maybe he will also sleep better on the road since there will be no children bouncing off the hotel walls.

  7. 100% chance that Cruz starts this game.

  8. Thanks to all for the humor. I really needed this today. I think it’s awesome.

    • +1

      I think its one of the stages of coming to terms with your teams squandering of talent and fan time. We have had hope, sorrow, lots of anger, now humor and laughter. I am not sure what the next step is but i think I rememberthat actual winning can set you back so lets hope that doesn’t start up again or we are in for a lot of therapy.

  9. MikeRSoccer says:

    If Wheeler and Fabinho start, 5-0 Seattle.

  10. Former Season Ticket Holder says:

    I kinda want the Union to get completely blown out & embarrassed. I can’t think of anything else that will get the FO to ditch this terrible coach we have been saddled with……& yes I don’t care if Hackworth is a Nice guy.

    • i hope the union beat the sounders and figure out how to get their season back on track

    • Hack is on the way out for sure…i don’t see the “miracle” happening this weekend or anytime soon. Of course I want the team to win, but since I feel there is no way that is going to happen, might as well get blown out and put the nail in Hacks coffin. No one on our team can score goals. We can’t win if we can’t score. I’d be suprised if we even get a shot on goal. Let’s be real here. This team sucks. Getting the season back on track is a joke under the current regime.

  11. DarthLos117 says:

    Sounders 4-1

  12. Well Adam, your prediction was right that Seattle would score 3!!!!! Good job!

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