Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union at Seattle Sounders

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Seattle Sounders
What: Regular season game
Where: CenturyLink Field
When: Saturday, April 16 at 10 pm
Watch: TCN, Live Well Network, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Drew Fischer; Linesmen: Mike Rottersman, Claudiu Badea; Fourth Official: Alejandro Mariscal

Note: If the broadcasts of the Flyers and Phillies games go long, the Union game will not be on TCN but you can watch the simulcast on Live Well Network. Live Well Network’s channel numbers are for Comcast 245, 246, 790; for FiOS 465, 466. Click here for a graphic on the broadcast scenarios.

Last week, Philadelphia Union did a good job tracking an attacker with world class movement. Luckily, Kaka was playing a bit out of position and took a while to find his comfort zones.

This week, the Union must track another attack with world class movement. Lightning strikes twice, as that player may be starting out of position as well. Last Sunday, Sigi Schmidt used Clint Dempsey in an attacking midfield role, slightly deeper than normal and nominally more structured. By halftime, however, that experiment was over and Dempsey was back to being a floating menace, popping up all over as the Sounders fought their way to an ugly draw with Houston. If Schmidt returns Dempsey to midfield against the Union, Philly will have a lot of space to operate in midfield.

Seattle shots vs Houston: First half (L) and second half (R). The first half can be found in the dictionary next to "low percentage chances."

Seattle shots vs Houston: First half (L) and second half (R). The first half can be found in the dictionary next to “low percentage chances.”

Seattle has already lost two home games this season and has collected only four goals in their first five matches. Dempsey and LEGO-come-to-life Jordan Morris have been shifted around the pitch as Schmidt attempts to jumpstart a potentially dangerous offense. Without striker Nelson Valdez last week due to injury, Morris shifted to the center of the attack and struggled to get involved (feel free to watch the replay if you want to hear Taylor Twellman talk about Jordan Morris 10-20x as much as any other player, and usually with a voice pre-teens recognize as the one they use to tattle and when things are “unfair”).

Although Seattle nominally played a 4-3-3, their shape often resembled a 4-4-2 with Dempsey caught high and the wingers looking for the ball rather than testing the back line.

Although Seattle nominally played a 4-3-3, their shape often resembled a 4-4-2 with Dempsey caught high and the wingers looking for the ball rather than testing the back line.

The bad Seattle and the other Seattle

The first half problems did not stem from Morris, but from a team shape that had no path from midfield to the strikers. Dempsey looked to be the man in the hole, but he was more likely to be toeing the offside line. When Morris checked back, he was easily tracked. And even if he wasn’t, the 2v2 battle in the midfield (both Dempsey and Cristian Maidana drifted in and out periodically) meant that Houston could easily close down Cristian Roldan, who was often the only player in an advanced position through the center.

The Sounders leaned very heavily to the right in the first half (L), but gained balance in the second frame (R).

The Sounders leaned very heavily to the right in the first half (L), but gained balance in the second frame (R).

A quick rundown of Seattle’s opening forty-five against Houston should give some insight into why Sigi Schmidt made the changes he did at the half and how those could impact the Union this weekend.

Seattle came out with Dempsey in front of Roldan and Ozzie Alonso. Aaron Kovar and Andreas Ivanschitz were in winger positions, though both looked uncomfortable in the roles. The goal of this system was likely to open space in the middle by putting good technicians in the wide areas. Brad Evans could spray the ball wide if Houston got too narrow, which they tend to do with both Giles Barnes and Andrew Wenger on the pitch. If Ivanschitz and Kovar held the ball high up the pitch, it would let Morris and Dempsey move in and out of spaces to create the type of havoc that used to spin defenders’ heads when Deuce ‘n Oba were still cranking out the hits.

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The reality of Martins’ absence sunk in quickly though, with counterattacks fizzling out with Ivanschitz and the attacking system leaning heavily to the right (very heavily).

There was simply no threat over the top, and Houston responded by getting inside the jerseys of Morris, Ivanschitz, and Kovar.

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In the second half, Schmidt tucked the wingers inside and gave Dempsey more of a free role. Additionally, the impressive Roldan and Alonso stayed closer together to give the Sounders an overload in the center. This finally encouraged Joevin Jones to emerge from his groundhogesque offensive slumber and get forward. Seattle didn’t dominate, but they immediately found more links out of midfield, and Houston could no longer trap Alonso deep without options or squeeze Morris out of the game whenever he checked back.

The Seattle wingers tucked inside in the second half, giving the Sounders more bodies in the middle and making it easier to play through Houston's defenses.

The Seattle wingers tucked inside in the second half, giving the Sounders more bodies in the middle and making it easier to play through Houston’s defenses.

It was a wonderful, massive adjustment by an experienced coach. But it also highlighted how Schmidt is still trying on post-Martins systems before officially buying into one. And even though the Sounders pulled out a last minute draw against Houston, that cannot cover the fact that they have yet to figure out how to manufacture good chances.

If Nelson Valdez returns to face the Union, he may partner with Morris or push the young American out wide. The main goal for the visitors will be to ensure that the arrangement of the front line doesn’t matter. If the Sounders’ midfield doesn’t have time to pick their heads up, the Union will neutralize the deep threat.

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Morris has yet to develop a good rhythm with Dempsey, and his runs, though ambitious and inventive, haven’t lined up with Deuce’s intentions. Philly’s pressure, then, must be quick and effective coming out of midfield, pushing the ball towards Chad Marshall and Joevin Jones on the left side of Seattle’s shape. Houston relentlessly attacked when the Sounders played out through the left, and the Union will look to do the same with, in all likelihood, Sebastien Le Toux pressing high.

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Seattle defense

The Sounders’ defense is built around three smart and strong players in the middle. Evans and Marshall play deep, keep everything in front of them, and protect the box in the air. Ozzie Alonso protects his center backs by pretending he’s in a side-scrolling video game and he only earns points if he tackles the bad guys.

Progressing through the center, then, is a difficult proposition. Philly will likely find more success advancing up the wings, pulling the midfield forward, and pushing play through a deeper lying player. Alonso is adept at canceling out the first player through, so teams that can drag him into the backline with a runner then let a deeper player advance the ball tend to find a lot more space than they otherwise would.

This makes Jim Curtin’s midfield selection even more interesting. Curtin has Vincent Nogueira, Warren Creavalle, and Brian Carroll available. Creavalle has been the best box-to-box option in Philly’s triangle this season (I know!), and pairing him with Nogueira would give Carroll’s legs a much-needed rest. However, Curtin may be hesitant to sacrifice Carroll since the veteran is at his best sitting in the space that both Dempsey and Morris covet.

Good issues

Curtin must also decide whether to risk Tranquillo Barnetta’s knee for an extended run on turf (nope) and whether to replace the recovering Ilsinho with Sebastien Le Toux (probably), Leo Fernandes (nope), or Fabian Herbers (…what?).

The Union head coach said on Wednesday that Herbers slyly mentioned that he can play on the wing during a recent meeting. The rookie has shown impressive movement but slightly anxious feet in his recent cameos, and letting him sneak in when Sapong drags defenses out of shape is enticing. But in all likelihood, Le Toux will — and probably should — get the call. His direct running can help draw Alonso out of the middle, and the Frenchman is always active in the box, where Seattle tends to leave gaps when the back line drops extremely deep anticipating crosses.

Herbers or Fernandes could also step in if Curtin decides to rest Chris Pontius and his history of injuries. Pontius has proved an important, if Milner-esque at times, cog in the Philly pressing system and the coaching staff will need to decide whether they can still defend effectively while restricting wear and tear on the former DC man.

A final, likely small question, is Ken Tribbett’s ankle. Curtin mentioned that the defender rolled it earlier this week but was expected to recover in time for the trip to Seattle. Should Tribbett be held out, Richie Marquez would likely slide to the right with Anderson stepping in at left center back. Alternatively, the Union could dip into Bethlehem’s back line and bring up Joshua Yaro. Given Yaro’s steep learning curve and mixed performances thus far — and, of course, Anderson’s availability — such a move seems unlikely.

UnionSEA2016Prediction: Seattle 1-2 Union

Sure, the Union’s last two goals came off a terrible defensive clearance and a MLS Goal of the Week meh free kick that is inferior to Chris Wondolowski scoring a goal you will forget two minutes after watching it, but I still think they can penetrate Seattle’s defense. And I am even more certain they can take the ball off the Sounders in some deep positions. At that point, it’s all about quick play and converting.

Also, it should be noted that Philly’s hot start allows them (and us as fans) to see this match as less than a must-win game. Cross-country trips to play on turf against fairly unfamiliar teams are difficult, and even the best of MLS can struggle when they traipse from one coast to the other. So, although the Union should be the better side, they can be content with a strong defensive performance and a point.

And that is a sentence I have not written — and actually believed — in a number of years.


  1. Solid Taylor Twellman burn.
    Would absolutely be happy with a point out of this fixture and for one of the first times I’m pretty confident that it’s a decent possibility. It’s quite a feeling to actually be *looking forward* to spending Saturday night at home watching a Union game on my Roku.

    • “usually with a voice pre-teens recognize as the one they use to tattle and when things are “unfair”). ” Notably successful diction and syntax.

  2. old soccer coach says:

    Our guesses disagree about the backup goalkeeper. I think they rate McCarthy ahead of Jones, as do you, but are backing #1 with #3 and having #2 get playing time to keep him sharp for the known absences of #1 coming in the future.
    The sixtieth minute substitution you set up, barring the unforseen but quite possible necessity of altering the plan, is intriguing. If I go “all in” with the idea, you anticipate Herbers, Ilsinho and Barnetta all entering, and Pontius, Le Toux and Alberg all coming off, with Herbers moving to striker and Sapong moving to flanking mid. That could be an interesting offensive group.

    • old soccer coach says:

      Right now Josh Yaro needs to stay exactly where he is. My overly active imagination suspects that the Steel decision to start Auston Trusty at a position he had not occupied previously in preseason scrimmages and making Yaro the leading centerback rather than the complementary one, was motivated by unknown considerations concerning Trusty that are off-pitch in nature. Whatever the case Yaro did not have a good game, to understate it a bit; he scored NYRB2’s game-winner for them in the 13th or 14th second [sic].
      The Union do not know what other organizations intend to sign their academy players, for example. We have no idea how the rosters of team academies and other non-affiliated clubs interact. Trusty is seventeen, I think I know, perhaps an academy senior. As such he cannot yet sign legally binding contracts on his own. He has indicated he will go to Wake Forest; perhaps the Wake coach wants an assurance of what to expect to happen and the Union had to make a quick evaluation whether or not to have him follow through with Wake or see if he was ready to go pro.
      Really drinking my own Koolaid now [!!], what if the Red Bulls first team “longer term” center back solution, as Marsch said in moving on from Okugo, is raiding the Union Academy. We have no idea what is allowed and possible. The Academy guys have not signed professional contracts; I think I know that when Derrick Jones signed with the Steel, he altered his relationship to the Academy, probably drastically. We have no idea to what the Academy boys and their parents have agreed as students at the Academy. the possible reasons for the Steel to play Trusty last Sunday night are myriad, simply myriad.
      In any case, Yaro is not yet ready.

    • der Fussballzuschauer says:

      Respectfully – what happens when your first choice goes down with an injury or perhaps gets sent off ten minutes into the match and you have to bring your uniformed backup into the game?

      On the one hand, I can dig the idea of having the actual # 2 keep sharp by getting games with the reserve team and, on the other hand, I want my second-best goalkeeper available at all times in case of an actual emergency during any game where critical points in the league standings are at stake.

      McCarthy, in my opinion, really looked bad on Etienne’s fourth goal last Sunday night. A goalkeeper can not come 16 yards off his line and then just stand there. Any competent professional player with the time and space the dude had will simply lob the ball over the gk’s head, which is what the New York Red Bulls II player did easily.

      Beaten to the near post by Wiedeman on FC Cincinnati’s first goal the week before, too. I wouldn’t say McCarthy has been terrible by any measure, make no mistake. But I certainly wouldn’t say he has been as fabulous for Bethlehem Steel FC as Andre Blake has been for the Philadelphia Union, either.

      Just who is the ‘real’ backup for the Union is certainly a most intriguing question, I must say.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    I can’t believe I am writing this, but: I agree entirely with your prediction… and not only do I agree, I think it is going to happen.
    I have good feelings about Saturday… Flyers, then Union. Gonna be a good night!!

  4. Noteein Lastname says:

    Who is Sigi Schmidt?

    • @Noteein – He’s an imaginary character I use in place of real coaches when I think they might have a Google Alert for their own name 😉

      I just screwed up. Happened with Greg(g) Berhalter too. I’ll try to nail Patric Vyera next week.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I can see Union garnering a point just as easily as Seattle running us out if the Emerald city with our first spanking. Either way… my litmus for this game is continued growth with the system of play…. ie playing well first.

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    I see this as a potential trap game for the Union, similar to when Seattle and Portland came to Chester last year and left with L’s against a mediocre Union side.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I just can’t think the Union are even considering any road game in Seattle, as a trap game. We haven’t come that far yet. I kind of agree with Pachy that I could really see us playing well, getting a point (or better) or getting completely run out of the place. That said, I don’t think we get run out. Just play well, and if you do, the results will come.

      • Less a trap game and more a throw away game.
        Granted, they are trying something new with traveling early and training out there but Curtin’s comments about being smart with players on the turf and the need to rotate the lineup to keep players fresh over the entire season makes it seem like they are not going to go all out for 3 points.

  7. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    “And that is a sentence I have not written — and actually believed — in a number of years.”
    Adam correctly and subtly points out that he does not believe that sentence, as he should not. Here’s to not being embarrassed while we rest Elsie, Barney and Noggin on the road/turf.

    • ….ah, i think he said the exact opposite of you.
      In previous years when he wrote it, he did not believe it. This year he does.
      The U don’t “need” a win at this point after their strong start. While a win would be great, they can be content with a strong “growth” game in their system and an away point.

  8. Lucky Striker says:

    turf , inevitable rain, crowd noise…….too many key players being counted on who have no experience in that environment.

    Only guy I worry about getting on the plane is Blake.

    If he can repeat his recent form. they have a decent chance at a point.

  9. We’re not so good that we won’t get run out of the building more than once this season. Sigi needs a result. I’ll still sacrifice results for growth.

  10. pragmatist says:

    I am expecting a 2-1 loss. Nothing horrible, nothing exceptional. Just young guys and new internationals not used to the turf, playing against an increasingly desperate Seattle team.
    As long as we show well, I won’t be too disappointed. But I’d love to grab a point there.

  11. artificial turf makes me sad…Seattleites deserve better

  12. Just to echo the sentiments of many others. If the boys show improved play or even consistent play in this game I will be OK with a loss. But there is the possibility of a point or better..

  13. Pontius – Milner comparison is spot on IMO.

  14. 3 other SoBs and myself are in Seattle right now for the game and the weather is gorgeous. No rain, and tonight will be high 40s/low 50s. The time change is messing me up so I can only imagine trying to be athletic right now. A point would be fantastic.

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