After starting the MLS season with an 0-3 record – the worst start in the franchise’s history – Seattle Sounders FC downed visiting Montreal Impact 1-0 to snatch their first three points of the season.
Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid was faced with a few lineup decisions after a handful of players returned – some later than others – from international duty during the week.
Dylan Remick replaced Joevin Jones, a new Seattle signing who had been one of the bright spots in the first few weeks of the season, at left-back. Aaron Kovar took the spot of Jordan Morris, who returned to Seattle after facing a tough defeat during the international break. These changes were part of a subtle tactical switch in this match; what had been a 4-3-3 looked more like the popular 4-2-3-1.
Clint Dempsey was moved from the left wing to a more central attacking midfield role, while Andreas Ivanschitz was pushed out wide. Captain Brad Evans also made his return from injury to start in central defense alongside Chad Marshall.
While certain aspects of the Sounders’ play did improve from the changes, their performance was largely identical to the previous three matches. Schmid has attributed some of the team’s failure this season to bad luck, and said that if they continued to play like they had, good fortune would eventually fall their way. In a sense, he was right.
In their 2-1 loss against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Week 3, the Sounders managed 19 shots, five of them on target. On Saturday, Seattle managed 12 shots with just three on target. The Sounders’ accuracy hasn’t improved much at all this season, and of the three goals they’ve scored, only one has been from open play.
The Sounders simply aren’t creating good chances, and when they do create them from open play, the players just aren’t clinical enough in front of goal. The team has had to rely on set pieces far too much, especially considering Ivanschitz’s delivery had been rather poor before the Montreal match. In those first three contests, Ivanschitz took 22 corner kicks, none of which resulted in a goal.
Schmid’s adjustments to the Sounders’ overall shape and tactics altered their play, but only slightly. Dempsey and Ivanschitz had actually been playing quite similarly all season, though this was the first time that their starting roles were defined in such a way. Schmid said in his post-match press conference that the change was made partly in an attempt to have Cristian Roldan play closer to, and marking, the Impact’s Ignacio Piatti. When viewed through that lens, the change worked wonders for Seattle on the defensive side – Piatti has scored three goals already this season, but barely managed a shot on target against the Sounders.
So even though the Seattle attack needed some luck to overcome its own problems, they benefited defensively from a number of those little tweaks against Montreal.
While shifting Roldan to cover Piatti was a very important move, Osvaldo Alonso’s growing influence also can’t be discounted. Alonso led the entire pitch with 9 out of 10 tackles completed, some of which were in the penalty box and prevented potential shots. Alonso was also the best passer on the pitch, completing 66 of 71 passes for a 93-percent passing accuracy. No other Sounders player completed more than 50 passes during the match.
There was talk in the offseason that Alonso might be past his prime, especially if his injury woes continued. He’s been stellar thus far this season and has adapted to an adjusted midfield role extremely well.
Evans’ return can’t be forgotten, either, as his leadership and composure played a big part in keeping a clean sheet against Montreal. Evans is vocal and knows how to organize his defenders, which could be a part of why Dylan Remick had such a solid first outing.
Schmid noted that Evans’ many years playing midfield makes him “very, very comfortable on the ball.” This allowed the Sounders to build their attack from defense in a more organized manner. While Zach Scott is a solid backup and gets the job done defensively, his composure on the ball leaves something to be desired.
The Sounders have a long season ahead of them, and the win against Montreal shows that they have what it takes to beat the top teams in the league. The little tweaks are what Seattle needs, but a variety of factors have forced it to learn these on the fly.
If the defense can stay consistent and continue to improve communication and composure, they’ll have no problems. The attack needs help, as the players simply aren’t putting the ball on target, and chemistry between forwards is still a work in progress. Schmid has started to recognize what was wrong with the tactics he came into the season prepared to use and looks to be on the way to finding the optimal way to get his best players in their ideal positions.
Other quick observations from the Sounders’ win over Montreal:
• Oalex Anderson continues to look like the player that I (and many in the Sounders organization) think he is. His speed and technical ability are possibly the best on the team, and I think his talent ceiling is incredibly high. He had more successful take-ons than any other Sounder, despite only coming on as a substitute in the second half. But as we saw Saturday night, he needs to really focus on his decision-making and teamwork. Every player wants the glory, but it’s far more important to get your team the goal.
• Dylan Remick looked rather solid, showing off his speed and a little bit of trickery in his first start of the season. He put in some excellent crosses, one of which found Nelson Valdez, who had his shot accidentally blocked by Kovar. I doubt that Remick will unseat Jones as the starting left-back, but that position is looking stronger than it has for a few years.
• Valdez’s role with the Sounders continues to be rather interesting. Schmid has said a number of times that he doesn’t want go the “route one” way – long passes to the center forward to hold up or knock down – but sometimes the team just resorts to that. Valdez had only one successful aerial duel against Montreal and completed a rather mediocre seven passes in the attacking third. A number of crosses came in for him, one of which he managed to hang onto and shoot (blocked by Kovar), but Valdez was otherwise rather useless. Either the tactics need to be suited to Valdez’s strengths, or he should be dropped.