The city of Seattle let out a collective sigh when the whistle blew to signal the end of a cagey 90 minutes between the Seattle Sounders and the Montreal Impact on Saturday night.
Coming into the match, the Sounders were 0-3 and panic was really starting to creep in. The Impact rode into town riding high on their solid start that had them at the top of the Eastern Conference, albeit without their best player. Seattle put in a lot of hard work, though, and managed to squeak out of CenturyLink with a win.
The Sounders’ defense showed definite improvement despite two changes from the backline against Vancouver a fortnight before. Captain Brad Evans showed that his dislocated shoulder wasn’t giving him any problems as he put in an excellent shift and proved his value yet again. Dylan Remick, the young left-back who fell out of favor last season after a handful of poor performances backing up Leo Gonzalez, had a very solid performance at the back and even put in a couple of solid crosses on the other end of the pitch. The way the defense (including goalkeeper Stefan Frei) played surely deserved the clean sheet, but that’s about all the Sounders really deserved out of the match.
The win and the solid defensive presence definitely papered over the cracks that have been slowly growing for the Sounders since the start of the MLS season. At risk of harping on the point I made in my post-match column, the 1-0 win had a lot to do with the pendulum of luck swinging Seattle’s way for a change. Just as Seattle deserved a 0-0 draw and ended up with a 1-0 win, against the Vancouver Whitecaps it deserved a 1-0 win and lost it 2-1.
The Sounders need to start dominating matches instead of spinning the wheel of fate every time they step onto the pitch. What do the Sounders need to do to get that momentum going, both in the short term (this week, leading up to Houston) and over the long term marathon that is the MLS season? I have a few suggestions, some easy and some difficult, for what the Sounders need to do to save their season.
1. Accept what isn’t working, and change it. Sigi Schmid did this against Montreal, making his first noticeable tactical alteration since preseason, when he started talking about how the Sounders would be trying a 4-3-3 in 2016. Against Montreal, he moved Clint Dempsey into a starting central midfield role (where he had been drifting to in every match already) and started Andreas Ivanschitz in as a left attacking midfielder. This was a noticeable strategic move to try and help provide more service to Nelson Valdez up top, since he had been isolated even when he had teammates playing on either side of him. Sigi needs to do more positive experimenting, and stick with what works and ditch what doesn’t.
2. The players need to be more disciplined in the system. As noted above, Sigi intended to put Dempsey and Ivanschitz in specific positions for specific reasons against Montreal. But their average positioning in both this match and in the previous one against Vancouver were nearly the same. There’s not as much overlap; against Vancouver, their average positions were almost nearly the same. When Dempsey was supposed to be a left-sided/attacking midfielder, he drifted inside and deep far too often. Against Montreal, he was supposed to start slightly deeper but would drift outside. Ivanschitz seems to prefer a central attacking role, as his tackling isn’t good enough to be a central midfielder. And Dempsey, as most people know, is a forward. He has technical skills, but his passing is fairly pedestrian and his crossing is fairly poor. Thus, putting him on the left or in a deeper role under-utilizes his talents by quite a bit. Early on, it seemed that the constant roaming and swapping of positions would work to help even out the attack and confuse defenses, but it seems to be doing the opposite.
3. Drop Nelson Valdez. I understand why Seattle signed Valdez, and I know that he is a talented player. But signing a player to a hefty Designated Player contract who has never scored in the double digits in a season in his entire career seems … foolish. Valdez was only with the Sounders for half a season last year (and had some injury problems), but he still scored just one goal in 10 appearances. Valdez hasn’t been dangerous on set pieces, he doesn’t seem to win many aerial duels, and his hold-up play hasn’t done much of anything. This could even be why Dempsey constantly deems it necessary to try and play the ball from midfield to goal, rather than attempting to pass to Valdez. Dempsey passed to Valdez only four times in the entire match. Valdez should start on the bench against Houston, and Dempsey should lead the line, where he belongs.
4. Sign a creative midfielder. This is an issue that’s been discussed by a lot of people, including myself, and it’s an area that Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey has said he’d like to build on for the Sounders. Right now, the team has two Designated Players, Dempsey and Valdez, which means they can offer a lot of money to the right player. Ivanschitz, another player whose career stats don’t flatter him, has not been the creative outlet that the team needs. His crossing and set pieces have been rather poor, aside from the corner kick against Montreal and free kick against Vancouver. An attacking midfielder needs to be signed, and quickly, or the Sounders will continue to thrash against the low creative ceiling they’ve built for themselves.
5. Two words: shooting practice. Seattle has been woefully inaccurate this season, racking up 11.3 shots per game (14th in MLS) but only putting 3.3 of those shots on target per game (20th in MLS). Sure, some of it is down to poor delivery and decision-making – but at the end of the day, the players need to be putting more than 29 percent of their shots on frame. There isn’t much else to say on this, because it’s clear that the team simply needs to be working on its finishing this week.
Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.