As Seattle Sounders FC’s 1-0 victory at Real Salt Lake wore on, the pattern of play drifted increasingly to Seattle’s right side and RSL’s left. Looking at the way the teams actually lined up in their respective 4-4-2 formations, the space on Mario Martinez’s side was fairly desolate.
The midfield was already crowded, with eight players jostling for space, but they further confined themselves to a small area, making it difficult to move the ball. It provided for an entertaining game between well-matched teams, but beyond that, it also stifled any attacking build-up through the midfield.
This favored Seattle more, as Salt Lake likes to give its midfield diamond the run of the game. Forwards Alvaro Saborio and Paulo Araujo, Jr., didn’t see much of the ball all night. In fact, Paulo, Jr., barely registered on the Opta chalkboard.
When Sounders FC faces the Los Angeles Galaxy starting on Sunday, it will have to be aware of one variable that Real Salt Lake didn’t have: Landon Donovan. Donovan is a right-sided player, and that’s where he gave the San Jose Earthquakes trouble in his two-assist performance in the Galaxy’s 3-1 win on Wednesday.
Donovan was 39 for 50 in passing in that second leg, completing the most passes on his team with a 78 percent completion rate. He was 13 for 16 in the final third, and he is still one of the most dynamic players in American soccer in terms of his movement and vision.
However, on Thursday in Utah, the Sounders took advantage of Salt Lake’s left-leaning tendencies on the only goal of the series.
At the beginning of the sequence, when Real Salt Lake loses the ball, its entire midfield diamond is on the left vertical half of the field, marked by the red line through the center circle. This tight positioning allows for easy possession because it sets up multiple triangles (yellow).
However, it also puts RSL out of position defensively when it loses the ball in this particular instance.
When Brad Evans receives the ball after Eddie Johnson’s lay-off, RSL’s midfield is trying to recover straight back toward the goal, as defenders are taught to do when they are caught high. Martinez, on the far side, recognizes the space he has been given and begins to float wide.
The following image better illustrates Martinez’s run, from a different angle. Notice his starting position in the image above, marked again with a green circle below, and the position he takes up as the play progresses. Another vertical line through the field shows that he is one of two players in that half.
Another important aspect of the play is Evans’ decision to play the ball to Fredy Montero instead of directly to Martinez. If he were to play that ball directly — and Martinez was calling for it, hand in the air — right back Tony Beltran would have had time to track the flight of the ball and intercept it.
Instead, when Montero has the ball at his feet, Beltran has to tuck in just in case center back Jamison Olave gets beat on the dribble and Beltran has to cover. The most dangerous player on the field at any given moment is the one with the ball because of the immediate threat, not a runner because of a potential threat.
A final note is the way Martinez bends his run into the penalty area, giving himself a little room for error in case Montero’s pass goes a bit wayward. Of course, it doesn’t, and Martinez hits a thunderous strike to the far post to win the series.
Playoff teams recognize and exploit the spaces they are given instead of trying to force opportunities when they don’t exist. It doesn’t matter how much possession RSL has — Opta had it at 59.5 percent — if it cannot create opportunities.
If Seattle could get the ball wide on the counter-attack, opportunities would come. All Martinez needed was one chance (not counting his set piece in the first half) to score the most important game of the Sounders’ season.