Seattle Sounders FC put out a defensive formation in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference Finals, and they paid dearly for it. The Los Angeles Galaxy’s 3-0 win assured that only a miracle in the second leg could keep them out of the MLS Cup Final for the second season in a row.
With Mauro Rosales still out, Eddie Johnson perhaps still feeling the effects of a hamstring injury, Leo Gonzalez still injured and Marc Burch suspended, the Sounders’ lineup might as well have been held together with glue sticks and tape.
Zach Scott is not the worst third-choice left back in the league, but Sigi Schmid’s decision to play Alex Caskey on the left further magnified Scott’s lack of comfort on that side. Add to it Fredy Montero as the lone striker — one without a playoff goal in 783 minutes in his career — and the lineup was a recipe for disaster.
Lack of Offense
With Montero as the target man, a second runner from the midfield was going to be crucial if Seattle were to find any opportunities to score. However, Brad Evans was busy covering for Caskey on the left side too often, causing him to drift deep more often than high.
Christian Tiffert, whose role was more of a free-ranging distributor than usual, isn’t exactly a goal-scoring central midfielder who would be expected to get into the penalty area. Montero may have been ineffective for yet another playoff game, but the onus is on his coach for putting him in a situation in which he was never likely to succeed.
Tiffert showed why he is an essential part of Seattle’s success, spraying the ball around fairly effectively and keeping possession like he always does, but he also showed why he cannot be the main provider — his passes are rarely the killer type that unlock defenses. Rather, he is more of a set-up man for a set-up man, who needs somebody the likes of Rosales to provide the final pass.
Looking at the distribution map from Opta, Seattle had far more touches in the middle third of the field, but from 25 yards and in, Los Angeles dominated. This was mostly due to Tiffert’s ability to keep the ball in the midfield but no higher and the Galaxy’s star-studded attack around the goal.
Los Angeles’ Most Effective Wide Attacker
When Sean Franklin was called offside early in the first half, his intent for this game was clear. Franklin overlapped on the right side frequently and was involved in the build-up to both of the Galaxy’s first two goals.
In the modern game, outside backs are expected to provide width and service as much as wide midfielders. In games where the midfield is crowded or a team is outmatched in the middle, that responsibility is magnified.
Take another look at the above image and count how many times the outside backs got involved in positions 25 yards and closer to the goal their team was attacking (Los Angeles had No. 5 Franklin on the right and No. 2 Todd Dunivant on the left; Seattle played No. 20 Scott on the left and No. 5 Adam Johansson on the right).
Franklin is one of the best in the league at getting around his partner on the outside. Johansson and Scott also went forward often on Sunday, but they weren’t as penetrating with their runs or passes.
$5.5 Million of Creativity
For how his recent interviews have been received by fans and the media, Landon Donovan remains one of the most effective and progressive American players. His combinations on Sunday with Robbie Keane, another player of world-class pedigree, would have given most defenses in the world trouble.
One of their better moves was one that did not end up in the back of the net, but it is certainly one worth another look here. Only a last-second tackle by Seattle’s Alex Caskey keeps the Galaxy’s Christian Wilhelmsson from tapping in Donovan’s pass.
This play featured a common interchange between Donovan and Keane, the two forwards in Los Angeles’ 4-4-2: a dummy run followed by a return pass. The intuitive play they displayed all game was indicative of their class and experience, both within the game and with one another.
Franklin starts in an advanced position with the ball after one of his many overlapping runs into the attacking half. As he plays the ball back to Wilhelmsson, the player he overlapped, Juninho begins a run in behind.
That draws Tiffert away from the passing lane between Wilhelmsson and David Beckham, who is unmarked and showing for the ball.
Because Evans and Osvaldo Alonso are collapsed nearly on top of the back four, Beckham has time on the ball. His first look after a controlling touch is away from where the ball came, toward the mass of players in the penalty area, including Mike Magee.
Wilhelmsson has continued his run after dishing the ball off, trying to get himself on the end of any eventual knockdowns in the box.
When Magee gets the ball, Seattle’s back line is effectively stretched. Scott, who was defending Franklin on the far side, hasn’t tucked back in to a proper defensive position yet (and will fail to do so for the rest of this play).
Not only is the Sounders defense stretched, it has also collapsed back far enough into its own penalty area that Keane and Donovan are in a pocket of space all to themselves.
Wilhelmsson has found his own pocket of space, between Scott and Jeff Parke. Caskey, meanwhile, is already starting his run back to support the defense.
Donovan dummies the ball and splits Parke and Johansson with a run as Jhon Kennedy Hurtado steps to Keane. The spacing between Scott and Parke is way too far at this point, which leaves Wilhelmsson in a dangerous spot.
At the moment the ball is played, Donovan is clearly onside, even though the assistant referee isn’t in the perfect position to make the call (and the red line isn’t perfect, either). Both Donovan and Wilhelmsson are in on goal, with no defenders marking them.
Donovan sees that Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning is off his line to smother the ball, but he also sees Wilhelmsson with a wide open goal. Wilhelmsson is behind the ball when it is played, so he is also onside.
Scott is beaten. He is on the outside of the runner and too far away to make any effective defensive play. His last resort is appealing for offside.
On the other hand, Caskey’s defensive run has given him the inside track on Wilhemsoon. Even from as far back as Caskey started and how far ahead of him the Swede still is, all it will take is the slightest touch to put the ball off the attacker’s foot and keep it out of the goal.
In the end, it’s that decision to get inside the attacker that saves a goal. The Galaxy fail to score their second goal of the game for the time being, and the tie is still well in hand with just over half an hour to go in the first leg.
Of course, the wheels would come off not long after, and Keane and Donovan would continue to have their way with the Seattle defense, but that tackle was huge when it happened.
The biggest takeaway from Keane and Donovan’s effectiveness should be what a formidable forward duo can accomplish. Oftentimes, Seattle has a similar pairing in Montero and Johnson.
Their style is different from Keane-Donovan, but Montero-Johnson is a vital part of the Sounders’ success. It was a big missing piece on Sunday that will have to be put right in the second leg for Seattle to have any chance of staging a comeback.