By Michael Vitz-Wong
We’ve seen it twice now – Will Bruin comes on late as an attacking sub to try and help the Sounders claw back a result.
Last month against Montreal it worked to completion with Bruin netting the equalizer deep in stoppage time, but against Vancouver (while Bruin scored in the 89’) the woodwork, an Ousted-anding performance in between the pipes, and a couple of goal-line clearances denied the Sounders from a two-goal comeback. The fact that the Sounders have only held a lead twice this season on their way to a win, two losses, and three draws speaks to the initiative and dominance lacking from Sounders so far. It also speaks to the difficulty of the rescue operations they’ve had to mount thanks to the holes they’ve put themselves in.
Considering the star-studded squad and their undoubted technical ability to play Sounders’ possession-based style, and especially with Dempsey’s addition to a title-winning team, why hasn’t the offense clicked in the way we’ve come to expect from the Lodeiro-Schmetzer era?
Head Coach Brian Schmetzer tends to be very methodical about his substitutions. He subs early and infrequently, often ending games still having the option of an unused third change. His record in second halves speaks for itself, with Sounders outscoring their opponents 28-13 after the break during his tenure. This suggests that not only does Schmetzer have a necessary diversity of player skill sets on his bench, his tactical read of the game and targeted instructions are deployed to great affect.
In general, my philosophy tends against being the one to second-guess a head coach – there are countless nuances to the sport that we in the peanut gallery can never comprehend – but one has to question if the improved offensive output with Bruin on the field can be replicated earlier in the match – that is, should Bruin be in the starting lineup?
During the preseason, the lineup battle was between two newcomers – Harry Shipp and Will Bruin. Starting Bruin, a stronger holdup striker with soft feet and a poacher’s nose, would push Jordan Morris out of his preferred position up top and into the left midfield. Starting Shipp in midfield would allow the nucleus of the Sounders lineup to remain the same, with Morris leading the line, while slotting in another hardworking play maker to the attacking band of three midfielders in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1. Six games into the season, Shipp has started all but the opening loss in Houston, while Bruin has only appeared off the bench.
While it is clear what attacking personnel Schmetzer prefers, there is evidence to suggest a change is needed. Beyond the individual output (Bruin’s 2 goals v Shipp’s 1), having Will Bruin as the lone forward with Morris in the midfield might help the attacking shape of the Sounders. In a look reminiscent of the Championship squad down the stretch of 2016, Bruin could provide a better bearer of possession from the front line than Morris – he could play a hardworking target striker role similar to what Nelson Valdez did so well to earn his starting spot late last year (despite an anemic strike rate). Bruin is much better at going to battle with opposing center backs, using his size and strength to work with his back to goal and keep the defense in check. This could help free up space for Clint Dempsey to operate underneath in his optimum role as a withdrawn forward between the defensive lines.
Dempsey’s curling shot off the post in the 86’ against Vancouver is emblematic of where Seattle want him: receiving the ball in the final third with enough time and space to turn and deliver the ball, whether to a teammate’s foot or into the back of the net.
Furthermore, moving Morris could mix up Seattle’s attack to an asymmetrical balance the team previously lacked. The midfield, for all its technical nuance and passing bravado, lacks the ability to take on defenders 1v1 and beat them with speed. All of the width and attempt to stretch the field comes from the fullbacks, Joevin Jones and Oniel Fisher. While the left flank is locked down by Jones, a bonafide star (who deserves more recognition for his offensive IQ, not just his athleticism), Fisher is still quite rough around the edges and has failed to provide an impact moving forward.
This has only been compounded by Gustav Svensson filling in for injuries at right back – an even slower and more defensively-minded player. Moving Morris to left wing provides an explosive vertical threat out of the midfield and deviates what was previously a rather homogeneous attacking band of three. Shipp, Dempsey, and Nicolas Lodeiro are all play makers in their own right, but all three occupy similar central spaces looking to spring an attacker, and of them only Dempsey is more of a finisher than a provider. Morris has had little success isolated up top this season so far, recording only one goal on the season (in the easy-flowing romp at home over Red Bulls) while failing to unload a single shot at Vancouver.
From left midfield, Morris can still make a forward’s run and utilize his best skill set of getting behind the defensive line (look at how high he’s positioned at the beginning of the play for his winning goal in the second leg of the Western Conference Final in Colorado). Dempsey and Lodeiro provide plenty of off-the-ball movement and passing to combine and unlock defenses, particularly if Bruin allows possession to advance more easily into the final third. Morris in the midfield takes some of the burden off the fullbacks to bomb forward, and allows him to get more involved in springing 1-2’s to burst past defenders and make his runs more difficult to track by starting deeper and reaching full acceleration by the time he’s blowing past a defender. Furthermore, having Morris, a goal-scoring forward/winger, in the midfield over Shipp takes some of the scoring impetus off the creative attacking midfielders while adding another finisher up top to spread out the responsibility of putting the ball in the back of the net.
To put it into concrete terms, if Morris stays up top we’re expecting double-digit seasons from Morris and Dempsey with a supplementary midfield; if Morris plays on the left wing we’re expecting double-digits from Morris, Dempsey, and whomever starts up top – a much more dynamic and unpredictable attack. A direct, speedy goalscorer out of midfield also fits some of the Sounder’s big-name transfer rumors over the past few months (Derlis Gonzalez, Dario Benedetto, Hilal Soudani), suggesting that this is an identified position of need for the Sounders Front Office. While only the Gonzalez rumor remains unanswered, moving Morris to left mid could fulfill this need in the short-term with the roster as it currently stands (we certainly know that Garth Lagerway likes to take his time to get his Designated Player signings unequivocally consummate).
As for benching Harry Shipp, he has a valuable skill set and I think he actually has a bigger upside than Bruin – but the question is not of personnel but of tactical fit. Perhaps Schmetzer’s preseason decision is correct and Shipp has greater talent than Bruin, but we must identify Shipp’s role and best contribution to the Sounders as a team. Shipp is not going to compete with Dempsey and Lodeiro as primary play makers; at best he can provide a complementary or replacement creative option (during international games, injuries; Lodeiro’s impending yellow card suspension). Through 6 games, I argue that the role of complementary third play maker is clogging the midfield and slowing the attack, and we need a direct threat as the third attacking midfielder. The biggest questions left in my proposed tactical shift are if Morris can get back and defend from a midfield position (which he was asked to do to mixed success last year) and if Lodeiro and Dempsey can utilize the extra space allotted by removing Shipp.
If Bruin can open space between the defensive lines and Morris can stretch the midfield, can the expensive Designated Players take on the extra mantle of being the sole providers and power Sounders to greater heights?
Certainly some of the weight of expectation has been lifted from the franchise with Alonso’s hands thrust high in the air of a frigid Toronto night, but there is still a desire for more growth and success – not measured by the biggest trophy but rather by on field product. While wholeheartedly celebrating MLS Cup, fans recognize the pragmatic approach taken just to reach the Final, much less the gritty performance to actually win. Now having turned over the fringes of the roster to a younger generation and incorporating Dempsey back from injury, there is an expectation that Lagerway’s vision will be fulfilled in 2017 – Seattle wants to see Dempsey raise the bar in our Championship defense, not finish in the rank and file of the Western Conference.
If this is indeed Dempsey and Lodeiro’s team, it’s time to give them full responsibility of the offense and surround them with the pieces to maximize their game.