SANDY, UT - MAY 28: Mike Fucito #2 of the Seattle Sounders FC moves the ball against Jamison Olave #4 of Real Salt Lake in a MLS soccer game on May 28, 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Olave would go on to obstruct Fucito, earning him a red card. (Photo by Mike Terry/Getty Images)
An exhaustion of other options, strong performances whenever called upon and tactical changes make the case for Sounders forward Mike Fucito as strong as ever.
I've been a skeptic. Not of Mike Fucito's nose for goal, or of his finishing ability, or of his overall value as a player. On most teams in this league Mike Fucito is a starter, and most likely a very good one. But I've never thought he was the right choice in Seattle. Fucito isn't a big guy, and historically in Sigi Schmid's system he's slotted into the withdrawn forward slot. That's a slot currently occupied by Fredy Montero, and despite what a lot of people seem to think he's done a damned fine job. My opposition to the move has always been tactical; Fucito and Montero tend to occupy the same space. And against MLS sides with very big, very physical central defense pairings, the two of them are going to lose the aerial battle far more often than not.
But realistically, things have changed. The depth we once thought we might have up top is gone; Nate Jaqua looks a shadow of his former self. Roger Levesque and Pat Noonan are the answer to nothing, at least where goalscoring ftom the forward position is concerned. O'Brian White is almost certainly out for the season, and with no reinforcements coming via the international transfer window, the Sounders don't have many other options. In the past, Sigi Schmid's extensive use of the target forward position has made a Fucito-Montero pairing somewhat unrealistic. But given what we've seen in terms of production from this team's forwards, the team should be willing to try strategies that are less than orthodox (at least by Sigi Schmid's standards.) And given the tactical changes we've seen from this side these past few months, the adjustment might not be all that drastic.
Throughout their history, the Sounders have used a small-and-tall pairing at forward; the bigger player gathering long balls and holding up play, the smaller player (typically Fredy Montero) exploiting space and acting as the team's main creative force. But the bigger player has also been expected to cause havoc in the box, to act as a target for crosses and long balls into the area and to draw defensive attention away from the withdrawn forward. Nothing any Sounders forward has done since the departure of Blaise Nkufo has served these objectives. And in order to win, Seattle has adjusted their tactical approach. Seldom do we see long balls launched towards the forwards; instead there's a very patient and gradual buildup from the back. Downfield punts from Kasey Keller are rare, and from the back line even rarer. When they do appear, those long balls tend to have a focused objective rather than being aimless advances.
And with this shift has come a change in the way the team creates chances. The Sounders look to break down defenses now, prodding for openings and looking to control possession in the opposition's end as a means of domination. And in many ways, it's worked; the Sounders play some wonderful football, pushing and pushing and pushing until an opening is exploited. But on so many occasions, that opening has been wasted thanks to lackluster secondary moves or poor finishing.
Mike Fucito might not be the biggest set piece target and he's certainly not going to dominate central defenders in the air, but in the Sounders current system, he doesn't have to. All that's required of him is an ability to find lanes between defenders (something which he does better than anyone on the team) and to lead the line and break back lines on the counter (something this team has been missing since Steve Zakuani.) Fucito might not be a perfect fit up top for this team, but it's time he's given a fair shot. Nate Jaqua's had his, and he's quite clearly lost a step and a great deal of effectiveness. Roger Levesque has had a run out, and aside from being in the right place at the right time on a few occasions he's shown very little. The less said about Pat Noonan the better. Last night's CONCACAF Champions League match against Comunicaciones should have clinched it; Fucito was brilliant, not only finishing slivers of chances but creating them as well, drawing defenders to give Fredy Montero the space he hasn't seen since Blaise Nkufo left the team and stretching the back line so far that any hope of their joining the attack was extinguished after he broke them wide open to put Seattle on top 3-1.
There are reasons to think that a Fucito-Montero pairing isn't the answer to Seattle's offensive woes. Small-small isn't often a combination that works in soccer at any level in any league in any country. But what Seattle has been trying as of late hasn't been working either and something's going to have to change. And to be blunt, Fucito is really the only bullet left in the chamber. Whatever reasons Sigi Schmid may have had for not giving the pairing a fair shake in the past may well end up being true. But it's hard to imagine things turning out much worse than having to watch Pat Noonan or Roger Levesque lead the line.