HOUSTON - JULY 30: Roger Levesque #24 of the Seattle Sounders heads the ball away from Andre Hainult #31 of the Houston Dynamo at Robertson Stadium on July 30, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Seattle Sounders defense has looked less than their best these past few weeks, while the attack has been racking up goals left and right. Still, the club should put a greater emphasis on attackers than defenders as they weigh options before the close of the transfer window and trade deadline.
Ever since Blaise Nkufo and the Seattle Sounders parted ways just hours before the season was set to get underway, fans of the team have been concerned about where the goals were going to come from. The first three games of the season did little to dispel those fears, the Sounders managing just one goal and that coming off a somewhat fortunate deflection to Steve Zakuani late in the going against the Houston Dynamo. The struggles didn't stick around for too terribly long however; soon enough the Sounders were flashing a pretty impressive attack. As it stands, Seattle rank second in the league in both goals scored and goals per game, behind New York Red Bulls in both categories. And now, after a few poor defensive efforts, a lot of Sounders fans are asking whether the focus in this transfer window shouldn't shift to the defense.
Clearly, the Sounders defense hasn't been at their best over the past month or so, and there were signs of vulnerability as early as May. Seattle has always been somewhat susceptible to the counter, but it's gone beyond that in recent games. The Sounders have looked flat-out disorganized at times, and that's not something anyone is accustomed to seeing. The loss of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has been felt, but Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni formed an excellent pairing for most of last season and the eye test doesn't reveal any major decline in ability this year. James Riley is something of a known quantity and though he's certainly not without his faults as a player those faults have been present the entire time he's been with the team. Tyson Wahl is the only new part of the equation, and while he's not the defender Leo Gonzalez is he's far from a disaster and in any case, Wahl had firmly established himself as first choice well before the current run of poor(er) defensive form began. And it's important to keep in mind that as of now, that's the best way to describe it; a run of comparatively poor defensive form. There's too much variability in events to consider it a trend just yet.
There's also the reality that for the majority of the past few months, the Sounders have been scoring goals at a pretty impressive clip. The odds are pretty good that there's a connection between the two. Sigi Schmid did a great deal of tinkering with the team's tactical approach after their slow start, and what we've seen over the past few months has been a very attacking team. The Sounders struggled mightily to score earlier on in the year, but they didn't lose very many games because their defense was able to keep them in games. For the majority of their unbeaten run, they were slightly more vulnerable at the back but managed to score goals at a very impressive rate. Tactical changes don't account for everything, but they're likely a big part the equation. Without any significant additions of attacking talent, Seattle is probably going to continue playing a similar style. That means the odds are good they'll continue to be a good defensive team rather than an elite one.
Of course, it stands to reason that better defensive players are better defensive players and that the performance of the back line will improve if talent is added no matter what the club's tactical approach. And that is of course true. But as it stands, the talent the Sounders employ on the defensive side of the game is towards the top in MLS. All three of the center backs in Seattle's regular rotation are of above league-average or better. And for all the failings of Riley, Wahl and Gonzalez, few teams have better options at outside back. The reality is, outside backs aren't just a scarce commodity in MLS; they're a scarce commodity everywhere. It's easily the thinnest position in the US player pool, and there are fewer difference-making full backs than any other spot on the field in leagues world wide. There just aren't all that many wide defenders on which a team could justify burning a Designated Player spot, and of those select few perhaps a tiny fraction could be talked into coming to MLS because the demand is so high for their services elsewhere. As for center back, the probability of finding a DP quality player is higher in the middle than it might be out wide but that doesn't mean it makes sense for Seattle, or for most other teams. The difference in value between the Sounders second-best option at center back (Parke or Ianni) and DP level talent is far lower than the difference between Roger Levesque, Nate Jaqua or even O'Brian White and a DP level striker.
It's never a good idea to rule out any possibilities where player acquisitions are concerned, and the Sounders should be doing all they can to improve as much as possible. If the right situation comes around, adding a defender or even midfielder might be the best path towards that goal. But the odds are, adding an attacking player is going to have the biggest impact, especially given the Sounders financial resources. None of the players Seattle regularly starts at the back are below average, but one of the players they regularly start up top is. And there's a reason for that, and a reason the vast majority of DPs in MLS are attacking players; average or better defenders are far cheaper than average or better forwards. They're also more readily available in MLS, meaning the Sounders can help address their depth issues at right back without hampering their ability to make an impact signing of an attacking player. The reverse of that isn't true.
It's tempting to focus on fixing whichever problem seems most pressing at any given moment, but that approach can lead to reactionary decisions being made. For the majority of their existence, the Sounders have been one of the better defensive teams in MLS but they've struggled to consistently score goals. They're still one of the better defensive teams in the league and while they've been scoring goals at a more regular clip this year there are still easily identified areas that can be improved. It's important to keep the bigger picture in perspective; if a striker was the team's highest priority a week or two ago, it should still be their highest priority. A few poor performances shouldn't change that.