We've seen several tactical approaches from the Seattle Sounders this season. Early on in the year the team played an attacking style that looked first to the counter and reverted to a possession-based style if it wasn't there. The loss of Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White took away a great deal of the speed that made such an approach effective, and Sigi Schmid's response was to employ a diamond 4-4-2 formation. The diamond 4-4-2 is designed to narrow the play and stifle the opponent's ability to make progress through the midfield. The Sounders had some success with the style, dominating possession and frustrating opponents, but without a true clinical finisher the Sounders struggled to score often enough that the strategy was sub-optimal.
Towards the middle of the MLS season, there was a very distinct shift in the Sounders approach and it was unlike anything we'd seen from the team in the past. Fredy Montero drifted deeper into a freer role, still listed as a striker but playing more in line with the wings as an enganche, the role in which he had so much success last season. Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez were once again dispatched to wide areas, giving Montero the space to create in the center with Fernandez really taking to his role as an inverted winger and going on something of a goal scoring binge; never a prolific scorer before arriving in MLS, Flaco has netted 8 goals in all competitions for Seattle this season as compared to a total of 9 between all clubs before joining the Sounders. Rosales has shown a great deal of versatility this season playing as a withdrawn forward, central midfielder and on both wings and he's been absolutely brilliant on the right wing. Rosales and Montero have formed a stunning creative partnership and Rosales has put himself at least on the periphery of the conversation for MLS MVP.
As the second band of the attack has gelled, the Sounders new approach has fully taken shape. Aside from occasional nods to game theory, balls from the back stay on the ground. Osvaldo Alonso has evolved from being one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS to a tactically aware destroyer who also acts as a deep-lying playmaker and is unquestionably one of the best midfielders in MLS, period. Whether his partner in the midfield has been Erik Friberg of Brad Evans, their crashing runs into the center of the attack have caused major disruption to opposing defenses. James Riley and Tyson Wahl have abandoned much of the pretext of being primarily defensive players and now puch forward with something just short of reckless abandon, filling in the space left out wide by Rosales and Fernandez and when all is clicking shutting down counter attacks before they can begin. The one spot in the attack that hasn't been especially productive has been the more forward striker with a rotating cast of Roger Levesque, Pat Noonan and on rare occasions Mike Fucito not doing a great deal (at least in league play) to make much of an impact. Still, that Seattle is 4th in the league in goals scored without getting consistent production from the position expected to score a disproportionately large chunk of the team's goals only serves to illustrate how dangerous in attack this team has become. And they play some pretty gorgeous soccer to boot, as aesthetically pleasing as any team in the league.
Of course, there are always going to be tradeoffs. It's difficult to argue that Seattle's current incarnation as a fluid attacking side whose game is based largely on possession isn't the best possible use of the available talent, but with the tactical shift has come an uptick in the number of goals allowed. Seattle's reputation in MLS has been built upon a foundation of strong defensive play, and while this team is far from a disaster at the back they've been much more vulnerable during their most current run of good form than we've seen at any point this season. That's led to questions about the quality of the defense, but the reality is that though improvement could certainly be made along the back line the talent is still above-average for the league. The explanation is in the tactics and the results speak for themselves. The Sounders are at present the best they've ever been as an MLS club, and though defensive lapses are frustrating they're the price of the team's current approach.
Still, sometimes the risk pretty clearly isn't worth it. This past week has given us two pretty clear examples. FC Dallas were quite effective in stifling Seattle's attack in May, riding Brek Shea's first-half goal to a 1-0 win. In the midst of some serious fixture congestion and with temperatures at kickoff hovering around 100 degrees, the Sounders abandoned their typical approach. Instead of taking the game to FC Dallas, the Sounders invited the home side to bring the game to them and looked for opportunities to strong together fluid conter-attacks. And it worked; the defense was fantastic, Kasey Keller was even better and Fredy Montero slid a perfect ball through to Mauro Rosales ahead of a badly beaten Toros back line to claim the game's only goal. The Sounders had some lucky breaks, but they put themselves in a position to take advantage of those breaks.
Against Monterrey, Seattle took things a step further. The approach was similar, but in the first half the Sounders goal was less about the counter attack and more about holding possession when it came to them. Against a very good MLS side like FC Dallas, you can afford to take some risk in looking to create opportunities. Against Monterrey, if the goal is to keep a clean sheet, the most important thing is to take only what is given and to keep them from holding the ball as often as possible. When they do, stay back, grit your teeth and hold the line. And they did. And to the surprise of everyone-most likely Sigi Schmid included-they didn't merely the hold the line; they busted Monterrey's as well. The Rayados defense was largely well organized, but in one of their few lapses in concentration the Sounders pounced. Taking advantage of their edge in midfield (in terms of bodies if not quality) the Sounders strung together on of the more beautiful pieces of full-team counterattacking play you will ever see, with Alvaro Fernandez latching on to the final ball and firing the Sounders to an historic victory.
The Sounders team we saw against FC Dallas and Monterrey is not something most fans want to see often, if for no other reason than their cardiovascular health. Bunkering down may give teams a better chance of keeping their opponents off the board, but in the moment it certainly doesn't feel that way. And when given a choice, most fans would prefer their team play attractive, attacking soccer rather than stifling, defensive soccer. But sometimes that's just not the most effective way to get positive results, and Sounders fans should be thrilled that their team is as adept at shifting between the two extremes when it's called for.
We've seen that this team can push themselves to the top of the table by asserting their dominance on their opponents. But with their two most recent results, they've also shown that they can pick up very tough wins doing almost the exact opposite. That's a huge advantage for a team that wants so compete deep into multiple competitions and it highlights not only the team's roster flexibility and versatility of many of its players, it's also a tribute to the pragmatism of Sigi Schmid. Many coaches and managers have their own philosophies as to the "right way" to play the game, and though Schmid likely has his own as well it's clear that he's willing to accept that sometimes a different approach is called for. The Sounders just beat one of the best teams in Mexico-playing a near full-strength lineup-on their own turf and they did it playing a style that's the polar opposite of the one they typically play. Even fans of attacking soccer have to admit; that's pretty fantastic. .
It's also a good omen for the playoffs and (knock on wood) the knockout stages of the CCL; if Seattle can beat Monterrey's first team at Estadio Tecnológico, they can compete with any team in CONCACAF at any venue. That's not something you could say about them last season. This team is moving forward and the past week is evidence of the strides they've made. There are still problems with the squad, and there likely always will be. But the players, front office and coach all deserve a tremendous amount of respect. This is a strong team, not only in talent but also in character. Their will to win is strong. And so, increasingly, is their capacity to do so. The how, where and who don't matter. This team can play with anyone.