Know your enemy: Seattle Sounders

Rosales and Montero. Probably for the best to stop these 2.

In their first MLS action of the season both sides will be taking the pitch on short rest from very different Wednesday night adventures in the CONCACAF Champions League: Toronto riding high on emotion from their upstart 1-2 win in Los Angeles (4-3 aggregate) and Seattle still shaken from their demoralizing 6-1 loss in Mexico (7-3 aggregate) to Santos Laguna.

Despite the lop-sided score-line against the Sounders, it was actually a close fought affair that just got away from them in the second half, as they appeared to run out of gas and ideas. Santos finished their chances and were deadly on the counter, while Seattle did not take advantage of those they created.

The effects of travel will be limited for Toronto, by having made the easy journey from LA up to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, on the other hand, had a long flight from Central Mexico with which to contend.

The Lineup

Seattle took the field with the same starting eleven in both legs - a diamond 4-4-2.

Michael Gspurning in goal, from right to left Adam Johansson, Jeff Parke, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Leo Gonzalez across the back, Osvaldo Alonso as a defensive midfielder, Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans and Alvaro Fernandez across the midfield, and David Estrada and Fredy Montero up top.

football formations

Coach Sigi Schmid has called for changes after the loss, but as with Bruce Arena's declaration of rotation after LA's weekend loss to Salt Lake, it remains to be seen whether they will be wholesale, selective, or non-existent.

Though ostensibly a diamond midfield, at times it looked rather flat; with Alonso being given license over the past season to get forward a bit more and add to the attack with either his improving long-range shooting or distribution.

With O'Brian White and Steve Zakuani still on the mend, the caliber of options from the bench leaves something to be desired.

If any changes are to come, Marc Burch, Zach Scott, and Patrick Ianni make solid defensive switches, Servando Carrasco and Christian Sivebaek could freshen up the midfield, while either Roger Levesque or Sammy Ochoa could replace Estrada in attack.

There is no reason to expect the big guns - Montero, Rosales, Alonso, and Fernandez - to not see the pitch, but the defense could possibly use a shake up, given the poor, tired display in Mexico.

As to the possibility of Eddie Johnson on the pitch from the off, it is highly unlikely. He did feature in both legs, but only as a substitute, playing twelve minutes at the end of the first match, and getting a half hour run out in the second.

He is still finding match fitness, sharpness, and confidence after a tumultuous European excursion. His positioning has been good - he ghosted in to head a Rosales cross in the first leg, but his sighting was off, placing it well-wide.

His sprinting looked a touch laboured and he appeared to tweak his hip stretching for the ball in the second leg, though, he was able to create a yard of space for a good shot within minutes of coming on, almost catching the Santos keeper at the near post, but he did not strike it cleanly enough to really trouble Oswaldo Sanchez.

The Tactics

Virtually all the Seattle attack is initiated by Mauro Rosales from his position on the right flank. He linked up well with his full-back, Johansson, in the first leg in particular. Whether picking passes out from that flank or cutting in dangerously he is the one to keep an eye on.

Montero up top and Fernandez on the opposite flank have their moments as well, but it is Rosales in a free-role that causes the most trouble. The trickiest part of Rosales' game is keeping tabs on him; he is all over the pitch, often switching flanks with Fernandez, coming centrally, and joining the attack. Fernandez too likes to cut in from wide, dragging opposition defenders in and opening up space in the wide areas for the full-back to get forward.

That diagonal movement and Montero's ability to drop deep or wide and serve as a provider, has the ability to suck defenders out of position, opening up holes for the wide attackers to step into, and for Evans and Alonso to find from their deeper positions, arriving late to the play.

Montero and Estrada proved themselves to be very mobile forwards, particularly in the first leg, but they provide very little of the target man play - both can be physical when necessary, but neither is going to challenge and win headers and hold them up to draw others into play, hence the movement of Montero to create space and time, that a more direct route could offer should Levesque be fielded.

Set pieces, as usual, will prove dangerous. Rosales tends to handle the deliveries of free kicks and corners while Montero is more likely to have an attempt at goal - recall his last-minute strike that beat Toronto at BMO 0-1 last season, though they do share the duty interchangeably.

Corner kicks caused Santos all kinds of trouble. Seattle was fond of using dummy runs to clear space for late, high and direct runs at the goal. Often Estrada, or whoever was closest to goal, would peel out towards the delivery, mimicking a run for a near-post glancing header, leaving space in the centre of the box for Evans or Fernandez to attack unchallenged.

The Form

Two of the three goals Seattle managed over the tie were created by Montero dropping off to the left side of the pitch finding some space to pick his head up and place a delivery into the box.

The first found two players - Evans and Estrada attacking the back-post, overloading the opposition's left-back, who marked Evans leaving Estrada with a free header from the edge of the six. The second picked out Fernandez with a curling delivery to the heart of the box, which the Uruguayan met with a tidy header.

Seattle's third goal was a quick response to having conceded. A left-sided Rosales free kick found Evans high at the near post for yet another header.

All three of their goals came from crosses into the box; all were scored with headers.

Of the seven goals they conceded there were a few distinct classes - slashing cross-current runs, capitalizing on defensive hesitancy, and counterattacks - that sometimes combined to allow the chances to be created.

The Hercules Gomez goal in the first match was the result of the striker being picked out with a lofted ball over the defensive line by Marc Crosas. Crosas got the defenders moving headed to the right by moving slightly in-field, Gomez raking in behind to the left got in front of his marker, Gonzalez, and volleyed the pass across the Seattle keeper. A similar play in the second leg almost led to another goal.

Defensive hesitancy led to the first two goals in the second leg. Cristian Suarez playing on the left was able to walk across the top of the back four and unleash a right-footed blast from the edge of the area. Neither Hurtado, nor Parke was quick enough to step up and challenge the ball, allowing time and space for the chance to materialize.

For the second goal, a speculative ball into the area from deep found Oribe Peralta, who skillfully shirked Hurtado and turned before poking the ball into the goal as he was tackled by the napping defender. Hurtado was caught out of position and outmuscled, had Peralta not converted the chance, it could have led to a penalty.

The remaining four Santos goals on the night were all the result of quick attacks, intelligent use of space and width, combined with some poor defending.

Suarez found space behind the right-back before squaring the ball for Gomez to grab his second. Parke was outpaced and Hurtado was drawn out to cover for his centre-back partner leaving only Gonzalez to handle two men in the box. The left-back trailed the first run and couldn't get back to the following Gomez, slipping in the process, allowing Herc a free shot on target.

Jorge Estrada, the Santos left-back, was causing Seattle all kinds of trouble by stepping up into the play on the counter. Drawing Gonzalez in and feeding the ball into space behind him for Peralta to score the fourth.

The fifth came as Estrada again sucked Gonzalez in-field after Hurtado and Parke had stepped up to confront the same attacker, creating space behind the left-back for Suarez, now playing on the right to run into before smashing a shot low across the keeper.

The sixth was again created when Hurtado stepped up but missed cutting out a pass, gifting Carlos Ochoa with a long break in alone on goal, he smashed his shot low to the short-side to complete the rout.

The contrast between performances in the two legs makes it difficult to predict which team will take the field on Saturday. Montero looked sharp and hungry, tracking back, pressuring the defense in the first leg, but was then sluggish, dull, and uninvolved in the second.

The defense looked solid and organized in the first leg, only to look confused and non-communicative in the second.

Parke and Hurtado have enough experience, both individually and as a duo, to have a good partnership, but it was not on display in the second leg. Neither has tons of speed, but it is rare that one sees them caught out so often.

Perhaps that confusion is caused by the roles of Rosales and Alonso. Rosales' free role means that the full-back on whichever side he takes up has much more stringent defensive duties to fulfill and is not available as cover for the centre-backs or as width in the attack.

Alonso also has to be wary of those holes forming, while trying to get himself involved in the attack more often than he has in the past.

That preoccupation of the full-backs and the overextension of Alonso may have resulted in the centre-backs being more exposed and isolated, with their normal shield in front and cover on the flanks less-prevalent.

That new dynamic - of Montero and Rosales drifting, Alonso and Evans pushing on, and Fernandez cutting in - has left a lot for the defenders to deal with, especially when confronted with pace. That is way they were dragged all over the pitch in the second leg.

The fact that they were slow to step up and challenge, were poor in their man-marking and clearing of aerial deliveries into the box, that they struggled in reading bounces and snuffing out danger, and were generally bad in their positioning could all spring from this shift; what was a compact unit last year has yet to settle in this.

Gspurning, as a replacement for Kasey Keller, has not yet measured up. He's shown himself to be a solid shot-stopper, but weak in the air, often flapping or punching balls rather than calmly collecting them. There are often dangerous rebounds available from shots that he dives to save.

Exploitation

Keep a close watch where Rosales goes and try to exploit the holes he leaves behind. If Plata, playing on the left can be isolated on the right-back, he'll have the beating of him wide for pace, or could walk across the top of the box and put a shot on goal as he is fond of trying.

Seattle is vulnerable to movement in the box - especially the cross-current passes. Get them moving in one direction and feed the ball the other for a slashing runner. Gomez was killing them with this move. A near-post run by Koevermans as Johnson, Plata, or Soolsma cut in; some through-balls from Silva or de Guzman; should be able to cause the Sounders some trouble.

Defensively be aware of late arrivals into the box trailing the play; track runners, especially on free kicks as they are likely to be the target as those closer to goal function as decoy making space in front.

Look for Frings to stay deep again to protect the defense from Rosales and keep an eye on Montero - will have the added benefit of keeping him further away from the tenacious Alonso in the midfield.

Follow up all shots on goal - pressure the defenders and keeper. They will relinquish chances if pressed.

In Mexico Seattle switched off for a second from a dead ball situation. Santos, rather than lump a delivery into the heart of the box squared it into space for Crosas to take a shot from distance. It was well-saved in the end but the chance was created too easily with a little bit of cunning. Be smart, do the unexpected.

Points of Interest

Johansson has a decent long throw on him, not flat enough to really cause trouble but something to watch.

With each team coming off of emotionally polar opposites, it will be interesting to see which can come back to centre first. A quick turnaround from Wednesday night, the need to get back to business - the first goal could do a lot to decide the outcome - as usual. Will Toronto be lacking the focus needed, still drunk on the unbelievable? Seattle was getting "Ole'd" by the Mexican fans at the end of their match and couldn't wait to get off the field - do they come out with something to prove, or will they still be smarting from the lesson they suffered?

The much derided artificial pitch at CenturyLink Field was re-laid during the offseason; the new one plays much better than the worn down one of the past few seasons, but still shows glimpses of those peculiar bounces and speed that mark synthetic surfaces.

Milos Kocic or Stefan Frei. Who gets the nod after the surprise switch midweek?

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