The Seattle Sounders are one of the marquee teams in Major League Soccer. They’re also, for the first time, the league’s defending champions. They won the MLS Cup in dramatic fashion, beating Toronto FC 5-4 on penalties.
The Sounders play New York City tomorrow at 1 p.m. in their only meeting this year — barring a playoff clash between the two teams, which wouldn’t come until the MLS Cup Final. Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart, our Seattle counterpart, stops by to answer and ask three questions.
1. What in the world is going on with the Sounders? Once a model of consistency, it looks as though you’re suffering either from a championship hangover and the inevitable aging out of the squad. Is this something that you think can be fixed in the summer transfer window, or will it continue plaguing the team?
You know all that whining MLS fans do about the injuries to their teams? It's been some of that. Jordan Morris, he of world-class speed, tried to play through a hamstring issue and then an ankle issue. Up until a couple weeks ago he didn't have that burst. Brad Evans missed the first ten weeks of the season and due to numerous other injuries on the backline (Chad Marshall and Roman Torres and Oniel Fisher) there were games when the 4th best right back started alongside the 5th and 6th best centerbacks. The defense did a noble effort trying to hold up, but those last three road games showed just how bad they could be. All were three-goal losses.
Things should be getting better. This is an MLS Cup Champion that added Clint Dempsey while replacing Nelson Valdez with Will Bruin, Andreas Ivanschitz with Harry Shipp, and Tyrone Mears with Gustav Svensson. That should be a quality team.
Instead it looked horrible, particularly on the road. Most teams cannot lose 4+ starters at a time and win in this league, at least not for months straight.
2. Last year you picked up Nicolas Lodeiro, and it proved to be the catalyst for your championship run. He clearly hasn’t had the same effect since, for lots of reasons. Do you think it’s something you can fix within the team, or will the Sounders have to reload in order to defend their title?
There are three ways that Nico can resume that dominance. The first is throughballs. Last year he was able to pick out a sprinting Jordan Morris. Morris has not been able to sprint for some time. That hurt his finishing and Lodeiro's ability to collect assist numbers. Secondly, his set-pieces have been mediocre for some time. Now that he has all of his potential targets he must hit them. The team has several designed dead ball plays, but if the kick taker doesn't do his job the rest of it falls apart. Finally, when he came he carried the squad. It was something he knew he must do. He has yet to exhibit that attitude again. If the Sounders are going to be great, he must bear that burden. He is currently the best attacker on the team. There is no need to default to Dempsey, or Morris. This is Nico's team.
Seattle will certainly be adding talent in the secondary transfer window. They have the space to add both a Designated Player and a TAM talent. Both are able to be internationals as Alvaro Fernandez is on his way out. For a team that already has decent depth, when healthy, this could be huge. There are a lack of rumors at this point with senior scouting personnel traveling to Argentina and Europe lately. They may even resurrect an old rumor, as they do scout several windows ahead regularly.
3. This is Seattle’s only game at Yankee Stadium. While the Sounders have found success in New York, how do you think the team’s going to cope for Saturday’s game — especially coming off a mid-week Open Cup game, and dealing with the cross-country travel?
This is the easier of the questions. Seattle is finally getting themselves in a decent place in regards to health, fatigue and availability. It took about three months! The Open Cup won't impact the 18 as the Sounders and Timbers both played USL squads. The win was a great feather in the cap for a mostly S2 roster and needed fitness for Aaron Kovar and Henry Wingo, two young HGPs that will usually be in the First Team's 18 but rarely start.
Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Roman Torres and Joevin Jones are all back from their various national teams. Morris, Torres, and Dempsey didn't start in their final games during the break and only Torres played among those three. Jones has a great motor, but did go 77' in T&T's loss.
The only issue is that Oniel Fisher (depth fullback) and Jordy Delem (depth defensive mid/right back) are both away for the Caribbean Cup.
Harry Shipp is fully healthy, and Will Bruin is fit and healthy enough to play with his bionic left arm (arm is not bionic, it does have a large brace). There's literally no one on the injury report right now.
For the first time in 2017 Brian Schmetzer will get to play his Ideal XI as currently constructed.
And here are our answers to their questions
1 - What impact will the Open Cup game have on Saturday's MLS contest?
If rumors circulating Thursday night are accurate, Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of the Red Bulls hurt more than New York City’s pride. That’s because midfielder Maxi Moralez left the game injured at halftime. Officially, it was for precautionary measures; he picked up a “knock” right as the first half drew to a close.
But it now seems that whatever injury Moralez suffered was more serious than initially thought, and he may not be available for Saturday’s game. If that’s true, then New York City’s offense will suffer.
You see, Moralez plays as an enganche. That’s a traditionally Argentinian midfield role (Moralez is Argentinian) which literally translates to “hook”. In this role, the player heads the midfield and is responsible for the transitional play between the deeper midfielders and attackers.
A midfielder who plays that role passes the ball on through to on-running teammates, or — depending on what your tactical setup is — a target man, in order to create goal-scoring chances.
Typically, an enganche has superb field vision and an excellent passing range. That allows him to pick out teammates further on up the field, playing either in space or making runs into the box. That makes for efficient possession. It also means that your enganche has to have excellent ball control and retention, so they can receive passes and play the ball forward. This is why players with Moralez’s physical attributes — short, built low to the ground — usually excel in this role.
You get the picture. The Blues’ offense has been vastly more efficient with Moralez in the lineup than without him. Without him, players like Rodney Wallace, Jack Harrison, and most significantly, David Villa, find themselves dropping deeper and deeper in order to get the ball. This disrupts the rhythm of New York City’s offense, and forces them to hurry their offensive possessions.
2 - Now that the post-Pirlo era started who controls the offense?
As I demonstrated above — Maxi Moralez. But it goes beyond him. It’s difficult to get the ball off Moralez. But he’s not the sole contributor. Moralez is rather the catalyst for the offense. There are two other players who allow Moralez the time and space to orchestrate the offense.
First: Finnish midfielder Alexander Ring. Ring operates as a box-to-box midfielder, and he handles all the unglamorous midfield work. Whether that’s disrupting the other team’s offensive forays, or gathering up the ball for distribution so that Moralez and other offensive players can get to work, Ring provides the necessary grit that New York City’s missed in their midfield their first two seasons.
Second: Yangel Herrera. Herrera, who just won the Bronze Ball at the U-20 World Cup with Venezuela, operates somewhere between a shadow striker and an out-and-out attacking midfielder. His presence in the lineup means that defenses have to account not just for an attacking threat, but for someone that can create on and off the ball.
It’s no coincidence that New York City’s offensive struggles started when he departed for the World Cup. The combination of Herrera and Moralez allowed the Blues’ attacking trident of Wallace, Harrison, and Villa to concentrate mostly on scoring chances, rather than trying to create those chances. Without those two players, New York City has struggled mightily in scoring
3 - Should Sounders fans be missing Sean Okoli?
No. Or at least — and I’m being kind here — not yet.
New York City signed Okoli in the offseason based on his scoring prowess with the USL’s FC Cincinnati. He scored 16 goals for FCC, and won both the Golden Boot and the league’s MVP award. The Blues have always been desperate for additional scorers — Villa is by far the team’s leading scorer — and a target man. Villa is a lot of things for New York City, but he’s not that.
So far, he hasn’t delivered. In seven appearances with the Blues, he’s scored one goal. It’s not exactly clear why he hasn’t jelled yet with the squad, but I suspect that it’s for two reasons.
One, MLS isn’t USL. Simply put, it’s probably easier to score in USL — where the talent level is slightly lower, and the tactical setups are slightly more straightforward and oriented towards “route one” soccer. But that’s probably at most a tiny reason.
Two — and this is by far the bigger reason — New York City’s offense isn’t built with his particular gifts and skills in mind. Vieira is dogmatically, relentlessly dedicated towards having the Blues build from the back. It’s the team’s Plan A, Plan B, and on down the rest of the alphabet. The Blues don’t cross the ball into the box, they don’t play on the counter, they don’t do anything but build from the back.
Moreover, Okoli’s appearances have mostly consisted of substitute appearances. So here’s this guy, coming into the game in, say, the 73rd minute, and he’s an entirely different kind of player from Villa. Villa’s great gift is that he plays as a forward but thinks and approaches the game as a number 10. In effect, Villa can create something from nothing, which he’s had to do repeatedly in with the Blues.
That’s not Okoli’s game. Okoli is a bog-standard target forward. You set the table for him, you create the scoring chances, and he will take advantage. Asking him to do anything else is asking him to do something that he’s not really equipped to do.
If you watch most of his appearances, Okoli seems to be wandering, looking to get involved in the offense, but mostly getting bypassed. And that’s meant that neither he nor the team’s gotten the best use out of him, which is a shame. I don’t know if that’s going to change, but I’m doubtful.