The Seattle Sounders, after only one week, are number one in the power rankings and currently atop the table. They got three goals, a clean sheet and all three points while putting on a clinic against a quality foe in the New England Revolution. At first glance, they look like the team to beat in MLS.
Not to be the wet blanket but let’s play devil’s advocate. What makes the Sounders vulnerable, how will teams try to beat the Sounders?
Other than the health of Ozzie Alonso, the Sounders’ Achilles Heel is width in the midfield. Traditionally Sigi used the 4-2-3-1 and generated the majority of his offense out wide. Opponents used to scheme to avoid Zakuani screaming down the touch line or Mauro booming crosses into the box. Over the last two years, Yedlin’s forays provided width, but the Sounders, for the second year running, are lacking true wingers.
Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa are our nominal wingers, as they are our midfielders who play wide. Neagle is settling in quite well as a plus-midfielder, as he logged 9 goals and 9 assist last year. But I think we can all agree that he is at best a converted forward playing out of position. Now Pappa belongs in the midfield, but as discussed already, he loves to cheat in. Pappa is also playing out of position. On the Panamanian national team he did his damage as a creator and attacker from the center of the pitch.
On Sunday night, Neagle and Pappa were, for the most part, archetypal wingers. They stayed wide, played both-ways and made New England respect the whole width of the pitch. Check out the heat map from the game:
That is a vision of loveliness. Because of their inherent attacking natures, both are playing as inverted wingers (playing the “wrong” side of the field as determined by their natural footedness). For newer fans, playing with your natural foot inside makes it easier to drift into the center and attack at the top of the box. The trick for Neagle and Pappa is to stay discipline and hold their wide positions.
Both Neagle and Pappa are talented footballers. They are key to the Sounders’ feared attack, but their tendencies play into Seattle’s most glaring tactical weakness. Teams know we want Oba and Deuce to link up right through the gut of their defense. Without any real wide threat, opponents can hold a tight line and make life hell for Seattle. When Neagle and Pappa cheat in, we make ourselves one-dimensional and opponents can cover less space. Now Seattle has some superlative soccer players, but it’s long odds if you expect 2 men to weave past 6 with any regularity. Any good opponent can pack it in on defense and counter wide.
With Neagle and Pappa in the midfield, Seattle puts their best eleven on the pitch. But this leaves their attack predictable. We don’t have many other options behind the starters, as our depth behind Neagle and Pappa is Kenny Cooper and Chad Barrett.
Now I am on record saying Cooper is far, far more effective out wide than as a target forward. But both players are also converted forwards. The Sounders don’t have anyone on the roster who is a pure winger. Except for Aaron Kovar.