Regardless of your feelings for the game’s strategic side, in high-level professional soccer, tactics do matter. The extent to which they matter is debatable, but anybody who seeks to dismiss the influence of a good (or bad) plan need only look to last night’s game at Rio Tinto for an example of a poor plan submarining a team’s chances.
Everybody knows Real Salt Lake is going to play a 4-3-1-2 formation, so their approach shouldn’t have been difficult for Sigi Schmid plan for ahead of Seattle’s visit to Real Salt Lake. That planning was complicated by the absence of Osvaldo Alonso – Seattle’s all-league ball-winner capable of offsetting the numerical advantage RSL was bound to have in the middle. Thanks to Javi Morales and Kyle Beckerman at each end of the final third, RSL were also likely to have an edge in talent. Schmid needed to adjust.
Unfortunately, all of his adjustments seemed to downplay the importance of the midfield. Schmid chose Brad Evans and Servando Carrasco to start in the middle, leaving Seattle without a true ball-winner (let alone enough numbers to win second balls). Staying with his typical 4-4-2 formation, Schmid’s choices of Mauro Rosales and Lamar Neagle wide isolated his two-man midfield, the attack-minded players almost never coming in to help mitigate RSL’s advantages. The way Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins were deployed up top, there was rarely somebody to come back onto Kyle Beckerman, who was allowed free rein to control the game. Whereas it would have been wishful thinking to see a Evans-Carrasco duo competing with RSL’s diamond under normal circumstances, the lack of help from the other parts of Schmid’s set up gave his midfield little hope.
That’s how you can have a game where RSL, not playing especially well (they were fine, not great), can put up a 17-2 advantage in shots on goal. It’s how a Seattle defense who individually played well can still give up two goals. It’s how a Sounders attack that is one of the most talented in the league can go 73 minutes without a shot on goal.
Critics of this view can point to Real Salt Lake’s two goals and note a bit of luck. The first took a fortunate bounce off a wall before falling to Kyle Beckerman. The second saw Alvaro Saborio shank a shot before Robbie Findley doubled his team’s lead. How would a bulked up Seattle midfield prevented either of those?
The answer’s in the buildup. Before Beckerman’s goal, Carrasco committed the type of edge-of-the-area foul that’s to be expected when a team’s not offering sufficient resistance in midfield. It’s too easy for the opposition to get at the defense with a head of steam, often forcing defenders to commit fouls. On the second goal, Real Salt Lake cut open the midfield, were easily able to move through the defense, leaving Findley in position to benefit from a bit of luck.
By now, you’ve probably imagined the potential solutions. With Andy Rose and Shalrie Joseph on the bench, Seattle had enough midfielders to play three in the middle, moving Evans or Carrasco into a position to pounce on second balls and promote a connection to the attack. If Schmid didn’t want to switch from his favored 4-4-2 or sacrifice one of his attackers, he still needed to adjust defensively, be it by having Rosales or Neagle pinch in, Johnson or Martins fall back onto Beckerman, or both.
By failing to sacrifice an attacker (by it by selection or tactic), Seattle was left with an ironic result. Overwhelmed through the middle, the Sounders were unable to control enough of the game to use their talented attacked, leaving the team with only two shots on goal. By failing to choose between his attackers, Schmid inadvertently sacrificed all four.
If Schmid has chosen a different course, there’s no guarantee Seattle would have gotten a result at Rio Tinto. But failing to make a tough decision between his attackers, Schmid left his team’s chances on the chalkboard. Seattle were never set up to compete with RSL.