MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on the Seattle Sounders ahead of Thursday’s visit to Portland

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  • We should see DeAndre Yedlin, Obafemi Martins

PORTLAND, Ore. — I’ve been a fan of DeAndre Yedlin’s all year but mostly kept my mouth shut. Every time I opened it, I’d find myself saying “he’s good, but not that good,” speaking to those who wanted the 20-year-old to be chosen to the All-Star Game (thanks, Commissioner Garber), get consideration for the senior national team, or make this year’s Best XI. The guy was good, but he’s 20-year-old, ‘I’m taking over someday but not now’ good. It’s a hard concept to get across in 140 characters.

That said, he was missed on Saturday. Not that Zach Scott was bad — he wasn’t (and he earned a cracked rib for his trouble) — but as we saw Portland’s not-so-natural right back Jack Jewsbury play a part in both Timber goals, you couldn’t help but think of the options Yedlin would have offered to a Sounder team that held 60 percent of the ball. Perhaps that tight Timber defense that (as Caleb Porter reminded us after the match) never let anything behind them would have had to stretch to account for Yedlin’s presence.

[REVIEW: Johnson, Nagbe goals allow Portland to take edge out of Seattle]

It will be shock if he doesn’t start on Thursday. If Saturday’s was an elimination game, Yedline probably would have played then, too, but with Zach Scott injured, there’s little reason to doubt.

Obafemi Martins, on the other hand, carries few more question marks, given the Nigerian international has played once since Sept. 29. But it’s all hands on deck for an elimination game, and with Lamar Neagle suspended after picking up his postseason’s second yellow, Sigi Schmid needs the option.

There are whispers he could start, but given this match could go 120 minutes, that seems a stretch. Better to keep him on the bench and bring him on in the second half, potentially having him on the field for penalty kicks.

(And penalty kicks, between the Timbers and Sounders, with the teams kicking into the Timbers Army? If the MLS is going to fix/arrange anything, please let start with this!)

[MORE: MLS Playoff Preview: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers]

  • Need to sort out the diamond or let it go

Sigi Schmid was clear after Saturday’s loss. He sees the midfield diamond (a 4-3-1-2 formation, in this case) as the Sounders’ best option. Yes, they gave up two goals because of the formation, but Schmid seemed to be saying they needed to play the formation better, not scrap it altogether.

But a few things have changed since Saturday’s kickoff. Lamar Neagle got suspended, leaving only Clint Dempsey and a not 100 percept match fit Obafemi Martins as reasonable options up top. Mauro Rosales is also a possibility here, but if he’s coming into the team, might as well put him into his best position (wide right), move Adam Moffat back to a more comfortable role, and deploy Dempsey in support of Eddie Johnson.

And that’s the other factor: Mauro Rosales. Granted, a lot of his late-match effectiveness in Seattle may have been about Portland playing with a two-goal edge, but the team looked better with his threat wide (after a short, failed spell playing him at the tip of the diamond). If he starts, he could partner Johnson up top, but it makes more sense to play as many players as possible in their best positions.

Watch the game tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN or watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra

source: AP
Djimi Traoré (right) was at fault on Portland’s winning goal Saturday in Seattle. Central defense partner Jhon Kennedy Hurtado made the key error on the Timbers’ opener. (Photo: AP.)
  • The obvious: Defenders have got to be better

Each Portland goal was a result of an individual mistake. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado failed to track Ryan Johnson’s run on the first goal. Djimi Traoré tried a low percentage tackle ahead of Darlington Nagbe’s high percentage shot. Perhaps Portland presses to score other ways if those mistakes don’t happen, but Seattle has reason to believe the errors played as big a part as Portland’s execution.

The solution isn’t complicated. Play better. Don’t underestimate Ryan Johnson’ persistence. Know Darlington Nagbe’s not going to turn onto his left foot. Deny Jack Jewsbury that cross when he’s standing right on the end line. This isn’t about approach. It’s about execution.

  • Quality over quantity when it comes to chances

Seattle placated themselves with the quantity of chances they produced on Saturday, which is a mistake. At the end of the game, they may have doubled the Timbers’ overall shot total, but they put as many shots on target as their opponents: Five. In that light, it looks like the Sounders may be playing Portland’s game. While they weren’t exactly roasted on the counter attack (as Caleb Porter implied after the game), Portland generated the slightly better chances. And they executed on those chances.

[MORE: Portland Timbers thriving after unexpected death of ‘Porterball’]

Seattle’s capable of creating the same opportunities, but they have to work for them. They can’t settle for the low percentage chances Portland cedes and prepares for. They can’t assume one of their set pieces will come good. They need to be more patient. They need to execute the same way the Timbers executed on their second goal. Despite holding the ball for three-fifths of the game, we didn’t see many (any?) sequences like that from the Sounders.

source: Getty Images
Sigi Schmid is the only coach in the Sounders’ MLS history. The team’s poor finish to the 2013 season has led to speculation about his future. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Like Seattle, Portland isn’t blessed with stellar defenders. They’re fine, not great, and they’re dependent on good goalkeeping and a strong shield. Getting through Diego Chara and Will Johnson is not easy, but Seattle needs to get at Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso. They need quality over quantity.

  • And of course …

This is a very important game for Sigi Schmid. Is he gone if Seattle loses tonight? I don’t know, but there’ll be every reason for Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer to doubt he’s the man that can get them over the top. He’s done a remarkable (perhaps under-appreciated) job getting Seattle to this point, but year after year, it seems this point is a stumbling block. Given how the team has performed in first legs, it’s fair to wonder if preparation or mindset is a problem.

[MORE: The hard truth in Seattle: Sigi Schmid is almost certainly gone without a big series reversal]

But the stakes and consequences transcend Sigi Schmid. This is a team which this year (with the help of Major League Soccer) spent more in transfer fees than any in league history. They have a full allotment of Designated Players and two other stars (Osvaldo Alonso, Eddie Johnson) who’ll want that recognition in the near future. While not winning a title could be chalked up to the variability of a playoff system, nose-diving at the end of a season is a much more worrisome outcome.

If Seattle loses tonight, they’ll finish the season with one win in their last 10 games. Even if they hadn’t landed Clint Dempsey, those results would have forced the team to reconsider their course. All their personnel decisions — not just coaches, but also players — would be made knowing they came up well short in 2013.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…