Detecting a defensive midfielder’s influence takes a discerning eye.
Rewind a goal back to its genesis — the defensive midfielder is likely the guy whose tackle sparked the break, whose hockey assist broke open the defense a few passes before the decisive one.
Gonzalo Pineda doesn’t have the top-level speed of DeAndre Yedlin or the visceral tenacity of midfield partner Osvaldo Alonso.
“(Pineda) makes players around him better,” Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson wrote in an email. “He is like a top chess player who sees many moves ahead.”
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Pineda’s influence is buried in the possession statistics and hidden in the spaces freed up for the attackers.
“I think the most important thing in soccer is to control the middle,” said Alonso.
When Henderson helped bring Pineda into the fold this past offseason, there were doubts about how much the 31-year-old had left in the tank. Pineda, the former Mexican national-team member, had played for three clubs in three seasons, two on loan, before signing with Seattle in March.
Pineda admits he’s still working on his conditioning, even though he averages more ground covered per match than any other Sounder. His pairing with Alonso, though promising, remains a work in progress.
“You never can say I’m there,” Pineda said. “I always try to look one step up. My ceiling is too high to be there. I always try to get better. Right now, I’m OK.”
When Seattle’s midfield was overrun in the first half of a 3-0 defeat against the Los Angeles Galaxy that could have been even worse, Pineda took the blame.
“My job is to take control of the midfield,” he said at training the next day. “ … Yesterday, I didn’t do that.”
In Seattle’s lone league victory in August, a 2-0 home triumph over Houston, the Sounders held on to a 1-0 lead until Pineda doubled it with a penalty kick.
Back in May, with the Sounders trailing Vancouver by a goal in the 80th minute, Pineda stepped up to the spot and converted with a confident chip over the goalkeeper. He did the same a few months later against Tottenham.
Assistant coach Brian Schmetzer has been impressed with Pineda’s performance in those situations.
“He’s not afraid to put that pressure on himself,” Schmetzer said.
Last Saturday in Salt Lake City, that meant standing toe-to-toe with the talented Real midfield and United States men’s national team member Kyle Beckerman.
Real Salt Lake won the battle early on. RSL pushed forward, pressing every Seattle player who received a pass. Sun in their eyes, defenders in their faces, the Sounders couldn’t keep the ball. An RSL goal felt inevitable until Pineda lifted up his head in the 10th minute.
He hit a long cross for Yedlin on the opposite sideline and reversed the field.
It didn’t lead to a goal, or even a clear-cut chance, but the Sounders caught their breath and the early Salt Lake onslaught slowed.
Pineda found the release valve. He will need to do the same thing Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field.
If the Sounders are going to reverse their current run of four defeats in six league matches, then beginning Wednesday night against San Jose is a good place to start.
The Sounders’ weekend trip to archrival Portland will complete a run of five matches in two weeks. Real Salt Lake is atop the Western Conference for the first time all season and Seattle is in second for the first time since April, with each successive defeat recalling Seattle’s limping finish last season.
The pressure is rising.