The Sounders are switching to the new formation to give forwards Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris enough playing time.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Obafemi Martins looked confused, bewildered even, when the pass was played into a cluster of bodies atop the opposing box instead of toward his feet near the sideline.
The Sounders, as you might have heard, are switching from a 4-4-2 default formation to a 4-3-3. And chemistry is a work in progress, if body language during their 2-1 preseason loss to Portland on Saturday was any indication.
Martins threw his head back and tossed his arms into the air. He gestured at the space in front of him and barked instructions, brow furrowing with apparent frustration.
If this sounds like you while struggling to comprehend the complexities of the Sounders’ formation change, read on for the intermediate guide to the 4-3-3.
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The Sounders are in the unique spot of having their three highest-paid players as well as their highest-profile offseason signing all play the same position.
Keeping forwards Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris satiated with playing time will be a challenge even in a three-striker system. But a 4-4-2 with half of them being forced out of position in outside-midfield roles would have been more untenable.
None of that quartet is a true winger, per se — Martins looked out of his element on the right sideline against the Timbers — but this is like forcing rectangles into square holes instead of round ones.
“It’s to make use of the talent that we have,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid explained at Morris’ introductory news conference. “I’ve always been a coach that evaluates the talent that you have on your team and devise, not necessarily a style of play, but a system of play that enhances everybody’s ability to contribute.”
Its long-term success is dependent on attackers defending
A team with three proven, international forwards on the field will have no problem scoring goals — sprinkle Dempsey, Martins and Valdez into a 6-5-0, and they’d somehow find a way to get on the board — but it could have trouble preventing them.
The Sounders finished tied for fewest goals allowed in MLS last season, but a lot of that credit goes to a breakout year by Stefan Frei in goal and the willingness of a tireless midfield to provide cover.
Chad Marshall and Tyrone Mears are over 30, Brad Evans is in positional purgatory with Roman Torres in injury rehab, and new addition Joevin Jones will take time to integrate. If too many players push forward and neglect their defensive duties, that back line could get exposed.
“It’s going to affect everybody, including me,” Frei said this week. “How do we build out of the back? How do we defend? When you talk about attacking, more and more people realize that attack doesn’t mean the front two or three guys. It’s everybody. With our defending, it’s not the back five. It’s everybody.
“The strikers are so important to how we defend. … Those three need to do their work; otherwise we’re going to be screwed.”
It places even more importance on the Ozzie Alonso role
That’s true whether the defensive-midfielder role — the No. 6 — is manned by Alonso or somebody else. Cristian Roldan got the start against the Timbers, and his performance was instructive.
Without a defined midfield partner, Roldan was on an island in front of the back line. But just as important as his work as a defensive shield was his ability to maintain possession. Especially with Andreas Ivanschitz pushing forward and Erik Friberg looking for channels to bomb long passes through, having a conduit able to control tempo is vital.
Roldan kept his passes short, sometimes superfluously so. Even when he had runners open on the wing, the second-year midfielder most often chose to tap the ball toward a nearby teammate.
“As a No. 6, you don’t want to overcomplicate things,” Roldan said. “For me, if I keep it simple and complete my passes, I’m very happy with my performance. There are times when I want to kick the long ball and probably should. But that’ll come with time.”
Consider the defensive midfielder your barometer — if the pressure is slack, if he’s able pick his head up on the ball and easily track back without it, the game is going well.
It forces veteran players out of their comfort zone
This probably is a good thing. Ivanschitz admittedly is an attacker first. He played as a second striker for Mainz in Germany and as a winger for Levante in Spain. His game is about decisive through balls and whipping free kicks, with the occasional goal tossed in.
In the 4-3-3, with three forwards already pushed high up the field, it is incumbent on Ivanschitz to become more of a two-way player and think with both sides of his soccer brain.
“I have to think more as a defensive player if we don’t have the ball,” Ivanschitz said. “I was always an offensive player in my thinking, trying to score goals, give assists and play more or less in the offensive third of the field. I have to be smart on when I can go and when I should stay. That will be the main part for me.”
He said all this, mind you, with a smile on his face.
“I think it’s good that we’re trying a different system,” Ivanschitz said. “To try to adjust, to see how the team plays. … It keeps you always focused. I think all the players are really excited about getting things done.”
It ultimately comes down to the players
Adjusting to the switch will take time. The Sounders began to work on the strategy of it only recently, during the portion of the preseason in Tucson, Ariz. Before the Portland game, they spent a practice session working on patterns, building muscle memory and establishing connections.
Schmid’s reasoning shed light on why all of this formation talk can be overblown. Soccer is such a fluid sport, positions ever interchangeable, that roles and formations are constantly shifting.
“Their instincts have to take over,” Schmid said. “Because the beauty and the uniqueness of soccer — and the frustration of it — is that the picture is never the same. There are so many variables on the field, between 10 opponent field players and 10 on your team. The variables become endless. It’s not like basketball. It’s not like football, where players are going to be lined up here and the ball is definitely on the 25.
“It might be a counter. They might be out of position. Or they gave a pass away so it’s off a turnover. What you’re trying to do is give guys certain thoughts, look for people in certain spaces, give guys an idea of the spaces we’re looking for.”
Shortly after his outburst on the wing against the Timbers, Martins took matters into his own hands. He pushed toward the middle into more familiar territory. Martins dribbled past a few defenders and toward the top of the penalty box. His move ultimately led to a scoring chance, even if it was far outside the boundaries of a winger’s typical role.
“When your players can beat somebody (one on one) it alters the entire picture,” Schmid said.
That — talent winning out no matter how you cram it onto the field — is what the Sounders are counting on.