The Swedish midfielder's return to the Sounders starting midfield helped inspire Seattle’s most consistently dangerous performance of the year last weekend against San Jose.
Asked to diagnose their early-season struggles, the Sounders kept returning to similar themes: Timely decision-making, composure in the attacking third of the field and incisive passing.
The Sounders had controlled possession in nearly every game but rarely scored. They would sweep the ball from side to side for long periods of play but fail to record a shot on goal.
They weren’t seeing the gaps between the defensive lines, Clint Dempsey said. Possession isn’t everything, coach Sigi Schmid grumbled after their lopsided loss at Colorado, and player after player struggled to articulate why they had looked so stale.
The return of Erik Friberg from a strained knee to the starting lineup for Saturday’s 2-0 win over San Jose provided a long-sought answer and potential solution.
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There has been a subconscious overlap between that aforementioned list of attacking ills and Friberg’s most-cited attributes. Coincidental or not, his first start since March 12 helped inspire Seattle’s most consistently dangerous performance of the year.
“When you look at the overall game, I thought our ball movement was as good as it’s been all season,” Schmid said Tuesday. “We were playing through the lines more often. By playing through the lines, we were 3 v 3 or 4 v 4. If we get more of those opportunities, I think you’re going to see more goals.
“The time that (Friberg) was injured, we obviously missed that.”
Friberg’s presence caused a ripple effect, nudging teammates into their more-accustomed roles.
Midfield partner Osvaldo Alonso, for example, sat deeper than he’d had in weeks, slotting in front of the back line while Friberg pushed forward. Dempsey hovered near the opposing back line. He consistently found the pocket of space between the Earthquakes’ midfield and defense, encouraged both by San Jose’s 4-4-2 formation and Friberg’s passing ability.
“He’s a player that can find those pockets to play the ball through,” Dempsey said. “When you get in the holes, he’s a player that can pick his head up, be calm and pick somebody out. … That’s what we need in the attacking third, a little bit more composure.”
One encouraging performance doesn’t mean Seattle has banished its early-season malaise.
What Friberg’s return does, however, is help the Sounders identify where they need to improve — whether internally or through the transfer market. And if nothing else, Seattle now can tweak its midfield look to best suit the matchup.
Second-year player Cristian Roldan had filled in capably, if not always spectacularly, while Friberg rehabbed his MCL strain. Roldan’s game isn’t as flashy as Friberg’s, and he’s less likely to provide the penetrative pass that directly leads to a goal.
But Roldan, 20, remains one of Seattle’s most promising young pieces. He’s unlikely to drop out of the rotation — or even, necessarily, the starting 11 — especially while depth is tested during next month’s Copa America Centenario. Schmid suggested that his first-choice midfield could change from week to week.
Sounders captain Brad Evans insightfully broke down the virtues of each option following Saturday night’s win, detailing how varied deployments depending on the matchup could work.
“If I’m another team, I notice subtle differences when there’s lineup changes,” Evans said. “When I see Cristian and Ozzie playing in the midfield, it’s more defensive-minded and more side to side. Ozzie has taken a few chances and risks that he hasn’t in the past. That’s a combination of there being two in the middle and with Cristian not being as attack-minded.
“Then, when somebody sees Erik on the field, you know that if you don’t pressure him at the right time he’s going to find a forward pass. A lot of times (Saturday), he found himself in time and space able to make a forward pass.
“That can change a game for any team.”