Consider the following your cheat sheet, a foreign-language dictionary into the world of soccer formations.
TUCSON, Ariz. – Formations has been the buzzword of the week at the Desert Diamond Cup.
The Sounders opened Saturday’s preseason match against Sporting Kansas City in an unfamiliar shape, and Twitter exploded with theories and explanations.
But for all the talk of tactics, little of the discourse has broken down what, exactly, these changes actually mean.
Using the Sounders’ first-half flirtation with a 3-5-2 last weekend, consider the following your cheat sheet, a foreign-language dictionary into the world of soccer formations.
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• The numbers are a rough outline.
Seattle opened the exhibition match against Kansas City with three designated defenders (Brad Evans, Chad Marshall and Zach Scott), five “midfielders” (Leo Gonzalez, Gonzalo Pineda, Micheal Azira, Marco Pappa and Tyrone Mears) and two forwards (Clint Dempsey and Lamar Neagle) – hence the 3-5-2.
Think of it as the soccer equivalent of a 2-3 matchup zone in basketball or a five-wide set in football: a rough framework within which players operate.
More important is which players are filling which roles.
“Whether it’s attacking or defending all depends on your personnel,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said Tuesday. “If you look at it with us playing (usual defenders) Leo and Mears, you could really say, ‘Oh, they’re playing five at the back.’ It might be more defensive than attacking.
“Or you could play (usual midfielders) Neagle on one side and (Andy) Rose on the other, then it’s more attacking.”
• It’s all about creating favorable matchups.
Many MLS teams, including Sporting Kansas City, play with three midfielders packed tightly up the spine of the field — between the hashes at CenturyLink Field when there’s too tight of a turnaround between Seahawks and Sounders games.
When Seattle comes out in its more standard 4-4-2, its pair of central midfielders could be overrun by the numerical disadvantage.
The 3-5-2 look created three-on-three, two-on-two and one-on-one matchups all over the field.
“Sometimes, it’s a little bit like playing chicken,” Schmid said. “Who’s going to back out first? Because you’re creating even numbers all over the field. Let’s see if you can break us down, and we’re going to try to break you down.”
The new look also allowed the Sounders to shoehorn all of the players Schmid wanted to see on the field at the same time.
“Maybe it allows Evans, Marshall and Zach Scott to all be on the field at the same time,” Schmid said.
• Building understanding takes time.
Yet there’s a reason this experiment is likely to be a one-off and why Seattle looked more comfortable when it switched back into a 4-4-2 after the break: That’s the look the Sounders know.
No matter what system teams employ, partnerships are key.
In the 3-5-2, for example, it’s vital for one wingback to stay deep if his counterpart pushes forward into the attack — if Mears and Gonzalez are both too high, the opposition can exploit the imbalance on the break.
Seattle has used the 3-5-2 in the past, but usually only when pushing for a late goal as a means of getting another attacker on the field. It had only one day of practice in the set last week before implementing it in live action.
This lack of familiarity was glaring both in the defensive confusion that led to Sporting’s second goal and the fact that central midfielder Pappa and withdrawn forward Dempsey kept stepping on each other’s toes.
“I think that’s the part that we struggled with most,” Schmid said. “Marco likes to pick the ball up in that hole (the space in front of the back line), but so does Dempsey. Dempsey would drop, but Marco wouldn’t go into the space that Dempsey left. Then you have two guys there trying to play-make.”
This overlap gummed up Seattle’s rhythm and upset its attacking balance.
• What does this all mean?
Some of this is just semantics.
“Even though we usually play a 4-4-2, our system on offense really often does become a 4-2-3-1,” Schmid said, with either Dempsey or Martins dropping into the hole and Neagle and Pappa pushing up to provide width.
And Schmid made it clear after Saturday’s game that this wasn’t a permanent switch: He’s just tinkering, using the preseason to try a new look.
The 3-5-2 will pop up again in certain situations late in games, but don’t expect the Sounders to change too much of what got them to the Western Conference finals last season.