Nicolás Miremont –
Six months ago, not even the most optimistic football fan on Earth would have dared to predict what happened last Sunday when the Seattle Sounders beat Toronto FC on a thrilling penalty shoot-out for the 21st edition of the MLS Cup.
While approaching the end of a terrible first half of the regular season under Sigi Schmidt, one of MLS’ most decorated managers, the Sounders seemed condemned to missing the second stage for the first time in eight years.
After losing to the Vancouver Whitecaps and falling to the last place in the Western Conference, the club decided to part ways with Schmidt who had been, up to this point, their only coach in MLS history, and they signed the Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro from Boca Juniors.
By firing Schmidt and signing Lodeiro, Seattle demonstrated that they were able to make the necessary changes to become a championship team. In this post, I have outlined the key decisions that led to their successful playoff run.
Seattle Sounders – Using your DPs wisely
Since the Beckham Law, which created designated player spots in order to make key signings, which then opened the door for the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign David Beckham in 2007, the regulations affecting player wages changed significantly. Every team was allowed to sign a certain number of players whose wages would have normally exceeded the established salary cap. Thus (and with the help of Targeted Allocation Money), every team could now afford one or two exceptional players—every team is now allowed to sign three designated players.
The first years of the so-called Franchise Player Law saw many teams signing three main strikers, which obviously lead to an exaggerated lack of balance in every aspect of these teams. One of these sides was Seattle, whose owner indirectly hinted, during Lodeiro’s presentation, that the Sounders had now understood the importance of “not having three striker DPs [Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, and Nelson Valdez]”.
Following Martins’ departure to China, Seattle managed to sign one of the best midfielders in the Argentine league. In addition this aptitude, Lodeiro is a natural attacking midfielder, which would have allowed Clint Dempsey to return to his natural position as a second striker, instead of having to switch back and forth between being an attacker and a creator.
Lodeiro’s signing not only brought a new Designated Player to Seattle, but also brought quality, creativity and prestige to a team which, up to that point, was only known for its defensive style of play.
Despite having had players like Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez at its disposal, Seattle was known for its performance as a group, a collective force that no-one was able to overcome comfortably, especially when they played at home. It was down to their new interim manager, Brian Schmeltzer, to re-vitalize a weak disorganized squad with several injured members.
Lodeiro’s impact was considered by Sounders fans to be an impossible miracle. The Uruguayan literally saved Seattle’s season with some impeccable performances, starting 13 games in during the regular season, scoring 4 goals and recording 8 assists.
Then, after an astounding comeback, Seattle went from last in the West to fourth best seeded team in the Western Conference. It was the first time in the history of the MLS that a team recorded 20 points in 20 matches and, after being last in the conference, they clinched a spot in the play-offs.
Then in the MLS Cup race, Lodeiro continued to shine as he scored 4 goals in 6 matches, thereby becoming the all-time leading goal-scorer in the Sounders’ playoff history.
His performances against Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas (the best team of the Regular Season), Colorado Rapids (second best team in regular season) and finally Toronto FC, demonstrated that Lodeiro was one of the best signings the Sounders board could have made, and also proved the importance of distributing the weight of your available DPs over the entire pitch.
Younger, better DPs are the way forward
During the last couple of years, Major League Soccer has earned the respect of the world. Although today not all of its original objectives have been accomplished, the league’s competitiveness has experienced improvement, as the quality of its signings has improved year after year. In fact, MLS seems to be shaking its retirement league label.
The likes of Giovinco and Lodeiro are only two of the examples. These players have brought a colossal number of new ideas to the league—new styles of play which, combined with their young age, allow them to influence the entire competition.
The myth is slowly becoming more and more debunked as youthful talents start to displace those in the twilight of their careers. Although players like New York City’s Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, as well as Montreal Impact’s Didier Drogba, and Colorado Rapids’ Tim Howard are still needed in this relatively new league, it is the younger talents like Atlanta United’s Miguel Almirón, FC Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta, and Seattle Sounders’ Jordan Morris, who will be torch bearers in the future.
The factor of surprise, Seattle’s ally
Brian Schmeltzer is a born-and-raised Seattle fan. His love for his city’s football tradition is reflected in a career full of ups and downs. His experience both at the Seattle amateur teams as a player and even the indoor Seattle team made him a perfect replacement for Sigi Schmidt.
After gaining his managerial experience coaching the Sounders in the United Soccer League and winning a good number of titles with that team, he stayed on with the Seattle Sounders as the head assistant coach after the franchise joined MLS back in 2009.
As the sub-title suggests, the factor of surprise often comes in handy. A new manager brings with him a new style of play. This makes it difficult for opponents to read a team’s new style, particularly if it happens at such a decisive moment as the end of the Regular Season, when every other team is exhausted and out of fresh ideas.
Seattle’s tweaked 4-2-3-1 meant a more solid display in the park. With Lodeiro playing as the perfect playmaker between Osvaldo Alonso, and Christian Roldán and the clinical Dempsey, the team was provided with a lot more freedom and was allowed to execute their strategy in a much more relaxed tempo.
Lodeiro’s arrival meant the arrival of a piece that had long been missing in the Sounders’ jigsaw. Dempsey’s efforts had not been enough; although he was able to provide the perfect pause in attack, no-one was there afterwards to receive those final passes up front. The new wave of quality in the Emerald City became an unsolvable problem for their opposition.
Injured players come back in top form
Long lasting injuries can turn into a player’s worst enemy. One hundred percent recovery must be achieved with maximum efficiency. Back in November, Panamanian defender Román “El Mazinger” Torres went back to normal training sessions after an ACL injury suffered in September. Torres had been a crucial part of Seattle’s defence up to that point, after having signed for the Sounders in 2015. His rather rustic style proved to be very effective in a league where physical play is still more important than individual technical skill.
Torres quickly got himself back into the starting line-up, forming a very solid back four alongside Tyrone Mears, Chad Marshall and Joevin Jones. In the MLS Cup final, Román got his deserved reward when he had the privilege of taking the defining penalty in the shootout.
Moving forward up the pitch a couple of meters, there is Osvaldo Alonso. The Cuban (considered one of the best in the history of his country), came back after an ankle injury and assumed total control of Seattle’s second line of defence, as well as taking charge of that always important first pass to Lodeiro.
Alonso’s performance had already been outstanding during the 2015 season. However, 2016 was easily the best year of his career. It is safe to say that without him, Seattle would not have won the MLS Cup.
In a few words, Ozzie exerted utter dominance in the middle. In fact, Alonso’s level was easily comparable to any top-notch European defensive midfielder this year.
According to MLS.com, Alonso finished in the top 10 in passes per 90 minutes, passing accuracy, recoveries per 90, tackles per 90 and duel success rate. Alonso seemed like an octopus released on the pitch as, at times, no-one managed to take the ball of from him. After the match (during which he had to get an injection at half-time, in order to keep running, because of the pain that had escalated from a slight discomfort prior to the game) Ozzie received lots of deserved flattering statements from his teammates. Chad Marshall, for instance, said: “He’s unbelievable, he’s Ozzie Alonso. He is the heart and soul of this club. […] He was a beast today as he always is.”
Together with Román Torres, Ozzie Alonso and Nico Lodeiro formed one of the most solid midfields in the league. Only three touches were enough to put Dempsey, Morris, Valdez or even Lodeiro himself through on goal. The first leg match against Dallas, where Seattle surprisingly defeated the Supporter’s Shield champions 3-0, perfectly highlighted this.
After seeing the result of these two players’ comebacks, it is safe to say that the Sounders’ medical staff performed exceptionally well and the MLS Cup is just as much theirs as it is the team’s.
The Sounders are learning on how to play the MLS Cup
Since the establishment of the franchise, and despite having performed very well throughout these seven years, Seattle still had an unrealized ambition with the MLS Cup Final. Sigi had already guided them to three US Open Cups (the American equivalent to the FA Cup) and a Supporter’s Shield trophy back in 2014. However, the dream of being crowned MLS champions had always been out of reach.
This year things did not seem any better as the team was being managed by an interim, inexperienced Brian Schmeltzer, and also did not appear to have the squad that could challenge for the title.
As I mentioned before, Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1 was a bit different from the 4-4-1-1 Sigi Schmidt used to deploy on the pitch. Although the team was positioned higher up the pitch, Schmeltzer’s tactics relied on closing down gaps, recovering the ball, and striking on the counter. Lodeiro’s pivotal role was the determining factor in the culmination of these counter-attacks.
In football, managers can adapt a wide variety of different tactics. This particular one, far from only being defensive, demonstrated a high level of intelligence in Seattle. Having to deal with an evident lack of resources and after losing Dempsey due to a cardiac arrhythmia in October, the Sounders efficiently made the most out of what they had.
Taking all these things into consideration, I personally believe that Seattle learned how to play the MLS Cup. It took a while, but they got the hang of it. Brian Schmeltzer managed to pull out a miracle by using what he had at his disposal…and Lodeiro. In these competitions it is never about playing well or beautifully it is about winning. The Sounders clearly understood that, and behaved like a team that really knows how to seize this cup. They played like a true cup team.
Keep an eye on this guy.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 27, 2016
A deserved reward for a great club
Football (or Soccer) in the United States is different. It is a hybrid between the beautiful game and the most typical American approach towards business. However, the clubs are still run by boards which are just as interested in winning as any team in the world is.
Soccer culture in Seattle is not only seven years old. The sport has captured hearts in the Emerald City since 1974, and the passion with which the fans live the game is not comparable to many other places in North America.
Portland’s win last year had put a lot of pressure on Seattle’s shoulders, for their repeated failure was now contrasted even more by their neighbour’s success. After a dreadful season, the Sounders’ board did its job and solved the problem. They knew who to hire and how to handle the situation, and it paid off.
Apart from this, a great pick in the draft, Jordan Morris, turned out to be one of the most interesting promises within the American game. This, added to a great crowd of forever-noisy fans who cheer and contribute financially every weekend and provided the team with an outstanding amount of stimulation. It is everyone’s victory.
What is next for the champions?
Last week, the Sounders officially confirmed the departure of thirteen players (including a designated player Valdez). This should allow them to bring in quality talent in order to represent Seattle both in the MLS as well as in the 2017-18 CONCACAF Champions League.
While Clint Dempsey recovers, the team should aim to develop Jordan Morris even more. Presumably the board will look to keep players like Lodeiro, Alonso, Stefan Frei and Torres at least for a couple of additional seasons.
The pre-season starts on January 23, and on Monday the Sounders officially announced the declining of the contracts of 13 players including the above mentioned Valdez, Andreas Invanschitz and Erik Friberg, all of whom were very important in their title. They could all return to the roster after a new contract arrangement, but that would mean adapting to the board’s economical preferences.
In the meantime, the rest of the players were listed as ‘Protected’ during the Expansion Draft, which took place last week. They will be the foundation of a new FC Seattle Sounders, one that knows how to win those titles they have always deserved.
The Major League Soccer is clearly evolving and, every season, more and more teams are proving to be just like Seattle when it comes to making solid managerial decisions, hiring good DPs and learning one of the most important parts of football—strategy. Let’s hope that this will continue, as the league has enormous potential and the MLS seasons are becoming more and more competitive.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico