The Seattle Sounders introduced a new formation on their two-match road trip that culminated in a disappointing 1-0 loss to rivals Portland Timbers. Head coach Brian Schmetzer first unveiled the 5-4-1 on the road facing Toronto FC knowing he would be missing multiple starters to injury and as a result of being rested, so a more defensive formation was needed. Osvaldo Alonso and Nicolas Lodeiro missed the trip due to injury and Clint Dempsey stayed home to rest for the Portland Timbers match on Sunday, meaning goals would be at a premium for Seattle. Ultimately the change paid off for the Sounders as they would come out on top with a 2-1 win at BMO Field.
On Sunday Schmetzer and the Sounders trotted out the 5-4-1 again, this time with Dempsey as the lone striker (No. 9) against Portland with Will Bruin home nursing a heel injury. Seattle again defended well for much of the match but were completely shut down offensively. The Sounders only registered 5 shots in the match and only kept one of those on target. Portland found the breakthrough in the 86th minute after Jordy Delem had to take over at centre-back for Kim Kee-Hee who left the game after a cut opened up on the top of his head. Delem would be the one caught out by Sebastian Blanco, allowing the dangerous goal scorer to get behind the defence and finish against Stefan Frei.
On Wednesday in Toronto, Seattle found success because Toronto was playing much higher up the field coupled with a makeshift defense due to Toronto’s injury problems that has lead to Michael Bradley dropping from his preferred defensive-midfield position to centre-back. First Bruin opens the scoring on a counter-attack as the Toronto defense is out of position; both outside defenders are too far up the field and can’t recover in time. The second for Seattle sees Handwalla Bwana getting his first career MLS goal as he’s able to split the defenders and score one-on-one against Alex Bono. A close offside call went in favor of the Sounders as Bwana was left unmarked and was able to latch on to pass from Bruin.
Statistically Seattle should have lost in Toronto after conceding nearly 67% possession and being out shot 24 to 9 but was bailed out by poor defensive sequences from Toronto while also finishing their opportunities. The defensive formation worked to Seattle’s advantage because of Toronto’s more aggressive style.
In Portland there was less of a statistical disparity between the two teams as the Timbers stylistically play with a more defensive approach. Lining up in a 4-3-2-1 gives them a strong defensive base with Diego Chara anchoring the midfield right in front of the back four. This left them less susceptible to counter-attack and allowed them to deny service to Dempsey in that lone striker role. Dempsey constantly had to track back into the midfield to get the ball which allowed the Timbers defence to hold a higher line and keep the midfield compact.
Compared to Dempsey, Bruin is much more comfortable in the No. 9 role as it requires the forward to hold possession and allow distribution to either side of the field. When Dempsey plays alone up top, he drops too deep into midfield and which doesn’t allow him to hold on to possession high up the field to open up space for his teammates.
Playing a 5-4-1 formation is going to mean Seattle playing defensive, less attacking football and relying on counters to create attacks at least until they can shake their injury bug which is going to make for a difficult stretch of games when the Sounders are desperate for points. They’ll have a week off to recover and devise a game plan for their May 26th home match against Real Salt Lake as they try to dig themselves out of last place in the Western Conference.