Thursday night’s scoreless draw between defending MLS Cup champs Real Salt Lake and defending US Open Cup champs Seattle Sounders was perhaps not the best game for casual or neophyte fans to enjoy.
Sophisticated fans, however, had themselves a treat. The two teams spent 90 minutes playing tactical mini-games in order to destroy their opponent’s ability to create time and space in an effort to control the flow of the game.
Seattle were marginally more effective. RSL had the best opportunity of the night. And when the final whistle blew, a draw was probably a just result.
Both teams came out in a 4-4-2. RSL, known for playing a “diamond-four” midfield, with Kyle Beckerman at the base and Javier Morales at the point, were forced into more of a 4-3-1-2 thanks to Seattle’s aggressive midfield.
The Sounders, on the other hand, used a pair of two-way central midfielders in Osvaldo Alonso and Nathan Sturgis, and two wingers, Steve Zakuani and Alvaro Fernandez, with disparate skill sets and characteristics that made them appear as two different teams depending upon which side they attacked down. Down the left it was a 4-3-3. Down the right, a 3-4-3.
The First Half
Seattle came out looking to make a statement, and dominated the opening exchanges. They had two obvious strategies, beginning with attacking down the right methodically using short passes and overloading with numbers.
[inline_node:318068]They also set out to use the space that creates to attack down the left using Zakuani in one-on-one situations. As a result, the right side of the field looked like a five-a-side game, while the left side looked like a track meet.
That right side is where Freddy Montero, Seattle’s star striker and primary goal threat, took up residence. The idea was to pin RSL defenders Chris Wingert and Chris Schuler – making his first MLS appearance and acquitting himself quite well – close to the touchline, breaking RSL’s shape and forcing them into a perpetual game of catch-up.
For the first half, at least, it worked well. Montero was a step away from being offside all night, which acted as a form of defense-by-offense. Because he stayed so high, Wingert couldn’t overlap and Beckerman had to drop deep to help on Seattle’s other threats, like forward Nate Jaqua.
The other effect was to isolate Zakuani, he of the blazing speed and dangerous one-on-one ability, on young right back Tony Beltran. Beltran, who has spent most of the season as Robbie Russell’s backup, was on the field specifically for that matchup.
It turned out to be a good move by RSL manager Jason Kreis. Beltran may not have the top-end speed of Zakuani, but he’s quick, he reads the game well and he’s a very, very good tackler. Zakuani got some looks early, one off a turnover Beltran had no part of and the other on a through-ball from Fernández, but that was about it.
Very few would call Beltran the man of the match, but from the run of play no one was more influential. Neutralizing Zakuani on his own meant RSL could overload on Montero without fear of losing their shape on a repeated basis.
Once they realized as much, RSL began to hit on the counter using the speed of forward Robbie Findley, striking paydirt in the 31st minute.
[inline_node:318070]Seattle had capitalized on a midfield turnover and launched an attack of their own, but it was snuffed out well by Schuler.
As RSL gained possession, they immediately recognized, as good teams do, a chance to break hard in the other direction. Center back Nat Borchers drifted wide with the ball before finding Findley on the left touchline at midfield.
It wasn’t really much of a numbers-up situation, as both Seattle’s central defenders (Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni) were back, as was left back Leo Gonzalez, who was shadowing Alvaro Saborio.
But often times luck is as good as numbers, and in this case luck was on Real’s side. Findley got Parke backpedaling as they hit the box, Parke slipped on the artificial turf, and then swept Findley’s legs from under him as he tried to recover.
It was an easy call.
Unfortunately for RSL, it was an even easier save for Seattle keeper Kasey Keller. Findley’s penalty was weak and right down the middle, and it’s safe to assume either Saborío or Morales will be the designated PK-taker from here on out.
The Second Half
Seattle had made hay in the first 45 because they were able to pin back RSL’s fullbacks and prevent the overlapping and interchanging that makes Kreis’ team so effective.
So RSL decided to go direct. Morales, who makes his living playing off the shoulder of the last midfielder, often drifts left when RSL are in possession, then makes a slow, horizontal run between the lines of midfield and defense as his own team knocks it about.
[inline_node:318069]The result is that, when Morales receives the ball, he often has two opponents near him but nobody directly “on” him. He’s a master, in those situations, at drawing both defenders then cutting them out of the play entirely with short passing and simple touches.
Seattle were having none of it. Killing RSL’s overlap and midfield interchange meant that there was neither room nor confusion for Morales to exploit in his usual spots on the pitch. So he – and RSL – stopped playing horizontally and started going vertical.
It was enough to change the pace of the game and, with it, the balance. Seattle dominated in both chances and possession in the first half; the second was more even.
The Pyrrhic victory aspect of Kreis’ tactical change, however, is that RSL aren’t nearly as good playing long-ball as they are playing short-short-long, and that trying to beat Parke and Ianni over the top is, if not necessarily a fool’s errand, certainly a less-than-ideal plan of attack.
By the 60th minute or so, it became pretty obvious that, barring a catastrophic individual breakdown or a moment of unexpected individual brilliance, a draw was inevitable. Such is often the case with evenly matched, well-managed teams.
Kreis will be glad to take a point from one of the tougher away venues in MLS, especially using a somewhat makeshift lineup.
The Sounders had more at stake, and manager Sigi Schmid will have positives to point to in the way they controlled the game in the first half. He’ll have some negatives, too, as his club weren’t able to seal the deal when they had the whip hand.