The first round of MLS playoffs kicked off with an exciting matchup between Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas. After analysis, we see that Seattle had to adjust their initial tactics to inflict goals on the opposition. FC Dallas stayed true to their style and doubled down in the second half to put pressure on the home team.
In the end, Seattle were able to convert more chances to move on after an exciting and back and forth affair. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how it happened.
Team notes and lineup
This match between the Western Conference second (Seattle) and seventh (Dallas) seeded teams brought a clash of two teams with two very different sets of momentum. Seattle came into the match having lost one game in their last five matches. While FC Dallas had only won one game out of their last five matches.
Seattle started with Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz, who both rank in the top twenty goal scorers in the league. Seattle were without attacking player Will Bruin as he recovers from an ACL tear. The home squad welcomed an FC Dallas team which had a record of 0-10-2 at Seattle since 2012.
FC Dallas brought a youthful line up to the match, with two starting midfielders under the age of 21. Dallas boasts the youngest overall team in the league with the second most playing minutes going to homegrown players. Dallas were missing up-and-coming right back Bryan Reynolds as well as forward Dominique Badji due to injuries.
FC Dallas lined up in a 4-2-3-1, while Seattle also deployed their usual 4-2-3-1.
Seattle attempt to build out of the back
Seattle began the match with the intention of building possession out of the back. Seattle knew that Dallas would press their team high and aimed to play through the press and into space behind the defensive unit.
By staggering players up the field, Seattle intended to play short ground passes to draw in the FC Dallas press and progress to the middle third of the field. This was done by positioning the centre-backs on each side of the box. Simultaneously, defensive midfielders Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan would drop into the middle of the field to create a double pivot. As the midfielders dropped in to support, the outside-backs pressed high up the pitch along the touchline.
Seattle’s intention was to create triangles on the flanks and an overload in the central areas to help with a clean progression up the field. Unfortunately for Seattle, Dallas’ man-marking press nullified this tactic quite effectively. Becuase FC Dallas man-marked each nearby passing option and the Seattle players remained fairly stationary, the home team centre-backs and goalkeeper were left with no safe nearby forward options.
When playing against a man-marking system, the team in possession can disorganize opponents and create space through off the ball movements and positional interchanges. Seattle employed neither of these tactics and found it very difficult to progress cleanly up the field.
Early in the game, we saw Seattle create this structure when the goalkeeper was in possession. As the Seattle players moved into position, FC Dallas would move up as a unit and man-mark any passing options. Below we can see the FC Dallas attacking players moving close to each nearby Seattle passing option. This forces the goalkeeper to eventually take a less risky option and pass the ball long and outside.
As the ball travels in the air, the Dallas players all move to mark the ball recipient and any nearby passing options. When the ball arrives at the Seattle midfielder, Dallas is well-positioned to win the ball back and begin their phase of possession. This situation played out many times in the opening minutes of the match. Often after a few fruitless passes between the Seattle centre-backs and the goalkeeper.
For the first quarter-hour, Seattle attempted to build out of the back and play through the Dallas press. After repeated failures, Seattle chose a different way to progress to the attacking third.
Seattle bypass the FC Dallas press
After finding themselves unable to progress up the field by building out of the back, Seattle changed their approach. By passing the ball long to their high attacking players, Seattle were able to bypass the Dallas press and create chances on goal.
Seattle did not change their build-up structure and continued to allow Dallas to man-mark all nearby passing options when a defender or the goalkeeper was in possession. By letting the FC Dallas unit press forward, Seattle created a qualitative superior 3v3 in the Dallas backline. In this moment, instead of playing short to the midfield line Seattle looked to play downfield to a roaming Raúl Ruidíaz. This direct ball to Ruidíaz led to Seattle’s second goal of the game.
At the twenty-two minute mark, Seattle won a goal kick. As they had all game, Seattle had their centre-backs split the box with Svensson and Roldan creating a double pivot in the midfield. FC Dallas, expecting short ground passes out of the back, pushed high and marked all nearby opponents. Seattle played a short pass to centre-back Kim Kee-hee. Kim immediately turned upfield and lobbed a long ball into the space between the FC Dallas defensive line and pressing midfield line. As this happened, Seattle’s forward Ruidíaz dropped into the large space between the Dallas lines.
As Ruidíaz moved to receive the incoming long ball, Seattle wingers Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones positioned themselves in the halfspaces, ready to attack. Ruidíaz played a header into the wide-open right halfspace for Jones to receive and dribble into.
Jones, with only one defender in front of him, dribbled with pace towards the FC Dallas goal. As he dribbled, he drew in the lone defender in front of him and two defenders behind him. As this occurred, Morris maintained his attacking off-the-ball run in the left halfspace. Jones penetrated long enough to create ample space for Morris to easily receive and score. Jones laid the ball in front of the sprinting Morris, who placed the ball past Jesse González to put Seattle up 2-0
Although Seattle had trouble playing through FC Dallas’ press, they eventually embraced the press and opted to play directly over the FC Dallas unit. This led to creating multiple chances on goal up until halftime.
Dallas counter-press to create pressure
The match’s momentum began to swing in Dallas’ favour the instant the second half started. During the first half, Dallas had maintained patient possession and a fairly high defensive line. Seattle was able to successfully attack the space behind the Dallas line in moments that Dallas lost the ball. Dallas aimed to eliminate these transitional attacking opportunities for Seattle by stepping up their counter-press when losing the ball.
Knowing that Dallas were vulnerable in moments of defensive transition, it became apparent that Gonzalez instructed the players to aggressively win the ball back immediately after losing it. If done correctly, FC Dallas could eliminate having to move into the out of possession phase by winning the ball back so quickly that they would not need to drop into a defensive shape. This tactic requires players to be positioned near the ball when it is lost. This also requires players to have a quick and aggressive defensive mentality immediately after losing possession.
We can see a prime example of this in the sixty-eighth minute. Dallas had just crossed a ball from the left flank to the top of Seattle’s box. The cross lacked quality and floated directly to a Seattle defender who one-touches the ball forward to playmaker Ruidíaz. In this moment, there are seven Seattle players near the ball opposed to Dallas’ five. With a 7v5 overload, Seattle should be able to play the ball out of pressure and initiate a phase of possession to progress down the field.
As we can see exactly one second later (below), the four FC Dallas players near the ball have already begun sprinting to the nearest Seattle players to eliminate them as passing options. Slightly upfield (blue circle), FC Dallas players who can not immediately pressure the ball carrier or passing options cover dangerous space that Seattle may try to play into. In this moment, the central Dallas players pressure the ball-near Seattle players to win the ball back and continue their possession in the Seattle attacking third.
Due to FC Dallas’ intense counter-pressing when losing the ball, Dallas were able to maintain long spells of possession and create multiple chances in the Seattle attacking third. This occurred for most of the second half and helped to bring FC Dallas back into the game.
In the end, both teams had a large number of chances and the scoreline could have swung either way. Seattle moves to the second round of the MLS playoffs with a matchup against Real Salt Lake. FC Dallas enters the offseason with a very bright future and looks forward to attacking the 2020 season with a young and more experienced team.
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