After another successful season, finishing with their second MLS Cup trophy, the Seattle Sounders became a legitimate threat in head-to-head tournaments and are now trying to repeat this kind of accomplishment in the Concacaf Champions League. The mind behind Seattle is Brian Schmetzer, who shares a long-dated history with the club. Schmetzer played for the Sounders, then was an assistant coach and, in 2016, started his journey as head coach for them.
In this tactical analysis, we show how Seattle became contenders with Schmetzer and dig into his way of coaching. Also, we discuss his strategies and tactics used to crown the team with two MLS Cup titles in four years in charge.
Before everything, he excels in creating close bonds with his players. He likes to create a good environment in the locker room so players can trust him, themselves and the system they are in.
Critics on Schmetzer reinforce his poor tactical philosophy and the lack of beauty and imposition on his way of play. It’s true that he is a kind of conservative, Serie A-type of manager, relying on punctual adjustments depending on the opposition. He tries to take advantage of each team Seattle play and sticks with a solid defence to get wins that frustrate his opponents.
In his short career, the manager turned himself a specialist when it comes to single-elimination games. It also had drawn comparisons to coaches like Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Big Phil, who is known to lead his teams to cup titles more than the regularity and performance in national leagues. Since his promotion to head coach in 2016, Schmetzer figured in three MLS Cup finals (won in 2016 and 2019, was a runner-up in 2017). That shows consistency and despite not having any revolutionary ideas, he is still a trustable mind to carry a team to success.
How Seattle play
Seattle had some variations during the season, as coach Schmetzer was trying to implement more sophisticated tactics to the team. Their most usual formation was the 4-2-3-1, which they used 64% of the time in the 2019 campaign. They could change from the middle up, as Schmetzer liked to start with a four-man defence.
As the Sounders constantly adapted their tactics depending on the opposition, they also constructed a pattern of overlapping in attack. That was particularly good against four-man defences since they rarely played against three or five-man lines. Their other common strategy was combining a destructive defensive midfielder (Gustav Svensson) with a box-to-box and more creative one (Cristian Roldan), a Mourinho-esque style of formation.
As we will see later on in the data analysis, the Sounders do not have an imposing way of play; they don’t have a ball-possession or aggressive style. Differently, they like to attack fast and with few passes, with lots of running up the field. Being vertically or from the wide to the middle, Schmetzer’s side tends to cause problems with cuts behind the defence’s backs and by staying composed in defence to secure their wins.
Generally, Seattle focused on the defensive side first, turned themselves into a secure positional defence, and then invited opposition. After regaining possession, they attacked in numbers with the help from their wingers and a creative all-around playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro.
What data shows
By statistics only, we could say that Schmetzer’s side is a mid-table team. They were not well placed in goals for (11th) or goals against (tied 10th) in the last MLS campaign, and their stats were very equal to their opponents during games. It shows how conservative and pragmatic Seattle were.
As we can see, the Sounders pass the ball less than the opposition during the game and by consequence generally have less ball possession. Stats also show their style of play: direct and long passes culminating in closer chances in front of the goal.
Seeing it statistically, it is possible to think Seattle are dominated by their opponents almost every time. In fact, few stats are in their favour, but it does not mean that passing the ball less, for example, leads to unsuccessful work. Their smart passes, as well as their accuracy, show the way they take advantage and read plays the best way.
Their defensive numbers though balance things in their favour. Although conceding more shots, they manage to keep the opposing side to low accuracy and even if their opponents pass more next to the goal, almost every defensive clearances and tackles ratio is better on their side.
And in the creation phase, they also take the statistical advantage. The opposing side can even have more shots, for example, but Seattle’s accuracy leads them to their conservative and successful style of play.
Building-up and progressing
In this past season, Schmetzer focused on building from the back and attacking combos that could unbalance the opponents’ defensive shape. He tried to implement more passing-style tactics on offence.
In the build-up phase, they created passing options from the back to break the opposing press and start progressing in numerical advantage. Their 4-2-3-1 generally transits to a 3-man defensive line in these situations and often stands as a 3-3-3-1 to create options in every sector of the field.
Schmetzer also emphasizes how he divides the pitch into lanes and the importance of filling it without players occupying the same side. They implement good spacing and put players in the right spots to be successful.
Seattle changed from their double-pivot style to single-pivot ideals, making their midfielders move more off the ball and find spaces. With that they destruct the opposing defensive shape, going along with lots of interchanging in the middle. Roldan and Lodeiro are the main characters here, two creative off-the-ball players.
As they build-up more centrally than seasons before, their inside players demand more attention. It releases their wings and full-backs, creating from the inside-out and promoting quick transitions and 1-on-1 situations.
Disrupting the opponent’s defence
In their three-man midfield, each one has a responsibility. Svensson is a defender who sticks to position and organises from the back. Lodeiro can be the between-the-lines option to assist the forwards or go deep and act like a regista. And Roldan operates off-the-ball with his runs as well as carrying the ball up.
Seattle likes to make opposing defenders chase their players off the ball and create gaps. They can work in both middle and wide overloads. In case they go wide, they create space behind the defence with off-the-ball runs like what happened in their first goal against Toronto in the MLS Cup final. Note that there was also a cutting option on the ball side, which made the defence busy and released the right-wing space.
With this kind of overload, the Sounders force opposing defenders to choose whether they tackle the ball carrier in the middle or close out with the overlapping wide player. This generally leads to final third chances for Seattle, both from the wing or in front of the box.
Also, this way they created gaps that made it possible to quickly launch long balls and diagonal passes. Generally, they would not be completed if the defence was rightly set and it designed opportunities like the one before against Toronto.
Important pieces in the creative system
Although Schmetzer does not apply refined tactics to his team, the midfield trio is important to make things run. In general, the Sounders have great individual talent – a team couldn’t compete for a title four straight years without it. But it was Svensson, Lodeiro and Roldan who run the show.
As the main playmaker, the Uruguayan is the most creative player with the ball and he likes to find teammates who run behind defensive lines. Against Toronto, he read the team movement and found Raúl Ruidiaz free inside the box. Note that he also had other options running wider.
Their wingers were also important – Jordan Morris, for example, was their second-highest scorer with 10 goals and provided seven assists in the regular season. Their goalscorer, centre-forward Ruidiaz, had 11 goals in the regular season and exploded for eight combined goals and assists in the four-game playoffs. Despite their good effort, Lodeiro was the primary orchestrator of their offence: seven goals and 12 assists during the regular season.
Svensson, as well as defending and being their pitbull, combined for four goal appearances in the playoffs. Kelvin Leerdam, their overlapping right-back, finish the regular season with five goals and two assists. And the machine in midfield, Roldan was the most used player – 29 appearances, only after centre-back Kim Kee-hee.
How the Sounders defend
Schmetzer had a variation of defensive ideas for his team. From pressing high, to closing out wide areas and structuring a good midfield defence, they secured themselves. Also, they changed their formation as well, depending on the opponents’ characteristics on offence and their designed shape. Initially, Seattle started the matches with their natural 4-2-3-1 formation. That was made to inhibit opposing creating options by giving more mobility to the defensive system. This way the players could close out the wide areas and shift back to reinforce the middle without stagnating.
But they could also shift into a 4-4-2 or even a 4-4-1-1 to create more tackling opportunities to their players. This formation also gave them a variety of closing angles, once various players could target the ball carrier depending on where he was.
Schmetzer had well-trained midfielders that anticipate attackers’ runs and stick to them until another defender took the responsibility. This way it was hard to see Seattle suffering from through balls and space-attacking.
Their pressing system
Even as a quick-attacking team, Seattle, did not sit back on defence waiting to counter. They liked to press and inhibit opponents’ creation since their build-up phase. Schmetzer opted to a player-oriented press, without chasing opposing passing zones. They tended to stick with a man-marking system to tackle right after the player received the ball.
The Sounders liked to force passing errors more than stealing the ball itself. Making the opposition choose a bad pass selection, they could recover the ball easily without exposing themselves. That way they could also transit into quick and vertical attacks as they like to do, taking advantage of gaps left.
As they tried long balls very often, Schmetzer built ways to recover fast. If they failed to connect, it was common to see the team pressing right away, mainly if it was in the wide areas. Seattle liked to corner the ball carrier and limit his passing options to regain possession.
They could also go very deep in the first line of defence. With the winger regrouping, they tended to form a five-man defensive line. Along with that, their midfielders placed themselves close to them and created narrow lines. That was used to prevent opposing runs.
This way, Seattle forced their opponents to go wide and, without lots of options to create, cross. That was a good strategy, as while they limited infiltrations and attacks from the middle, crosses were welcome as they had numerical superiority in the box.
Their rigid defensive system made opponents change passes side to side more than they would normally do, and that is why their stats like PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) are usually against them.
In this tactical analysis, we could see that a great manager is not always the one who is a great inventor or tactician. As well as tactics being important, so is knowing your team, it’s capacities and potential is also crucial to success. Schmetzer’s style divides opinions, but it certainly does not lack passion and results.
Seattle are going into their busiest year in recent history, with Concacaf Champions League, Campeones Cup and defending the MLS title. At this time they are not with a deep roster, especially in defence. The management already said that they are going to test the young guys a lot. The 2020 season will be a great test to Schmetzer and his evolution as a football coach, and we will see if he can carry the Sounders to another victorious year.