Players win soccer games. It's the coach's job to make tiny, incremental shifts to put said players in the position to do so.
That's what Sigi Schmid did earlier this week, lining up his Seattle Sounders in a midfield diamond (4-4-2, or 4-3-1-2 if you want), which was both a huge move born of deference to Clint Dempsey's gifts and a subtle adjustment born of deference to Dempsey's total lack of production since arriving in early August.
On the other side of the midfield stripe, Caleb Porter has produced a season's worth of little moves on the way to big results.
Facing a diamond? Diego Chara will sit a little deeper. Want to pull that extra defender out of the middle? Darlington Nagbe will start and stay wider until the final third, when he's given license to cut inside as he sees fit. Diego Valeri, on the other hand, will do the opposite.
So be sure to keep an eye out for those incremental shifts when Seattle host Portland in Saturday night's Western Conference Semifinals opener at CenturyLink Field (10 pm ET; NBCSN):
How far back will Dempsey push Diego Chara?
Chara has a legit claim on a Best XI spot this season for his ability to disrupt play up and down the pitch, and from sideline to sideline. He is Portland's Energizer Bunny.
It's that range – and license to use it – that has, in larger part, defined the Timbers' ability to mix and max the areas of the pitch they want to pressure. He's equally adept at being the first man in, to force the bad pass, or at ball-hawking the passing lanes himself:
But it might be best to use him strictly as a d-mid in this one, because it's too dangerous to give Dempsey time to receive and turn, then pick out a pass. There always needs to be immediate pressure on him.
Chara's job Saturday, if I were to draw up the gameplan, would be to sit deep and make Deuce less dynamic. The butterfly effect is that it will make Portland's pressure a little less dynamic.
It's a subtle shift could have a big influence on where on the field the game is played, and how it plays out.
How do Seattle keep track of Valeri?
Lots of high-expectations DPs come into the league these days. Valeri is one of the few who has been, from Day 1, as good as advertised.
And what makes him so good isn't world class trickery or physicality: It's his superior tactical understanding of the game. He is never anchored to one spot, and will murder you from everywhere.
Below is a graph of his "Key Passses From the Run of Play." It's a troublesome metric, since great passes only become "Key Passes" if the forward does his job and actually takes the shot. And it doesn't account for Valeri's ability to circulate the ball to others in position to hit that last pass.
Nonetheless, it tells quite a tale of his attacking versatility (enemy's gate is down, by the way). Valeri will kill you from anywhere in the attacking third:
Obviously the same principles of the Dempsey/Chara matchup apply: Seattle need to figure out a way to get immediate pressure on Valeri and stop him from being the heavyweight in this one.
But that will take a certain amount of coordination from the back line and defensive midfield that just hasn't existed of late for the Rave Green (though Wednesday's win over Colorado was a good start). It can't be just as simple as telling Osvaldo Alonso off to stay in Valeri's pocket, because if that happens then they lose the Alonso/Dempsey central midfield combo that was able to cut through Colorado with such ease.
And, of course, Portland have a cheat code: When teams focus too much on Valeri, Nagbe will happily take over the role of playmaker. The Timbers have got options, and the Sounders will need to get their rotations right.
Which, you know ... not their strong suit. Watch Djimi Traore overpursue (where on earth is he going?) and DeAndre Yedlin realize the danger all too late on this recent Kekuta Manneh goal:
There is a 1,000 percent chance Porter has shown this exact sequence to Valeri, Nagbe and whoever will be the starting center forward tonight. And then it'll be Schmid's job to find the incremental shift, that tiny adjustment which can turn the tables back in Seattle's favor.