Brian Schmetzer was given the nod as fulltime head coach of the Seattle Sounders Wednesday night, and on Sounders twitter there was much rejoicing. Schmetzer is one of their own – he's a local who played with the old NASL Sounders, and has been involved with the current iteration of the club since before it was the current iteration of the club.
Head coach of the old USL Sounders? Brian Schmetzer. Day 1 assistant with the MLS Sounders? Brian Schmetzer. Midfielder for the mid-1990s Sounders of the old A-League? Brian Schmetzer.
Culturally, it's obviously the right fit.
Tactically, we need more to go on. I'm not going to pretend to have watched more than a handful of games from the 2000s when Schmetzer was head coach, so we're working with a limited data set here.
Given that restraint, here are the three different iterations of the Schmetzer Era (MLS version) that we've seen over the past few months.
Version 1.0: Floating playmaker behind two forwards in a 4-4-2
This is the network passing graph from Seattle's 3-1 win over Portland on August 21. It was Nicolas Lodeiro's fourth game and, to this point, Clint Dempsey's last.
This graphic is made using Opta data. Each circle represents each player's aggregate position, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the number of passes traded back and forth. And you can look at it and say "yeah that makes sense, Lodeiro (No. 10) is right underneath Dempsey (No. 2) and Jordan Morris (No. 13), which is exactly what you want from your playmaker."
But then you look at the right wing, and you'll see that there's literally no one there aside from right back Tyrone Mears (No. 4), while the left wing is more traditional with left back Joevin Jones (No. 33) behind Andreas Ivanschitz (No. 23). There is no symmetry to this team.
And that's perfectly ok. In fact, that's better than ok – it was devastating. Schmetzer had Lodeiro starting on the right and cutting in and out of the middle, setting up shop on one side but given total freedom to range all the way to the other if that's what needed to happen:
Remember: Lodeiro was nominally a right winger in this lineup. But there he is on the left side, using his strong foot to cross right onto Morris's noggin. Muy bueno.
Dempsey's ability to toggle between playmaker/goalscorer/hold-up donkey, combined with Lodeiro's abnormal workrate for a No. 10 is what made this look work. It risked exposure along that right side in transition, but Schmetzer was right to bet on that lineup's ability to just go out there and outscore people.
Version 2.0: Conservative 4-2-3-1 built around a central playmaker
Here's the network graph from Seattle's 1-0 win over Sporting in the Knockout Round
If it looks like a scattered mess that's because it was. Alvaro Fernandez (No. 21) and Cristian Roldan (No. 7) were the wingers, but they were tasked more with just trying to support Lodeiro and Morris than with getting forward and stretching the field themselves in that particular game.
You can see how disconnected Lodeiro was from the rest of the midfield, which A) wasn't a great look, and B) was a direct result of how Sporting played. They always try to destroy service to your best player and they're very, very good at that. It was only after Schmetzer brought on a second forward that Seattle got any sort of purchase at all...
Which brings us to look No. 3...
Version 2.1: Traditional 4-2-3-1 with a field-stretching winger
Here's the Leg 1 win over Dallas from last weekend:
Operative partnership here is the one between Morris and Valdez, two forwards. Except it's very different from the partnership that we saw between Morris and Dempsey in August simply because nobody out there has Dempsey's hybrid skillset. Instead, Schmetzer went back to what Sigi Schmid had tried in March – he played Morris as a winger, asked him to create penetration and push the backline deeper, and in that sense make more space for Lodeiro. Valdez, meanwhile, was to stay high and central in order to keep the Dallas center backs honest, while Friberg was used as a ball circulator/secondary creative platform.
All of the above worked. It wasn't as pretty or explosive as what they were doing in August, but it was damn effective.
You can probably guess from the way I've framed this article that I thought Version 1.0 was the best, and I'd hope that Seattle's offseason moves are built around that. Playing Lodeiro as a traditional No. 10 may save his legs a little bit and may make it easier for fans to conceptualize, but it also has made Seattle a lot more predictable.
Given how no-frills pragmatic Schmetzer's been as manager – and if I were to pick a style to pin to him, "no-frills pragmatic" would probably be it, because he hasn't messed with his backline or deep-lying midfielders – I'd guess he knows as much. I'd also guess that he knows he can't really go back to that look unless Dempsey or someone like him is available to pair with Morris, which is, of course, no guarantee.
What is guaranteed is that we'll continue to find out more about Schmetzer's tactics in the weeks, months and years ahead. The new Seattle boss, who's an old symbol of the team, has yet to put a foot wrong, and nothing bodes better than that.