The purpose of Tactical Look will be to examine in depth what occurs on the field during MLS games, either previewing an upcoming match, or reviewing a game that has already been played.
The phrase "tactical analysis" has a myriad of connotations in the world’s game, and I would prefer to think of these pieces as a "contextual analysis." I am hoping to share my observations about the systems and players of MLS so that others might have more to look out for when they are watching league action.
The LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders face off on Sunday (4 pm ET; ESPN in US | MLS LIVE in Canada), with both teams coming off positive results. Neither team played at the StubHub Center last weekend, and so the context of the windy turf in Seattle and the blazing heat in Kansas City might not translate perfectly to what we will see this weekend. Regardless, there are things we can take away from the two teams recent matches when thinking about this game.
HOW THE SOUNDERS LINE UP
Against the Vancouver Whitecaps last Saturday, the Sounders played a 4-2-3-1 system with Jordan Morris at the point and Alvaro Fernandez, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Andreas Ivanschitz underneath. They have started games in this system recently, but will change to two forwards if chasing the result.
The outside attacking players "pinch in" during Seattle’s buildup, and are supported by overlapping fullbacks. This allows Nicolas Lodeiro to take a free role. Often, he will drop deep early in the buildup and then drift wide to create overloads when Seattle is established in the attacking third. Against the Whitecaps, he had the most touches of any player on the field, and the assist on the goal. The current system appears designed to get the most out of his considerable talent.
Late in the game, the Sounders switched to two forwards and a diamond shape in midfield. Osvaldo Alonso was at the base with Ivanschitz (quickly subbed for Erik Friberg who gave more "natural" width) on the right, Roldan on the left, and Lodeiro at the top. Seattle’s main selection questions this weekend appear to revolve around the health of Brad Evans and whether they select Friberg or Fernandez on the right.
HOW THE GALAXY LINE UP
Against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, the Galaxy started in a 4-4-2 formation with Alan Gordon and Robbie Keane paired together. They were missing one of the league’s in-form players in Giovani dos Santos, as he sat out for precautionary reasons, but he should be ready this Sunday.
Additionally, Steven Gerrard was not available, and there are still doubts about his availability. It is never easy to predict a Bruce Arena shape or selection, but they have recently been playing with "two banks of four" in their defensive shape, and some sort of No. 10 (Keane or dos Santos) paired with more of a "working" forward.
Alan Gordon has started the last three games (and scored in consecutive matches), and the Galaxy have averaged three goals in these games. Gordon is a traditional (and effective) partner for either Keane or Dos Santos in a two forward system. He plays higher up, occupying the center backs while providing an outlet for the backline with his size. This creates room for his partner to operate underneath.
Arena has not had the opportunity to start with Keane and Dos Santos together in over a month, and we will see if this affects the Galaxy balance. LA’s recent defensive alignment creates 1v1 match-ups in the defensive phase, particularly across the midfield line.
Sebastien Lletget has been played in the center since the departure of Nigel de Jong, and showed well in 1v1 situations against Benny Feilhaber last Sunday. The Galaxy used Jeff Lawrentowicz next to Lletget and had Daniel Steres and Jelle Van Damme behind them.
All four players central players are comfortable on the ball and the Galaxy often split the defenders with one midfielder in their buildup, particularly when they are chasing the game and want Robbie Rogers and Ashley Cole forward. Raul Mendiola and Emmanuel Boateng played out wide.
While Boateng lasted longer than Mendiola, both were subbed with fewer touches than goalkeeper Brian Rowe. If Dos Santos comes back into the lineup, it might be at the expense of one of these two, provided Arena feels inclined to keep the same shape.
In Landon Donovan, Arena has one of the best weapons in league history off the bench, and he made a quick impact last week. Donovan is one of a pack of multi-functional Galaxy players (Lletget, Dos Santos, Mendiola, Baggio Husidic) capable of playing in several places along the front six, which makes it even more difficult to anticipate how LA will start. One possible lineup is Keane and Gordon up front, with Dos Santos and Mendiola wide and Larentowicz and Lletget in the middle.
CAN MARSHALL AND TORRES DEVELOP CHEMISTRY IN TIME?
LA is a juggernaut in Southern California -- in their last 50 regular season home games they have a +71 goal differential. As such, Seattle will have to be prepared for an onslaught. Chad Marshall has been one of the best center backs in the league for a decade and Roman Torres has been one of the best center backs in CONCACAF as well.
As talented as the duo is, they have played less than 600 minutes together, and the chemistry is not yet established. This can be just as dangerous as a lack of center back talent, and there were several instances where they didn’t step in exact unison last weekend, leading to danger. That included an Erik Hurtado breakaway early in the first half. Imagine Keane seeing this situation and Lletget or Van Damme delivering the pass:
The Galaxy tend to monopolize the ball at home, and Seattle will likely have to spend periods dropping deep. Lodeiro does not always track well, and Alonso sometimes tracks too well. If the ball is switched side to side, Alonso can get pulled out of position, and Lodeiro doesn’t rotate enthusiastically to fill the space.
Cristian Roldan can find himself outnumbered deep in the middle, and no team ever wants to be in that position, particularly against LA’s arsenal of attacking players.
Alonso is pulled out left by a Vancouver switch of play. Lodeiro starts almost even with Christian Bolaños, but does not follow at speed. Shortly thereafter, Bolaños is on the ball in a very dangerous place and Lodeiro is almost10 yards behind the play.
GALAXY MUST INCREASE PRESSURE
The Galaxy will need to do a better job pressuring the ball against Seattle than they did against Sporting. They were on the road and in difficult weather conditions, but they repeatedly dropped deep and did not always pressure the ball.
On Sporting Kansas City’s first goal, Dom Dwyer had the ball inside the box and Cole did not close down particularly urgently. The rest of the Galaxy backline had closed body shapes, and were not able to track Jacob Peterson’s run. The cross came from a somewhat similar position to where Lodeiro found Morris for Seattle’s winner, and the Sounders might anticipate being able to create from wide positions.
The Sounders looked to attack from cutbacks against Vancouver, and the way LA’s defenders stood against Sporting makes this an interesting option for the Sounders. It isn’t hard to imagine Morris or Lodeiro finding space on the endline and playing a low ball back across the box to an onrushing attacker.
As mentioned before, LA’s midfield shape often lead to 1v1 defending situations against the Kansas City. This was dangerous in transition, especially if LA’s fullbacks had pushed on and got caught ahead of the ball. Steres and Van Damme are not the quickest defenders, and we already saw the speed of Morris wreck Portland’s defensive shape earlier this summer.
If LA lose a 1v1 in midfield transition, Lodeiro, Roldan or Alonso might be able to find Morris in space:
Seattle are fighting for their lives and need three points. Regardless of lineups or where problems will arise for each team on the field, this one should be fun to watch.
Matt Pavlich is a youth soccer coach in the New York City area, currently working with Asphalt Green Soccer Club on the girls side, and Martin Luther King high school on the boys side. He has worked for Opta since 2011, primarily focusing on MLS.