SEATTLE — No one is elaborating on the right knee contusion that sent Blaise Nkufo to the doctor earlier this week. But if the Swiss star is facing an extended absence, the Sounders need a way to hold the ball better at the striker position.
In a disjointed scoreless affair against Real Salt Lake, Seattle failed to find a rhythm throughout the scoreless match. In his post-game comments, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid pointed to a lack of hold-up play as one of the contributing factors.
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“Our hold-up play wasn’t as good, and I think that’s one thing Nkufo adds to our team,” said Schmid. “He is able to hold the ball up for us and that allows people to get into attacking positions.
“Nate Jaqua battled hard but didn’t necessarily hold up the ball enough for us," continued the coach. "It’s not that we are eons away from where we need to be; we’re close.”
With Nkufo not in the 18-man roster, Jaqua started up front for Seattle. The Sounders attempted to find him often with clearances, using his 6-foot-4 frame as a target. And though the forward battled RSL’s backline for aerial balls during his 70-minute shift, his hard work did not lead to many scoring opportunities.
In the second half, Jaqua made way for Mike Fucito. Listed generously at 5-foot-9, the smaller forward regularly has good luck holding off opponents with his low center of gravity. The thinking was that he could combine with Seattle’s midfield, which he did well during his 20 minutes of playing time against RSL.
Schmid complimented Fucito's effort, noting that he “laid a couple of good balls out to Steve Zakuani and got Zakuani involved.”
To fill Nkufo’s absence going forward, it will likely be a combination of the Jaqua and Fucito who will attempt to fill the same spot despite their wildly different body types.
Whereas Jaqua can match an opposing team’s center backs in terms of height, Fucito resembles a hedgehog, rooting out opponents from below. He did his best to disrupt RSL’s central tandem of Nat Borchers (6-foot-2) and impressive rookie Chris Schuler (6-foot-4).
“It’s a little bit tough—those two center backs tower over me,” Fucito said. “My job wasn’t necessarily to win the head balls, but kind of get away and get a body on them.”
However, one gets the sense that Nkufo’s skill set cannot be replaced by anyone on the Sounders roster.
There is no timetable on Nkufo’s return, which admittedly could be very soon. Schmid said that the striker “seems to feel better, but we have to see how he does Saturday in training."
Until then, the Seattle coach is eager to start working on hold-up play in practice.
“We have to work on that aspect,” Schmid said. “The problem with the games is that you really don’t get any time to train. You’re going from game to game, [so] you have to talk about it and you hope they understand it from talking about it.”