For the first 45 minutes in Thursday's CONCACAF Champions League fixture, the Seattle Sounders looked like they'd never break down the brick wall that was Santa Tecla. Without Jordan Morris, who tore his ACL in the first leg of the series, the Sounders couldn't find space behind the back line or pull the Salvadoran side out of its compact defensive shape.
But then in the second half came a formation switch the Sounders have been tinkering with all preseason: they changed from their tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and dominated Santa Tecla to the tune of a 4-0 win, overturning their series deficit and then some. It was a tactical option initially devised to help the speedy Morris get support up top, but instead it may be the card in head coach Brian Schmetzer's back pocket to mitigate Morris' season-ending injury.
With Morris leading the attack, much of the game plan involves quick, long balls that he can chase behind opposing defenders. But the Sounders don't have a lot of pace without Morris and it was evident during the first half of Thursday's CCL match, which featured a lineup that will likely be close to the Sounders starting XI when they host expansion side LAFC to kick off their 2018 MLS season on Sunday (5 pm ET on ESPN).
By switching to the 4-4-2 diamond and getting Clint Dempsey closer to goal alongside Will Bruin, Morris' replacement, that meant more Seattle players were able to get forward and flood the Santa Tecla box. The shift created room for Magnus Wolff Eikrem to come on the field and act as a playmaker. Nicolas Lodeiro, who was easily Seattle's best player and chance-creator over both legs, had an easier time combining with players around him.
And it paid off immediately.
Just a couple minutes into the second half, Eikrem pinged a ball into the box that found its way to Lodeiro, who fed it to Bruin for a goal. About 20 minutes later, Dempsey raced into space and found a darting Lodeiro run at goal to double the lead. After a Chad Marshall goal on a set piece, the Sounders capped the score at 4-0 in the 83rd minute as a give-and-go between Eikrem and Dempsey sealed a second-half rout for the Sounders.
The Sounders spent the first half desperately trying to find a way to get the ball into the final third, but in the second half, options cropped up that weren't there before. On the last goal, for instance, Santa Tecla's defenders seemed unsure of which runners to track until it was too late:
Magnus Wolff Eikrem scores on his official #Sounders debut! Great combination with Dempsey, and Wolff fired into the bottom corner. He's made a big impact after coming on at half-time. 4-0 on the night, 5-2 on aggregate. #SEAvSAN #CCL #SCCL2018 #MLS pic.twitter.com/6tOcrmw2Uc— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) March 2, 2018
Rather than trying to beat Santa Tecla with a single, speedy run from a player like Morris, the Sounders instead created plenty of options around the ball.
Schmetzer has been noncommittal about the 4-4-2 diamond through preseason and he has called it a work in progress. But it got perhaps its best stress test yet in a must-win CONCACAF Champions League game and it looks like a promising option going forward.