Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer announced this week that striker Will Bruin will miss several games with a foot injury. “A matter of weeks, not days,” Schmetzer said. Bruin joins a growing list of Sounders unavailable through injury or international duty: Jordan Morris tore up his knee prior to the MLS regular season and was ruled out for 6-9 months; Victor Rodriguez has been injured all season; and now Nico Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson, and Roman Torres are off to the World Cup until the end of June. That’s at least five probable starters – including two of the three strikers – off the depth chart.
The Sounders are probably still OK. In most positions. It feels dire, but Schmetzer still has more at his disposal than some coaches in MLS. Seattle can field an XI right now that would include: Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Kim Kee-hee, Kelvin Leedram, Ozzie Alonso, Cristian Roldan, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, and Clint Dempsey. That’s a good-enough group to put you in playoff contention. The question is: How are they deployed? More specifically, where do the goals come from?
The Sounders have only scored seven goals this season – fewer than one per game. Bruin has scored three, to lead the team, while also providing two of the assists. To creep back up the Western Conference standings, the Sounders have to find ways to score goals. Without Bruin and Morris, though, the only forward options are Dempsey, Lamar Neagle, or trying someone untested at the position.
There’s a elephant in the room when discussing strikers and the Sounders, as Seattle fans wanted general manager Garth Lagerwey to sign a big-money striker in the transfer window. I’m pretty sure Lagerwey would have liked to have an extra striker on his roster, too, especially after Morris went down before opening day. But here’s something we don’t acknowledge often enough: There just aren’t that many good strikers in the world right now.
As soccer has changed and possession-play has become more prominent, truly good goal scorers have become more scarce. Most teams around the world would like an upgrade at striker. Arsene Wenger spent seven years and went though five or six options trying to replace Robin van Persie at Arsenal. If you look at the top level of the game, there is a dearth of elite center strikers.
It’s not to say Lagerwey is wading in the same waters as Wenger, but the supply gets strained all the way down the chain. Every team goes to the next rung down the ladder to find a striker. You can either reach for a player and take a risk, or you can be patient and try to get it right.
We scream at GMs to hurry up and sign players, and we scream at GMs when they sign the wrong players. How mad did Nelson Valdez make all of you? That guy came from a top-10 team in the Bundesliga. None of this makes Sounders fans feel better right now, but it's something to consider.
As for the problem at hand … the Sounders don’t have any strikers left. Well, they have Clint Dempsey. Clint Dempsey is Clint Dempsey and Clint Dempsey can score goals. But is Clint Dempsey best at scoring goals when he’s the highest player forward? Can Clint Dempsey still play 90 minutes every week?
They also have Neagle, who recorded nine goals and nine assists for the Sounders back in 2014. Neagle is a hybrid attacker – not quite midfielder, not quite forward. Most of his production that career year came as a wide midfielder with Dempsey and Obafemi Martins up top, when Neagle had the freedom to run off the wing into striker positions, in wide forward-type role. It’s a position most well known from David Villa’s time as a left winger at Barcelona, playing alongside center striker Lionel Messi.
I’m not sure 2018 Neagle could be as productive as his 2014 season, and I don’t think Dempsey can carry the load as the lone striker. But I could think the combination of them (or someone like them) could do the job.
One of my favorite elements of soccer: Positions aren’t inherently important; what’s important is accomplishing principles. Positions often help achieve principles – the center striker runs to the near post – but you don’t necessarily need the center striker to run to the near post, you just need someone to run to the near post. Not having a true forward on your team doesn’t mean you can’t get someone to do the forward’s jobs.
The Sounders can survive without a rigid center striker; they just need someone or a few players to assume the responsibilities of the striker. I’d argue there are only two actions that a striker usually performs necessary to a team's success in the attacking third:
- Runs behind the opposition’s defense
- Gaining position in the box to offer an option for balls across the goal for tap-ins.
Neither of those take a world-class player. Undoubtedly, it’d be better to have an all-around great player doing them. But in lieu of that, just make sure you tell someone to cover those two bases (I call this The Berhalter Theorem).
My solution: Play Dempsey at striker and let him roam like he prefers, with Handwalla Bwana at winger in the wide-forward role. Give Bwana very specific instructions: Only run behind and run toward goal. Do not check for the ball in midfield. Avoid getting the ball to your feet. When you do get it, pass it to the first person you see. When in position, always think about how and when you can run straight toward goal.
It’s an oversimplification, but sometimes that’s the best route. Make it as clear as possible, and suit it to a player’s skill set.
The Sounders don’t have a ton of options, so it’s going to take some ingenuity. I’d guess Schmetzer is stressed right now. But I also hope he’s finding some joy in the opportunity to get creative. That's coaching.