Both teams are missing key players and the Fire have never beaten Seattle. Martin Tomszak takes a look at how they can do it this time.
What Are They About? Seattle Sounders
“One point is better than none”. Even the most ardent of optimists had difficulty using that phrase after the Chicago Fire drew the Houston Dynamo last Friday. At this point of the season with the team rooted firmly to the bottom of the standings, wins are what is needed and a win is what Chicago will be looking for as they take on the Western Conference leading Seattle Sounders on Saturday at Toyota Park. With both sides far from full strength, the match could serve as the perfect opportunity for Chicago to get a much needed boost in the standings. But will they take advantage of the situation?
Form Guide (Last 5 Matches): W-L-L-L-W
Previous Match: A 1-0 home victory against D.C United.
Formation in the last match: 4-4-2; Frei; Mears, Marshall, Scott, Remick; Roldan, Alonso, Pineda, Thomas; Neagle, Barret
Strengths: Let’s face it, the Sounders are good. They are well on their way to defending the Supporters Shield title sitting on thirty two points from nineteen matches, just three points behind D.C United with two games in hand. That’s more than twice as many points as the Fire. Clearly they have a strong squad and therefore most of the focus of this preview will be on how Chicago can overcome this disadvantage. That being said, let’s examine a few bright spots.
Chance Creation and Clinical Finishing: Seattle has scored twenty-five goals this season off of eighty-two shots on target. Only Columbus and L.A have scored more than the Sounders. These twenty-five goals are spread among mostly four scorers (Dempsey and Martins 7, Neagle 4, Barrett 3) with assists from eight. So while their forwards are clinical, their whole team contributes to creating goal scoring opportunities.
Style of Play: While many MLS fans love to hate Seattle, it is undeniable that they have created a very unique style of play under Sigi Schmid and it’s one that gets the job done. They play a fast paced, physical brand of soccer that leaves many teams tired, bruised and broken after matches. Given that the Sounders have tied just two matches all season, Schmid reiterates that he would rather go all out in a match in the hope of getting a win than settling for draws (perhaps a wise lesson for Chicago). To achieve their league leading stat of 10 victories, Seattle has alternated between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 this season depending on available personal and opposition.
No matter the formation, Schmid has an interesting mix of very creative midfielders (Lamar Neagle, Thomas, Marco Pappa, Cristian Roldan, and Gonzalo Pineda) that spur on attacks alongside some stalwart bulldog-like defensive midfielders (Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Andy Rose, and Erik Friberg) that control the middle of the pitch. Injuries and call ups shouldn’t hurt the Sounders as much as some Fire fans will hope.
Missing Players: Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans, and Marco Pappa have been called up to their respective national teams for the Gold Cup. Obafemi Martins and Andres Correa are out with injuries while Steven Frei is questionable with a shoulder strain. This means the players responsible for 16 of 25 goals and 15 of 24 assists will be missing on Saturday.
Statistics don’t lie: A bit of sunshine on a cloudy day for Fire fans, Seattle has lost three of its four away matches to Eastern Conference opponents this season with the lone victory coming against NYCFC on May 3rd. While this by no means leads to an automatic victory for the Fire it is interesting to see that Seattle struggles on this side of the Mississippi. Let’s take a look at some more genuine weaknesses.
Attacking Strategy: There are definitely weaknesses to be exploited with Seattle’s style of play. They stay very narrow in the backfield and give strikers a bit too much time on the ball, especially on the counter. This was most notable in the three match losing streak that Seattle had going into their latest win against D.C.
Against Portland all four goals came from the Timber’s breaking at speed and finishing from distance. It wasn’t exactly ball watching but each of the four goals could be attributed to the defenders just being a step off of the match’s pace. This could prove to be an exploitable area if David Accam is deemed fit to play Saturday.
In the match against Philadelphia there was one particularly telling chance that came early in the second half. Cristian Maidana was on a breakaway and found himself just outside the box. If you freeze frame the play, all four of Seattle’s defenders and the DM, Michael Azira crash in on him and leave the flanks completely exposed (all five of them are literally within a 10 yard radius of one another and Maidana). With such cover you would expect Maidana to be easily closed down but he manages to get a shot off anyway that just narrowly misses the top corner and nestles into the side netting. The eventual game winning goal by Philly came off of a mediocre ball floated into the box and CJ Sapong sneaking in between the center backs to head it home. Again, sloppy.
When the Sounders lost 2-0 at home to San Jose the same trends were evident. Sanna Nyassi’s opener was a fantastic strike, but there is no reason for him to have been allowed to make a run without a covering fullback providing pressure. The same goes for the Matias Perez Garcia finish towards the end of the match. With a few nifty moves he made the DM’s and CB’s look like training cones before he got his shot off. Yes, it was a nice finish that Frei had no chance of stopping, but you cannot allow the opposition to have a shot from fifteen yards out when they’re being “marked” by four players.
Schmid has been justifiably frustrated with his defense and has tinkered with the lineup because of it, starting a different center back pairing in each of Seattle’s last five matches. Granted, some of this was due to injury and international call ups, but something just isn’t clicking in the back for the Sounder’s at the moment. Giving up seven goals in four matches is not something Seattle is used to. Chicago hasn’t been clinical in front of the net this season, but Seattle’s form suggests there will at least be chances to get on the score sheet. If Frank Yallop has done his homework, Fire fans might see Patrick Nyarko, Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam playing their usual style but look for Mike Magee and Harry Shipp to be instructed to make delayed runs into the space created by Seattle’s narrow shape.
Prediction: Let’s face it, even a full strength Chicago side would find it hard to beat a depleted Seattle team… Given that the Fire will have significant absences themselves it would be quite the feat to just notch a point. If Chicago has a good day: Chicago 1-1 Seattle. If Chicago’s league form continues: Chicago 1- 3 Seattle.