There are a lot of intriguing matchups in MLS this weekend, but the clash between Columbus Crew SC (3-3-2, 11 points) and Seattle Sounders (5-2-1, 16 points) on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium should take a backseat to none.
The selling points are obvious — the Black and Gold play some of the most attractive soccer in the league and Seattle has one of the most potent attacks in the country, with stars like Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey that draw the spotlight to their team.
Ask your average MLS fan about the Sounders and they’ll probably tell you they are a dominating offensive team with some defensive questions marks and a segment of fans who might think too highly of themselves. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.
For the last of those points, we’ll let you decide. For the other two, here’s a (brief) look at each to figure out how those preconceived notions stand up.
First and foremost with Seattle, we think attacking soccer, and with good reason. The Sounders are often scary good in that third of the field. "Dominating," however, may not be the right word. Crew SC fits that description more aptly, as the style of play can control a game. Seattle is less likely to do that.
Seattle is, in fact, right in the middle of the pack when it comes to possession. They spend a lot of time in the middle third of the field. A better descriptor? Explosive and ruthless.
Dempsey and Martins are not just the best attacking duo in MLS right now, but one of the best ever — right there with Marco Etcheverry/Jaime Moreno and Robbie Keane/Landon Donovan. It’s those two that allow the Sounders to be 18th in the league in shots per game (10.3) but first in the league in shots on goal (5.4) and second in goals per game (1.6).
By comparison, Columbus averages 14.9 shots per game and puts 4.8 on target while scoring 1.5 goals per 90 minutes. While the Black and Gold manage only to put a third of their shots on the goal, Seattle does it at better than a 50 percent clip.
It’s not that Seattle dominates the ball, it’s that they are ruthlessly efficient and smart when they get it. They don’t waste looks at net with low-percentage shots; the Sounders are third-lowest in MLS in shots from outside the box, while sitting third-highest in percentage of shots (42.9 percent) in the danger zone — the area inside the penalty area spanning the width of the goal.
Both sides actually convert on their shots on target at a better-than-average rate, but few teams are better at putting themselves in a position to get a good look at goal than Seattle.
A lot of that has to do with Clint and Oba, who link and interchange better than just about anyone in the league. Their ability to play off of one another means they get into good positions to score goals at a very high rate and a lot of the attack goes through them — 67 percent of the team’s shot attempts come from the middle.
While they are ruthless, the Sounders are also explosive. Even though the team allows more successful passes in their own third than they complete in the attacking third, the attack doesn’t miss a beat. That’s because it combines efficiency with a higher pace of attack than any team in the league. As you can see in the chart below, Seattle leads the league by a large margin in percentage of shot attempts that come from a fast rate of play (defined as >5 yds/sec).
When the Sounders rush into the box, they really rush. It’s not about buildup, like Columbus often is; it’s about catching the defense off guard with a change of pace and inserting the dagger.
By the time Dempsey or Martins is attacking, it’s often devolved into a one-on-one (or two-on-one) battle. The key for Columbus will be trying to disrupt Seattle’s rhythm before the strikers get the ball in stride, forcing things into a slower pace.
Midfielder Gonzalo Pineda is the timekeeper, leading the team in passes and percentage of touches. Harassing him can help change that rhythm. Marco Pappa, meanwhile, is the creator behind the two forwards. He will play on the left and is second behind Dempsey in key passes, averaging 1.8. He’s overshadowed a bit by the guys up top, but those that remember back to his days with Chicago and New England recognize his creative influence.
With the skill and soccer IQ of Pappa, Martins and Dempsey, Seattle doesn’t beat down opponents, they simply slit their throats with a cruel sort of grace.
For a team that’s averaging 2.0 points per game in the standings — an elite mark — Seattle’s defense has earned its share of questions. Everyone seems to think that at some point it’s going to be a weakness. But has it been so far?
The numbers seem to point to no.
Yes the unit has been put under some pressure, seeing 14.3 shots per game (the second-highest number in MLS). Despite all that, the team is tops in the league in goals against (0.75) and third in expected goals against (0.95).
Those numbers are revealing. The Sounder defense operates in a sort of mirror image from the offense — if the attack is all about high-percentage opportunities, the defense is all about forcing lowing-percentage chances. No team has seen/forced more shots from outside the box (54) while allowing the third-lowest percentage of shots from the danger zone (27.7 percent).
Part of that has to do with what the defense is doing, and part of that has to do with the fact that the attack puts Seattle on top and forces opponents to chase the game, going for the quantity over quality approach to shots.
Whether or not an aging Chad Marshall (who has done just fine for himself since leaving Columbus) and a makeshift center back in Brad Evans are an elite pairing, they are good enough when paired with the attack (offense is the best defense, anyone?) and the return of Ozzy Alonso, one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Dylan Remick has proven to be a solid defensive option on the left, while Tyrone Mears is more offensive minded (though less so than DeAndre Yedlin was) on the right side, and is actually fourth on the team in average passes per game.
A repeat performance of last week in D.C. won’t be good enough for Crew SC. It’s what the Sounders are built for — shots from distance and crosses. The Black and Gold will have to find ways to test Evans’ positioning. Justin Meram will have to put in a much better performance, because his cuts inside will challenge the weaker defensive fullback (Mears) and Evans.
It will also be key for Columbus to work the ball through Federico Higuain more, because his creativity will be the best way to get into the danger areas that Seattle is so good at protecting. He’ll also need to float a little to either get away from Alonso or pull Alonso away from the middle and allow some late runs from Tony Tchani.
Saturday presents an opportunity for Crew SC to prove it can challenge the top tier of the league after a letdown in D.C. In a battle between two sides with excellent attacking players but very different styles, one thing is for sure — the isolated mistakes of last week are a non-starter on Saturday, because if anyone can capitalize on one mistake, it’s the Sounders.