VANCOUVER, BC – On Sunday at BC Place, Vancouver Whitecaps FC host Seattle Sounders FC in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals (5:30 p.m. PT at BC Place – tickets moving fast). It should be an intriguing battle – not only because of the rivalry or what's at stake, but also because of the tactics. Let’s take a closer look below.
KNOW THY ENEMY
Like Vancouver, the Sounders typically line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Here’s the lineup they fielded in their most recent outing – a 3-0 victory over Colorado Rapids last weekend.
I’d expect a single change on Sunday.
With Clint Dempsey suspended for the first leg, my money would be on Osvaldo Alonso returning to the fold next to Cristian Roldan in central midfield and Nicolas Lodeiro pushing up to the attacking midfield position that Dempsey had been occupying. Alonso has been out with a quad injury but is reportedly back to full training.
If Victor Rodriguez (quad) is fit, I'd also expect him to replace Harry Shipp on the wing.
Only one point separated Vancouver and Seattle in the Western Conference standings this season, but they achieved success in very different ways.
The Sounders are a prototypical possession-oriented team.
They love having the ball – and they’re good at keeping it. Only four teams averaged more possession than Seattle in 2017, and they completed the second most successful passes.
The driving force behind their possession game is the midfield trio of Lodeiro, Roldan, and Alonso. Consider this: no player averaged more touches per match (90.33) than Lodeiro did this past season. Alonso was also among the top 10 in successful passes per match.
Vancouver, on the other hand, averaged the least possession in the league.
The ‘Caps found most of their success through the counter-attack and set pieces – and Wednesday’s 5-0 victory over San Jose Earthquakes was a prime example.
“You’ve got to know who you are,” Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson said last month. “We’re not going to be top of the possession stakes and we’re OK with that because we know how to defend, we know how to be organized, and what we’ve brought in this year is young, dynamic, exciting attacking players that are able to create transitions at certain moments and score goals.”
One thing the ‘Caps and Sounders do have in common, however, is their desire to cross the ball. Seattle, in fact, had the most attempted crosses in MLS this season (481), while Vancouver was third with 431. The two players to watch in that regard are Sounders left back/winger Joevin Jones and Whitecaps FC winger Cristian Techera, who had the third and fourth most crosses in MLS this season, respectively.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
With this game, it’s all about the service.
Defensively, the ‘Caps need to defend the flanks and limit the opportunities of Seattle’s fullbacks, who love getting forward and putting balls into the box. Two of Seattle’s three goals against Colorado last weekend were created by the fullbacks, so Vancouver’s wingers are going to have to track back and be ready to cut out Seattle’s service at the source.
Similarly, the ‘Caps can’t give Lodeiro too much time on the ball. Because if they do, chances are he’ll make a play. The Uruguayan led Seattle with 12 assists during the regular season and had two goals and three assists in three matches against Vancouver. He also had 95 chances created, the third highest total in MLS.
That’s where Aly Ghazal comes in.
Vancouver’s new Egyptian midfielder has been immense since joining the club in the summer transfer window and he’s going to need to be so again on Sunday.
Offensively, it’s also about service.
Whether it’s through set piece or open play, the ‘Caps need to get Fredy Montero involved in this game – as they did in both of Seattle’s visits to BC Place this season, when Montero scored three goals against his former club. If Montero gets an opportunity to score, he usually takes it. So the likes of Techera, Yordy Reyna, and Christian Bolanos will have a massive role to play in getting him those chances.
Bring on Sunday.