Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro looks to pass during the first half of a July 29 match at CenturyLink Field. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro looks to pass during the first half of a July 29 match at CenturyLink Field. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Fine-tuning new formation looms as key step for Sounders

  • Geoff Baker The Seattle Times
  • Thursday, August 2, 2018 6:20pm
  • Sports

By Geoff Baker

The Seattle Times

Ever since the final, merciful whistle blew on last season’s Major League Soccer Cup loss at Toronto, the Seattle Sounders have toyed with using two forwards up top for a less predictable look.

Thus far, other than a lot of talk, preseason experimentation and the occasional late-game quest for goals, the committed switch to a 4-4-2 formation has been more theoretical than real. But after another week with new striker Raul Ruidiaz in the training fold, a surging Sounders team is inching ever closer to deploying the new formation at the start of a match.

To hear Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer tell it, the team so devoted to a 4-2-3-1 formation could surprise folks in coming weeks — perhaps as soon as Saturday in Minnesota — by starting off a match with something different.

“I think it’s still a work in progress with (Ruidiaz) and incorporating him with everything in the group,” Schmetzer said Thursday as his team, unbeaten in six and just five points out of a playoff spot, completed training ahead of its flight to Minneapolis. “So a 4-4-2…what’s going to happen in Minnesota? Are we up a goal? Are we down a goal? How all of that manifests itself is probably going to dictate this game. But then, as the games kind of stretch out, in a week, a week, a week, we’ll have more time to work in training on our different formations.”

Schmetzer’s words seem to indicate he’ll at least wait a bit against Minnesota United FC before switching formations, though when asked directly he wouldn’t rule out starting the game off in a 4-4-2. The ability to field two formations at any point is likely the biggest remaining element to the Sounders overhauling their team from the one shut down so effectively by Toronto FC in last year’s final.

In many ways, deploying the 4-4-2 will arguably be more important to the team’s success than adding Peruvian midfielder Paolo Hurtado in coming days, or a potential left back as well. Both those pieces, while upgrading what the team currently has, will be unlikely to make the Sounders as dangerous as a second formation would.

For one thing, as good as Hurtado is, the Sounders already have a plethora of talented midfielders that can get the ball to the guys paid to put it in the net. While left back Nouhou makes his share of young mistakes and lacks the attacking skills of Joevin Jones, he’s picked his game up considerably.

The problem for the Sounders ever since Toronto figured out how to stall their 4-2-3-1 alignment has been scoring goals. The team rolled out the 4-4-2 diamond formation in training camp, hoping that Jordan Morris alongside either Will Bruin or Clint Dempsey up high would give opponents a two-pronged, goal-dangerous threat to be reckoned with.

Morris being sidelined by a knee injury ended most thoughts of that, but now, with Ruidiaz effectively replacing Morris, the idea is not only relevant again, but the only logical course.

Dempsey and Bruin have 138 regular season goals between them in MLS. The fact Bruin only made it on the field the final 20 minutes or so last Sunday against New York City FC while Dempsey didn’t play at all is somewhat of a roster management indictment of the team.

The Sounders keep saying they believe Dempsey has more to offer — and they’d better be right, given they’ve guaranteed him $1.65 million this season — but there’s no way to know if he doesn’t play. While Bruin likely can’t play 90 minutes too many games in a row, his hold-up skills are a strong complement to the speed and agility of Ruidiaz.

Having Ruidiaz occupying more attention from defenders should provide Bruin and Dempsey additional room to operate. Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, for one, says Ruidiaz’s on-field presence has opened things up for him.

“The other teams follow him, so I have more space,” Lodeiro said. “Cristain (Roldan) also has more space. The team, I think, has played better every game.”

At this point, getting as many proven goal scorers on the field as possible appears an obvious priority for a team that has scored an MLS-low 22 times. Aligning them with Ruidiaz also puts Bruin and Dempsey in a position to best maximize their maturing skill-sets.

Not to mention, the ability to flip between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 on any given afternoon allows the Sounders to keep teams guessing. Whether it’s Minnesota in early August or Toronto in an MLS Cup final, having two formations means opponents can’t commit to entirely one direction when devising a game plan to stop them.

“The overall team goal is to obviously get everybody as involved as possible,” Schmetzer said, adding he needs to “put the best team out there that can give us the best chance of getting three points.”

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