Sounders grind out first points of season, but attack remains stagnant

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle defeated Montreal to become the last MLS club to earn points this season, but it was hardly and inspiring effort, Richard Farley writes.

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SEATTLE – If the first month of the Seattle Sounders’ season was defined by results understating the team’s performances, they can take comfort in April starting with an about face – a final score that flattered the team’s production.

After 90 minutes that looked disappointingly similar to the 270 that came before it -- three games that left the Sounders as the only team without a point in Major League Soccer -- Seattle posted its first victory of the season. But that 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact, delivered courtesy of a late corner kick, failed to answer lingering questions -- doubts that persist about an expensive roster’s star-studded attack.

The player who converted that corner, Clint Dempsey, was also responsible for Seattle’s close call, one that forced Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush to block a second-half direct kick onto the crossbar. The Sounders’ only other notable chance also came in the second half but ended when indecisiveness from substitute Oalex Anderson turned a four-on-one counter into a turnover.

In the broader picture, the attack remained disappointing. Against a Montreal team willing to concede control of play, Seattle was outshot, 13-12. The team put only three attempts on target, with only one of those coming from open play. For the second match in a row, Seattle hosted an opponent willing to play out an unlikely wager, betting the fame of Dempsey, Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris (kept on the bench at the start of this one) would outstretch their production.

Thankfully for Seattle, the team’s defense made up the slack. With a healthy Brad Evans returning to central defense, the Sounders weren’t troubled by the speed of Dominic Oduro, and thanks to a stellar performance from defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, Impact creators Ignacio Piatti and Harry Shipp were silenced. For the second straight game, Montreal was held scoreless on the road against a Western power, and for the second straight game, the team looked desperate for the full returns of attackers Didier Drogba and Andres Romero.

Here are four other lessons from Saturday’s game at CenturyLink Field, albeit with a more numerical bent:

Montreal was willing to dare Seattle

Two weeks ago, Carl Robinson tweaked his team’s formation for its visit to Seattle, having the Whitecaps sit deep in a 4-4-2 that funneled the Sounders wide. Without a strong aerial presence, Seattle couldn’t compete against the Whitecaps central defenders, with the hosts’ only goal coming from an Andreas Ivanschitz direct kick.

The Impact weren’t as drastic in their approach, electing to stay in their normal 4-2-3-1 setup, but from the opening kickoff, the underlying philosophy was the same. Montreal chose organization over pressure, a low block above digging in higher up, and dared Seattle to beat them. Had Ivanschitz not delivered a pristine corner in the 79th minute, Mauro Biello’s approach may have worked.

Only four of Seattle’s shots came from inside Montreal’s penalty area, and only one, Dempsey’s goal, was on target. As for Dempsey, Seattle’s biggest offensive threat, only two passes targeted him in the Impact penalty area, and while some of that can be explained by Dempsey’s tendency to act as an attacking midfielder, two penalty-area touches for the team’s leading scorer aren’t enough.

Nacho Piatti missing again

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

No dice for Nacho on this night. (Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports)

After recording three goals and an assist in the first two games of the season -- both Montreal wins -- Ignacio Piatti was silenced last week in Dallas. Coincidence or not, the Impact were also shut out for the first time this year. On Saturday, with Drogba skipping a game played on FieldTurf, Piatti needed to rediscover his early-season form.

Unfortunately, he didn’t.  Though Piatti created five chances on Saturday, Montreal never seriously tested Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, that number represents quantity over quality. Piatti only had two shots of his own, both taken from outside the penalty area, while his five attempts to dribble by opponents resulted in four turnovers.

And, clearly, Piatti failed to register a goal and an assist, leaving us with the type of factoid that’s so easy to exploit with small sample sizes: When Piatti scores, Montreal is 2-0-0 this season; when he doesn’t, the Impact are 0-2-0. Obviously, a team is more likely to win when its players are scoring goals, but until Drogba and Romero are back, Montreal may be particularly dependent on Piatti.

Osvaldo Alonso is performing at an all-star level

Was there ever a time that Alonso wasn’t performing like an all-star? Over a few games, sure, and during the past couple of seasons, the midfield stalwart hasn’t received the same praise he did from 2010-2013, when many considered him the league’s best destroyer.

On Saturday, however, Alonso lived up to that now-muted reputation. Defensively, the 30-year-old won nine of the 10 tackles he went in for three more than any other player on the field. Moving the ball, Alonso was also the game’s most prolific player, completing 66 of 71 passes and only misplacing one ball outside of Seattle’s attacking third.

Through four games, Alonso has been Seattle’s best player – the biggest reason why the Sounders have conceded only two open-play goals against 11 men this season (310 minutes). While Seattle coach Sigi Schmid continues to search for answers going forward, Alonso is protecting the team at the other end of the field.

Oalex Anderson provides a needed boost

Anderson’s bottom lines from Saturday night are mostly negative. His indecisiveness killed that second-half four-on-one, while a lack of execution on three other final-third balls failed to punish Montreal for its conservative approach. Still, for a team that was relatively catatonic before Anderson’s 68th minute introduction, the ability to get in position to fail was a boost. At least Anderson was trying something.

Once, that something became a turnover as the 20-year-old tried a spin move above the arc. Another time, what should have been a simple ball toward the line was over-hit, gifting Montreal a goal kick. At another point, a corner kick that came to his feet in the right of the area was blasted toward the spot to no avail, depicting Anderson as a player who, even in the face of better options, reverts to something bold.

Right now, Seattle needs a little of that flair. Over the last two weeks, teams were willing to let the Sounders make the safe choices, knowing Seattle lacks the nous to pull off something more. Maybe Seattle needs somebody who will choose a few unsafe options, if for no other reason than to inject some uncertainty into the team’s predictable approach.

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