Seattle vs. Vancouver: Inconsistent attacks plague Cascadia rivals
Of all the lessons Seattle Sounders will take from its disappointing campaign, the power of two may be the most powerful; as in, the power of having two stars in the lineup. Over two-and-a-half seasons, Seattle basked in the glow of that power, enjoying the counterattacking prowess of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. When the former left for China in the run-up to the 2016 season, Seattle was cast into its worst year in Major League Soccer.
It’s a credit to the team’s success that this, its worst season, still comes with a playoff pursuit. There the power of two appears to be on Seattle’s side. Though the Sounders are currently six points beneath the “red line” in the Western Conference, the team has two games in hand on the sixth place Timbers. Those extra games are, essentially, at home against two of the league’s worst teams: Chicago and Houston.
It’s two of Seattle’s other games, however, that are likely to prove more important to the team’s playoff hope; a pair of games that could essentially eliminate a rival for that final playoff sport. Beginning with Saturday’s mid-day kickoff at CenturyLink, the Sounders face Cascadia rival Vancouver twice in their season’s final seven matches. A sweep for either team would make it virtually impossible for the other to return to the postseason.
Lodeiro without Dempsey
That’s the big picture narrative. The Sounders, however, have more immediate problems. Although the team enjoyed a surge after firing head coach Sigi Schmid, a move that coincided with the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle has since returned to earth. More worrisome: the inept attacking that was on display in Schmid’s fateful farewell (one shot at Sporting Kansas City) has shown hints of returning in recent outings. In draws at Houston and San Jose, Seattle went deep into each match before looking anything like itself.
To their credit, the Sounders salvaged points from each game (both 1-1 draws), but their struggles are a reminder of the power of two. When Lodeiro initially joined Clint Dempsey in the team’s attack, the team went on a run, collecting 10 points in four games that revitalized the U.S. international’s season. Dempsey scored five of his season’s eight goals in that span but has since been sidelined while treating an irregular heartbeat. Though he returned to practice this week, it’s unclear when Dempsey will be back in the lineup.
In his absence, it’s become much easier to contain Lodeiro, and by extension, the entire Sounders’ attack. Instead of floating in from the right wing and taking advantage of space that opens up in the middle, Lodeiro is now deployed in Dempsey’s central position, something that seems to help defenses account for him. Though the Uruguayan international has two game-tying goals in the three games Dempsey’s missed, they’ve both come in second half stoppage time, after his team’s been held at bay for nearly 90 minutes.
Held at bay, actually, understates the problem. In the four games Dempsey and Lodeiro played together, Seattle scored nine times and trailed for only seven minutes. Since, the Sounders have never led, have given up five first half goals, and have been held to two points. Without both stars in the lineup, the Sounders seem incapable of controlling play, with the attack only coming around once the team’s already behind on the scoreboard.
It almost sounds like a truism, but having to account for one star is much easier than planning for two. To see it play out in Seattle, though, is to see a truism define a team’s season. When Dempsey is by himself, without Martins or Lodeiro, he looks lost. And with Lodeiro on his own, Seattle doesn’t look capable of making the playoffs.
Answers for Vancouver?
You won’t find much sympathy for Seattle among Whitecaps fans, but that feeling goes beyond the usual antipathy Southsiders have for their rival. Mention scoring problems to Vancouver supporters, though, and you’ll likely get eyerolls from a fanbase that’s been frustrated by its attack all season.
At first blush, it’s a curious feeling, particularly given the Whitecaps are middle-of-the-pack in scoring. The team’s 37 goals rank fifth in the Western Conference and 11th in Major League Soccer. Beneath that surface, though, is a team that’s been toothless aside from dead balls. Only 16 of Vancouver’s goals have come from open play. Too often, a good plan against the Whitecaps has been little more than “don’t foul them.”
That may be changing, though. The team hit peak frustration two weeks ago when, thanks in part to Erik Hurtado missing target with all seven of his shots, the Red Bulls kept a clean sheet at BC Place. Even since, the attack’s actually been good. Last week’s three-goal performance in Columbus was followed by a two-goal effort in Champions League at Sporting Kansas City. Hurtado scored in each one.
It’s an encouraging turn for a team that, despite trying five different options, has failed to solve its problems up top. Between Octavio Rivero, Blas Perez, Masato Kudo, Giles Barnes and Hurtado, Vancouver’s only gotten seven goals from its strikers this season. You can’t blame a fanbase for being frustrated when the team’s strike force averages 0.17 goals every 90 minutes.
If there’s reason for hope, it’s that Kudo and Barnes, theoretically the team’s best partnership up top, are likely to improve with more time in the squad. The pair only has a combined 1228 minutes in Vancouver uniforms, even fewer playing with each other. With more familiarity, Kudo and Barnes may improve on the somewhat meager 4.28 shots per 90 minutes they’re currently putting up.
Ultimately, Vancouver and Seattle are facing different versions of the same problem: uncertainty with goals. It’s not that the teams can’t score or lack talent; it’s that their limitations leave them too easy to contain. Seattle stalls without a second star, and Vancouver can’t rely on goals from its actual goal scorers. The first team to address that problem will probably push Portland for the West’s final playoff spot.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.