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Sounders’ 1-1 draw with Houston further reveals cracks in their attack

It feels a little weird when a 1-1 draw signals relief in the world of Sounders fans, but in a place where they’ve never won, it makes sense.

Sigi Schmid changed things up yet again for Sunday’s match against the Dynamo in Houston in the hopes of getting the misfiring Sounders to move up from last place in the “shots-on-goal” chart in MLS. This time, a slight injury to Nelson Valdez meant that Jordan Morris started up top and Clint Dempsey was placed in midfield, seemingly told to play deep as much as possible. Andreas Ivanschitz seemed to be stationed further forward than usual, playing on the left of Morris. It was a similar formation to what we’ve seen all season, with a few changes to certain players’ starting positions. Whatever Schmid’s intentions were, the average positions of Dempsey, Ivanschitz and Morris were all basically the same: in the middle, about halfway between the penalty area and the halfway line. It’s telling that Ivanschitz’s position was slightly ahead of Morris’, even though the latter was meant to be the center forward.

Chad Marshall’s last-second goal gives Sounders 1-1 draw with Houston

Regardless, whatever was drawn up by Schmid and the backroom staff was either ineffective or ignored, as the Sounders were effectively overrun and dominated by the Dynamo for much of the match. The first half saw the Dynamo run rampant in the Sounders’ half, racking up 14 shots (six on target) compared to Seattle’s six shots (one on target). Houston’s goal was inevitable considering how much time the Dynamo spent in the attacking third in the first half.

Seattle’s defense was able to keep most of the first-half onslaught at bay, but the entire back five (including Stefan Frei) were caught completely flat-footed for Giles Barnes’ goal in the 35th minute. The Sounders’ midfield didn’t do the defense any favors either, but Barnes had so much space, he was practically on his own little island when the cross came in. Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan weren’t marking him, and he was able to receive the pass, turn and lob it over the defense and into the net.

But considering that Seattle’s defense had only a handful of mistakes and just one particularly egregious one, the main problem was well and truly with the attack. Schmid has been trying to shoehorn his players into the tactics he wants to use for a while now, and few things are actually working. Dempsey, who is not a midfielder, started in a rather deep position that limited his ability to do what he does best – score goals. He is well-rounded, and even though he can make things happen from deep positions on occasion, he’s best suited to put the ball in the net. At the very least, he should be playing as a left-sided attacking midfielder or winger. Plopping him near the halfway line doesn’t do the team any favors.

I caught a bit of flak for my criticism of Ivanschitz, but it holds up this week just as it did after last week’s win over Montreal. Ivanschitz created one chance the entire match Sunday. He completed zero of 12 attempted crosses (yes, zero), eight of which were corner kicks. You can only call Ivanschitz’s service “dangerous” if he’s actually connecting with a teammate. The game-plan for the Sounders certainly appeared to involve a lot of crossing into the box for Morris and, inexplicably, Aaron Kovar. This strategy did not work with the given personnel, and it seemed like the Sounders were fresh out of ideas otherwise. Dempsey also came close from an excellent free kick, one of the few areas of the game that the Sounders can rely on lately.

The flow and tone of the entire match changed in the second half, mainly thanks to substitutions and tactical switches. In the entire second half, Houston had two shots and only one on target. Seattle, on the other hand, had eight shots with six on target, including Chad Marshall’s late goal. Kovar had a nice chance near the beginning of the half after a quick move from Morris, but his shot was turned away. Oalex Anderson came on for Kovar in the 63rd minute and looked more dangerous in the final third than Seattle had all match. Herculez Gomez’s first appearance for the Sounders, when he came on in the 79th minute for Morris, is what really changed the game.

Gomez put in a cross from deep for Anderson that the youngster should have done better with, but at least the cross found a teammate in a dangerous area. Seattle could have done with crosses like that the entire match. Ivanschitz and Dempsey, the former moved deeper and the latter playing close to the box, combined nicely for a move that ended in a weak shot from Dempsey.

Gomez and Anderson played well together and created a couple of excellent chances that nearly became goals, and it was Anderson’s excellent technical work that set up Marshall’s last-gasp equalizer. The young Vincentian forward pounced on a loose ball, raced towards the touchline and beat the defender, then fired in a cross that goalkeeper Joe Willis could only deflect into the path of Marshall, who took his shot well and fired his team ahead.

It was one of the draws that certainly felt like a win until you take a look at the MLS Western Conference table and realize that a draw is still a point and the Sounders are still dead last. A point is better than no points, but the elation at the snatch-’n-grab-nature of the result quickly subsides. The late goal papered over the ever-growing cracks in the Sounders’ attack, and Schmid is going to have to find a way to get the Sounders to play for 90 minutes in every game like they played the last 15 against Houston.

Other observations:

• The old soccer cliche of it being a “game of two halves” was almost annoyingly true on Sunday as each side dominated in shots for only a half each, somehow ending up with an equal number (seven) of shots on target at full time.

• The Sounders had 58 percent of the possession and completed almost 200 more passes, yet still managed to barely squeak by with a draw.

• As I’m sure some will point out, my first two predictions for this match were wrong: there was not a flurry of goals (there were barely two), and referee Ismail Elfath bucked his own trend by only handing out two yellow cards. It was definitely a cleaner match than we’ve seen all season, but it was still a surprise to see it so light on disciplinary problems.

• Despite Alonso’s growing influence in Seattle’s midfield, it was second-year player Cristian Roldan who stood out just a little bit more in this match. His 78/85 passes completed, seven recoveries and two tackles capped off a tidy, solid performance.

• If I hadn’t convinced you of Anderson’s attacking chops yet, consider that he was the only Seattle player to successfully take on an opponent with the ball – and he did it twice.