Lack of forward chemistry, Oniel Fisher’s red card dooms Sounders in Opening Day loss
Major League Soccer’s Opening Day wasn’t supposed to go like this for Seattle. The Sounders were supposed to open the 2016 season with a bang, to show that all the negative things that happened in the offseason were behind them, that they were ready to take the league by storm. Sure, they were duly dispatched by a solid Club America team in Mexico City on Wednesday. Sure, they lost arguably the best player in the club’s history, Obafemi Martins, mere weeks before the season. But the team felt solid, felt strong and ready to go for the season.
Things didn’t exactly happen that way. The Sounders started well Sunday against Sporting Kansas City, stringing together a number of solid moves in the opposition half. Clint Dempsey came extremely close with a free kick that gave fans flashbacks of his beautiful strike against Club America in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League matchup. It was struck well, but KC’s goalkeeper tipped it over the bar. New kid on the block Jordan Morris latched onto an excellent Andreas Ivanschitz pass early on and looked to have a dream start to his Sounders career when his shot flew over the crossbar.
So what went wrong? Oddly enough, what seemed like the most innocuous and even potentially dangerous change in the starting lineup was Oniel Fisher in for the injured Tyrone Mears. In both legs of the Club America matchup, Mears struck a balance between offense and defense that veered towards the latter, mostly because he lacks the speed to go too far forward. His counterpart on the left, new signing Joevin Jones, did the opposite and played extremely high up, especially when the Sounders had the ball. But with Mears out with a quad injury, the youngster Fisher stepped in at right-back.
The way that the Sounders had played with Mears-Jones as their fullbacks was a little lopsided, but for the most part it seemed to work pretty well – especially in the first leg. So whether or not that’s how coach Sigi Schmid prefers to play has yet to be seen, but there was a distinct difference in the team’s play when Fisher is at right-back. This was a symmetrical fullback system that allowed both sides to play high up the pitch, because they have the speed to race back and help out on defense when necessary.
This was evident, as the stats show that Fisher was the most influential player for the Sounders for the 41 minutes he was on the pitch. He shuttled up and down the flank, intercepting balls in his own half, making one-two passes with the midfielders, and firing crosses into the box at will.
But it was one little mistake – a mistake that some might feel was a little harshly punished – that sent him to the locker room a few minutes before halftime. For the record, while I think Fisher’s tackle was a little reckless. He went for (and got) the ball and there was barely any contact with the opponent. MLS refs don’t have much of a history of sending players off when there was no dangerous intent and no real contact, but it is the kind of challenge that can break legs with enough force and intent.
Regardless, the Sounders played the entire second half with only 10 players on the field, and it showed. KC had free rein in the attacking third, completing 77/100 passes in that area of the pitch in the second half. Strangely enough, all of that attacking intent mostly came to naught as the away side had only one shot on goal, and it came from a central defender.
Unfortunately for Seattle, one shot on goal was all KC needed to get on the scoreboard. Nuno Coelho fired at Stefan Frei’s goal from outside the penalty box, and managed to slip past the outstretched goalkeeper and into the net. This would be the only goal of the match, giving the away side the opening day win.
And to top it all off, captain Brad Evans (who had a fairly solid outing) suffered a bit of a shoulder injury after Dom Dwyer “undercut the Sounders defender in a way that escaped the referee’s attentions. Evans should be fine. Schmid said Evans’ shoulder “popped out, and popped back in” and that he should be back for next week’s trip to Salt Lake City.
• After the loss of Martins, Seattle’s forward corps looked more toothless than expected against Kansas City. Morris, who had a few good chances, including his big miss early on, still needs to develop chemistry with Valdez and Dempsey and get comfortable on the right wing.
• Dempsey had the same role against KC that he had in both matches against Club America, where he was allowed to roam all over the attacking third with the expectation that the midfielders and Jones would have his back when necessary. This worked fairly well with the starting lineup, but after the Fisher red card, Dempsey was forced to play wide for most of the second half.
• In the same vein, the team looked a little confused when forced to change formations in the second half, from the 4-3-3 that Seattle had focused on all preseason to something of a 4-4-1 that isolated Valdez. Not knowing how to play the slick passing game they had just started to perfect, most of the Sounders players on the field resorted to lumping long balls in Valdez’s direction in the hopes that he could control them on the run or knock them down for a midfielder. This worked even less than it does in the regular system, as the players that were supposed to support Valdez were mostly playing deeper in order to not get overrun in midfield.
• The Sounders’ depth in a variety of positions isn’t as strong as it used to be, despite the potential in a number of the younger players on the squad. There are no Chad Barretts or Kenny Coopers on the bench to pop up with a late goal like in seasons past. Oalex Anderson, Darwin Jones, and Aaron Kovar are talented players, but they’ll need to prove their worth before the Sounders grow too impatient and make a big signing that sends them further down the depth chart.
The Sounders will be hoping that some of these issues are sorted out soon, as their first away match in MLS league play is next Saturday at Real Salt Lake.