Preview: Union look to keep rolling against Seattle

Seattle Sounders are a bit of an enigma. An uber-talented team with an expensive striker, a powerful winger, and a midfield maestro pulling the strings, they have only lost once in 2019. But at the same time, the defensive numbers don’t look particularly strong beyond the fact that… the team just isn’t allowing goals.

So what’s the deal — is this one of the only teams that can challenge LAFC, or is it skating by on a run of luck?

Under Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders have always been streaky. After a slow start last year they went on an unprecedented winning run that only ended with Fafa Picault’s Steaz stoppage time winner.

Without Ozzie Alonso in midfield, this team doesn’t have the same cover it used to. But Stefan Frei can keep them in any game, and new Designated Player Xavier Arriega was brought in to provide more athleticism in central defense. He has yet to feature, but it’s clear that with Chad Marshall’s health and Roman Torres’ fading speed necessitated an upgrade even if the goals allowed numbers have yet to reflect it.

About those numbers — they’re not great, but they aren’t awful. The Expected Goals, however, look a bit shakier, and the Sounders have been leaning on the stellar Frei just as much as they did last season.

For Philadelphia, this means there is a real chance to penetrate early and jump out in front. That will change the nature of how Seattle attacks and create more opportunities for the direct play that Curtin and his staff have emphasized this year. Particularly in the center, the Union have a real speed advantage on the counter, so expect Fafa Picault to look for chances to get behind the Seattle fullbacks and pull the centerbacks out into space.

In attack, it’s all about using the fullbacks for width and then teasing apart a defense to get to the endline. On Wednesday, it was a combination between Brad Smith and Harry Shipp that sent the fullback in behind, and at that point the Sounders flood the box, with Raul Ruidiaz leading the charge.

Ruidiaz is a classic box poacher, and he’ll give Philly’s centerbacks a lot of trouble if the Sounders find space on the wings without pressure. That was part of Toronto’s plan last weekend, but Jordan Hamilton is hardly Ruidiaz; the Union will be punished if they allow Seattle’s striker space in the 18.

All that said, the best strategy for Philly is to go on the attack. Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin are both in favor of front-foot principles, and that means defending begins with aggression. Given Jordan Morris’ hamstring injury Wednesday night, look for the Union to exploit Kai Wagner’s work up the left side to pin back Seattle’s dangerous fullback Kelvin Leerdam. This actually makes the matchup between the Sounders’ left back Brad Smith and Union right back Ray Gaddis one of the more intriguing of the game. Smith loves to get forward, while Gaddis is more conservative in his movements. This means that the Union can use Gaddis to control Smith and try to move into the spaces behind him.

The last matchup to watch here is the showdown between Nico Lodeiro and Philly’s zonal midfield defense. Lodeiro is a dream to watch move around the pitch, but this season the Sounders have grown adept at both using him on the ball and using him as a decoy. His ability to read space and create man-advantages both in buildup and in the final third can confuse a defense and create the balls in behind that lead to chaos in the box.

Controlling Lodeiro is not on Haris Medunjanin, Ale Bedoya, or Jamiro Monteiro; it is on the entire defense. Lodeiro will challenge Philly’s communication skills, and the outcome could decide the game.

Philly and Seattle matchup on Saturday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET. Tickets are available here.

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