[MLS ANALYSIS] Seattle's struggles to score in 2011 have been attributed in part to the sudden departure of Blaise Nkufo, but in fact, some inconsistent midfield play has been just as culpable. So far, Swedish newcomer Erik Friberg and recently signed Argentine Mauro Rosales have been more influential than Uruguayan returnee Alvaro Fernandez, and the return to health of Brad Evans is expected to re-stabilize the middle and bring out the best of Oswaldo Alonso.
The Sounders played some excellent stuff offensively in extracting a 2-2 tie on the road against San Jose Saturday, but were hardly efficient trying to stop the opposition.
To face the Quakes, Seattle also made do without catalyst Fredy Montero, sidelined by a wrist injury that required surgery earlier in the week. Whether caused by individual players stepping up in Montero’s absence, or a greater urgency imbued by failing to win in the first three games of the season, the Sounders opened up the Quakes defense time and time again and generated 17 shots. But they weren’t so effective holding the ball and dictating play once they’d gone ahead, which they did twice, only to concede equalizers rather quickly.
Coach Sigi Schmid moved around his attacking pieces throughout the match. Seattle started with a lone striker, O’Brian White, supported by Rosales in the middle and flanked by Steve Zakuani on the left and Friberg on the right. Friberg, suffering from flu, earned the second assist for a pass to Rosales, whose square ball across the six-yard box trickled for onrushing midfielder Evans to slam into the net. That came just 17 minutes into the match and already Seattle had buzzed the San Jose goal several times.
But Friberg didn’t have the energy to duel with left mid Bobby Convey, who raced past him repeatedly in the first half. San Jose equalized when Evans gave the ball away in the middle third and Convey drove forward to pick up a pass from Ryan Johnson, whose looping outside run opened up space. Convey slid a pass through to Simon Dawkins, who steered a shot along the ground inside the far post. The speed and slick touches of Dawkins tormented the Sounders repeatedly; neither Evans nor Alonso could stay with him or get the ball off him to any great degree.
Seattle regained the lead late in the first half thanks to some nice play by Zakuani, whose blistering speed got him to the byline throughout the match. Given space by the Quakes, he controlled a pass from Alonso, switched over to his right foot, and dropped a delicate inswinging cross into the goalmouth that White nodded past keeper Jon Busch.
Friberg, obviously out of gas, left at halftime and was replaced by Fernandez. The Uruguayan shone at last summer’s World Cup but faded in and out of MLS games after joining the Sounders in mid-summer, and has contributed little so far this season. Against San Jose, he dug into tackles and charged up the right flank numerous times, opting for a more direct – and often more effective – approach suited to MLS play.
Seven minutes into the second half, Seattle gave the ball away in the middle third again, and again, San Jose scored. This time, halftime sub Khari Stephenson intercepted a wayward ball from Alonso and, not wanting to be outdone by central partner Dawkins, wound up and smashed a shot from about 30 yards out into the top corner.
Nate Jaqua replaced White in the 66th minute for his first appearance of the season. Like Nkufo, Jaqua is a player with size (6-foot-3) who likes to play on the floor as well as in the air. Jaqua nearly won the game in the 81st minute when a poorly headed clearance presented him with a chance; he drilled a low shot that was on frame but Ike Opara’s desperate lunge deflected it wide of the post.
“I thought I had good first touch to set myself up and thought I played it relatively well,” said Jaqua, a veteran of nine seasons and four teams in MLS who has been battling a hip injury. “It hit his back or his foot and just went wide. It would have been nice to nick one at the end and get a ‘W.’”
In the final minutes, David Estrada replaced Rosales and took over at left mid for Zakuani, who moved up top with Jaqua but was unable to exploit the tiring Quakes with his speed. The team has also signed attacker Pat Noonan to a three-month contract extension.
“We’ve got quite a few options up there, and we’ll have more once we get Fredy back,” said Jaqua. “OB [White] played well tonight, got a good goal, and he’s a big target guy as well. So we have some options.”
Schmid has a dilemma when Seattle plays at Chicago Saturday; should Montero be available, one of the starters against San Jose will have to sit. Montero and Rosales seem to be similar players, and at least one striker – White or Jaqua – has to be on the field. If Rosales plays on the right, that probably puts Friberg and Fernandez on the bench, unless Schmid wants to break up the central pairing of Evans and Alonso. Friberg and Rosales have both played centrally in the absence of Evans.
“It’s been a little bit frustrating the way we started,” said Jaqua of the team’s 0-2-2 record. “We know we’re one of the best teams in the league and once we string a few wins together we’ll forget about this early part of the season. But we have to do that.”