Minus Ljungberg, a midseason makeover has created a playoff team
A big part of the surge in the second half of the Sounders FC season is its midfield makeover.
The biggest surprise is the players who now make up arguably the most important positions on the field.
Former reserves Nathan Sturgis and Sanna Nyassi are starting during the Sounders run to the playoffs. The combination, which includes Steve Zakuani, newest designated player Alvaro Fernandez and Osvaldo Alonso, has blossomed into a balanced group containing all the key qualities to control the middle of the pitch — speed, technical skill, defensive hustle, vision, communication and a willingness to work together.
The shuffle has helped Seattle remain undefeated in its last six league home matches and is now 8-1-2 in the last 11 matches. With 42 points and a solid lock on the sixth wild card berth, the Sounders have surpassed their inaugural season record.
The midfield has had help. A retooled defense has contributed. So have Blaise Nkufo, Fredy Montero and Kasey Keller. They have stepped up their performance and have been absolutely critical to the run. But without a balanced, efficient and hard-working midfield, Montero would be standing impatiently on the pitch with nothing to do except text his friends, and Keller would be making acrobatic saves much earlier in games and posting fewer shutouts.
For the offense to thrive, it needs a savvy midfield to win the ball and deliver it to the forwards. To prevent goal leakage, it certainly helps to have midfielders who can win balls and snuff out an attack at inception.
“The midfield is the engine box of the team,” said Alan Hinton, former Sounders head coach and TV color commentator. “It is running smoothly right now.”
The engine fired on all cylinders against Toronto FC Saturday. Zakuani scored the tying goal when he raced behind the defenders for a perfectly timed through-ball courtesy of midfield mate Alonso. Then it was Sturgis’ turn to serve a perfect bending free kick to the forehead of Nkufo, who snapped it home for the Sounders’ second goal. Nyassi completed the well-oiled performance with a left-footed half-volley inside Toronto’s 18-yard-box for his first league goal.
Zakuani and Alonso have been starters since last season. But the Sounders began this year with an unsettled midfield corps. Injuries, lackluster performances and player trades created unexpected opportunities during the first half of the season. Starter Brad Evans went down early with a knee injury. Alonso was out injured for several months, too. And Seattle traded Stephen King to D.C. United. At one point, Coach Sigi Schmid fielded a midfield quartet that averaged 22 years of age.
With his makeshift kiddie corps running the midfield, Schmid had to grapple with the Freddie Ljungberg saga. Where should he play the increasingly disgruntled former Arsenal star and the Sounders first designated player? Should he play out wide? Should he play more central, or was he most effective as a withdrawn forward? Ultimately, he discarded the former Swedish international, sending him packing to Chicago. He began to remake his midfield for a second-half push that would need to shift into high gear for a realistic chance to make the playoffs.
Enter Sturgis. His performance has surpassed expectations. The 23-year-old former reserve player has formed a solid partnership with Alonso in the middle. With speedsters Zakuani and Nyassi constantly attacking, Sturgis and Alonso provide defensive cover for the more offensive-minded wingers. The two know their roles. Sturgis, a technical player, passes well and holds the ball. He takes on more of the quarterback responsibilities, connecting passes to the wingers or forwards. Alonso’s task is to break up plays and win the ball to help restart the attack.
“His performance has been good,” Schmid said, of Sturgis. “He’s stayed healthy. Technically, he’s very good. He combines well with Alonso.”
Sturgis says the key has been clear communication and acceptance of roles. Besides distributing the ball, Sturgis, who also has played outside back and center back for the Sounders, Salt Lake and Los Angeles in his three-year professional career, knows how to stay organized and cover the space vacated by the two attacking outside midfielders. He’s equally adept playing defense, closing down space and sharing the defensive chores with Alonso. And Alonso is known to thread a killer pass from time to time.
“It’s important to have a basic understanding and to cover for each other,” Sturgis said. “Even if things aren’t going your way. When the whole team is doing that, it makes a big difference.
“At the beginning of the year, we were struggling with our roles,” he acknowledged. “Everything felt a bit disjointed. But we found something that works, and it feels good when we’re playing well. Hopefully, we can bring that form into the playoffs.”
Sturgis has waited nearly three years to win a starting spot. Injuries cut short his playing time at Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles. But when healthy he had the potential to be a starter. His ability to hold the ball under pressure, play with both feet and make incisive passes is well known not only to Schmid but to the U.S. National Team. Earlier in his career, his skills catapulted him to a regular fixture for the U.S. National U-20s, U-23 and the U.S. Olympic teams.
He is also versatile. Three of his five starts last year came as a left back. He started all three US Open Cup qualifying matches as a midfielder. But he entered Seattle’s second season behind Evans, Ljungberg, Zakuani, Alonso and Peter Vagenas. Rookies David Estrada and Michael Seamon and second-year player Nyassi also had aspirations to make the starting midfield four.
Sturgis hardly looks imposing. He stands barely 5-10 and weighs 150 pounds. What he lacks in brawn he compensates with sublime skill. His experience playing defender at Clemson University, named 2005 Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, helps keep him positionally disciplined. Schmid says Sturgis is one of the teams best strikers of the ball.
Says Hinton, who has been watching Sturgis for nearly two seasons: “He’s a good passer, he’s dependable and he gets along with Alonso. He’s very quiet and understated, but he can run all day.”
That’s what Sturgis has been doing since he got his first start against Toronto on April 25. So far, nobody has been able to catch him.
“I felt like I had a good pre-season,” Sturgis said. ” I felt like I was ready to play and contribute. But you have to wait for your time. There’s always going to be injuries. You just have to be patient.”