If Rosales is on, someone is off in midfield full of options
How he resolves it will determine how the Sounders finish the season — as MLS Cup winner, playoff-bound team or worse. It’s clear this team will not contend for Supporter Shield distinction as the team with the most points at the end of the season.
But, hey, there’s no pressure.
Against the San Jose Earthquakes, Mauro Rosales, the Argentine midfielder, offered the first real glimpse of what he is capable of doing on the pitch. He assisted on Brad Evans’ goal and was a constant threat on the right channel — particularly in the first half — even though he was playing as a withdrawn forward.
Rosales may fill that role against the Chicago Fire this Saturday if Fredy Montero is unable to play because of his wrist injury. But forget about a Rosales-Montero partnership up front. Schmid has made that abundantly clear. He prefers a bigger, powerful target forward to partner with the crafty Colombian.
So, when Montero returns, where is Rosales going to play? Who is the coach going to leave out?
There’s going to be some unhappy campers. That much is certain.
It doesn’t help Schmid that he’s facing the pressure. His team is performing well below the enormous expectations that the club publicly set for itself. After all, ownership has stated its goal is to win a Major League Soccer championship.
But the tally so far in this championship season: just two points in four games and a less-than-stellar 0-2-2 record. Worse, it has been characterized by a lack of finishing until the San Jose match. Even more disconcerting for the fan, the product on the field has yet to match the off-field hype.
Sure, it’s still early in the season. Players are still building their fitness and new players are adding into the mix. But the patience of 36,000 fans could start to wear thin — real soon if Sounders continue to muddle along.
This leaves Schmid in a bit of a quandary. He needs one more impact player. And if the Sounders are loathe use their third designated player slot to shell out for a million-dollar striker and proven goal scorer, then such responsibilities might fall to the 30-year-old veteran of Europe, South America and the Argentine National Team.
It’s clear that Rosales has got the chops, the savvy and the composure to help lead the attack. And until opposing defenders really fear Seattle’s other attacking options, Montero (who is trying ever-so-hard) is going to draw all the attention. Montero needs a credible threat to draw pressure away from him.
The pressure to win only promises to increase. Schmid is going to have to make some hard decisions in the midfield and select the right balance to carry this team. It’s evident that the strength of this year’s Sounders lies firmly in the middle of the pitch.
So, who gets to play and who doesn’t?
Steve Zakuani and Osvaldo Alonso appear to be locks on the left and in the defensive holding midfield slots. As Rosales becomes more fit and develops a better understanding with his teammates, his quality forces him onto the pitch, especially if he can generate the kind of attacking prowess he demonstrated against San Jose.
Even more intriguing, Rosales and Erik Friberg immediately forged a seemingly deep understanding Saturday. These are two players who never played together in a competitive match before. Their class stood out in the first half. They were instrumental in creating the build-up play that led to Evans’ goal and for creating constant havoc on the right side.
“I think they are both really smart players, thinkers on the field,” said Chris Henderson, Sounders technical director.
Their persistent threat eventually opened more space for Zakuani on the left, since the San Jose defenders focused on the Swedish-Argentine masterclass performance. Eventually, this preoccupation allowed Zakuani to bust a double-scissors that froze a San Jose defender long enough to lob an arcing, diagonal ball to the head of forward O’Brian White, who directed it into the goal just before the end of the first half.
“Being able to have a threat on the other will start to isolate Zakuani one-on-one and thats what we want– to get him one-on-one,” Henderson said. “Teams then wont be able to play a tight defense, and that will open the lanes for others.”
Fortunes changed in the second half. With Friberg subbed out because of the flu and Rosales and Evans fatiguing, Seattle lost control of the midfield. The Earthquakes controlled the ball for long stretches, and of course, tied the game with Khari Stevenson’s wonder blast.
In the first half I did well running at them on the left side, but in the second we were unable to connect with the wings and I had to go inside to look for the ball,” Zakuani said. “Credit San Jose because (it) kept the ball really well.
Evans added a strong performance against San Jose, timing one of his surging runs perfectly to slot home his first goal of the season, courtesy of a Rosales cross. But Evans also gave up the ball in the midfield, sending a bad pass to Alonso that led to San Jose’s first goal. Alvaro Fernandez replaced Friberg at the half and was mostly ineffectual.
“I thought we could have held the ball a little bit better at times and it wasnt really the fault of Ozzie (Alonso) or the fault of Evans,” Schmid said. “It was a combination of everyone. Flaco (Fernandez) in the second half, Evans, Ozzie, Zakuani the ball didnt flow. We were maybe a little stagnant and San Jose had a lot of the ball.”
Those excuses will begin to grow tiresome if Seattle continues to lose or draw matches the supporter base believes it should be winning. The one option Schmid has — if every player is healthy and fit — is to assemble potentially one of the strongest midfields in the league.
It’s becoming clear that Seattle’s top four midfielders are Alonso, Zakuani, Rosales and Friberg. Evans and Fernandez can play a significant role, too, but Schmid is going to have to make another hard decision — sooner than later.
Henderson called such a combination “contagious” and “a very strong midfield.” He also has no doubt Schmid will select the side that has the best chance of winning.
“Hes got to do whatever we can do to win,” Henderson said. “Whatever the best combination to do that is his job. He knows what this business is all about. Hes a winner. He wants to win as bad as we all do.”