McCarthy Musings: Seattle still no match for Santos Laguna despite modest improvements

Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid demanded more from his sputtering team in the wake of a 2-1 defeat at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night.

Schmid received the desired response from his revamped side in Tuesday night's 1-0 home defeat to Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League semifinal.

His players chased, closed and harried the opposition for much of this affair at CenturyLink Field. They engaged in the match for its entire duration instead of flitting in and out of the game like they had in the first four matches of the MLS campaign. They pressed earnestly to fulfill the directives set forth.

The revised tactical approach – a 4-2-3-1 formation including Osvaldo Alonso and Shalrie Joseph partnered in front of the back four and Sammy Ochoa alone up front – demanded that sort of application. And, by and large, Sounders FC met those base requirements.

Despite those fundamental strides, Seattle eventually succumbed to two crippling problems: it lacked the quality to carve open the Santos defense and it left enough room when it pushed forward to invite counterattacking forays.

Most of the problems in the final third appeared at the moment Schmid handed in his team sheet. In a match that demanded an extra bit of class, the veteran boss named a lineup deprived of the players usually charged with providing it. David Estrada, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins missed out through injury. Mauro Rosales and Steve Zakuani settled for places on the bench after their indifferent starts to the season.

Their replacements supplied plenty of industry without mustering the guile required to unlock a defense. Alonso threatened from distance on a couple of occasions and Mario Martínez served in a couple of dangerous set pieces, but the work from the run of play lacked the sharpness to really pose concerns to the Santos rearguard.

As Seattle searched for goals, it eventually pushed its line higher – especially fullbacks Leo González and DeAndre Yedlin (impressive yet again on the right) – to maintain possession and support the blunt work in the final third. The resulting balance invited Santos – already poised to counter with Hérculez Gómez, Carlos Darwin Quintero and Oribe Peralta – to exploit the space conceded on the break.

Santos showed the potential danger created by the rhythm of the match in the first half without taking advantage of the situation. The front three could not quite find the proper range in front of goal or string together the sequence of passes to punish Seattle for its inability to adjust to the problems presented. Gómez dragged wide from a difficult angle, while Rodolfo Salinas thumped an effort straight at Marcus Hahnemann to underscore the concerns ahead in the second half.

Gómez finally delivered on the promise of the first half to hand his side a potentially decisive away goal ahead of the return leg at Estadio Corona next Tuesday. Seattle failed to deal with a long lump up field and Quintero took advantage of the uncertainty. The Colombian international collected the ball, drove his effort toward goal and forced Hahnemann to parry invitingly toward the far post. Gómez lashed the rebound back across the face of goal and into the upper corner to ensure Santos met its primary objective for this match.

Seattle did well to avoid conceding a killer second goal after Gómez pounced, but Sounders FC's Champions League run will likely conclude in Mexico next week. Santos has dispatched three MLS teams – including the Rave Green last year at the quarterfinal stage – with relative ease in knockout ties in Torreón. The first leg offers little to suggest Seattle boasts the incisiveness and the solidity to alter the established trend even if Johnson and Martins recover in time to feature.

Although Sounders FC lost the match and watched its Champions League dreams essentially dissipate on its home turf, it can take some solace in the effort submitted. This dogged display offered a response to the dire performances to start the season. It did not possess the quality required to win a match at this stage of the Champions League, but it at least provides a foundation for this group to build upon as it prepares for the second leg and turns its attentions to domestic matters next week.

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