For the Seattle Sounders, the 2017 blueprint was clear. Take the core that just won the MLS Cup title, bring a healthy Clint Dempsey back to the fold and relish the results.
Yet the Sounders did not get off to the strongest of starts. While a 1-2-3 stretch is far from a disaster, those results were beneath the talent of this Seattle team. Jordan Morris up top with Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro underneath? That's a group of players expected to produce.
So coach Brian Schmetzer took a page out of the Sounders' MLS Cup-winning playbook. As when Seattle went from No. 4 seed to league champion last fall, Morris found himself lined up on the left flank. While striker Nelson Valdez's offseason exit triggered a return to the No. 9 role for Morris, Schmetzer again started the U.S. international as a winger for Seattle's trip to face the LA Galaxy on Sunday.
The result? A standout performance from Morris and a dominating 3-0 victory at StubHub Center.
The Sounders' average formation against the LA Galaxy on Sunday. Note the position of Jordan Morris (13).
The distribution of the Sounders' attacks against the Galaxy.
For as well as Harry Shipp has played on the left for Seattle this year, Morris brings a more consistently threatening dynamic. His pace and strength create major matchup problems for opposing fullbacks. Morris' tendency to stay high also creates room for left back Joevin Jones to join the attack.
And Morris' runs in behind are crucial, since Seattle's man on the opposite flank — Nicolas Lodeiro — tends to float inside rather than stretch the defense. We saw as much on Morris' 44th-minute strike, as he recognized that Galaxy right back Nathan Smith had been sucked in by Dempsey and Lodeiro. Ghosting into the vacated space on the edge of the box, Morris collected a feed from Dempsey and slotted past Brian Rowe.
There's a reason 51 percent of the Sounders' attacks came down Morris' flank Sunday, while just 28 percent stemmed from the opposite side. In addition to his goal, Morris created three scoring chances and completed all 29 of his passes.
It's also worth giving credit to offseason addition Will Bruin, who started up top and occupied the Galaxy back line — creating the space that Morris, Dempsey and Lodeiro exploited. The 27-year-old already has two goals this season, and a double-digit haul seems perfectly reasonable if he can maintain his starting spot.
Considering the way Morris and Co. played Sunday, there's no reason to expect Schmetzer will be changing gears again anytime soon.
Orlando thriving in diamond midfield
Orlando City's average formation against New York City FC on Sunday.
Is it possible for a team to "quietly" jump out to a 5-1-0 start? That seems to be the case for Orlando City, which saw a hot start tempered by the caveat that four of five matches were played at home. But Orlando showed it can win on the road with a 2-1 triumph at New York City FC on Sunday, and suddenly it feels like the Lions are for real.
After spurning his famed diamond midfield during the 2015 season as coach at NYCFC, coach Jason Kreis has returned to the formation that defined his tenure with Real Salt Lake from 2008 to 2013. And Orlando is reaping the rewards.
The narrow midfield is a logical approach considering the club's personnel. There's a glut of talent capable of filling the tucked-in wide roles, including Cristian Higuita, Matias Perez Garcia, Will Johnson and Luis Gil. With those players helping do the defensive work inside and Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas making runs up top, the playmaker finds himself boasting both freedom and attacking options.
That's good news for Kaka, who is set to return from a hamstring injury and take on the No. 10 role Giles Barnes has filled of late. The diamond midfield also leaves plenty of space for fullbacks to get forward, and Swiss right back Scott Sutter has done so with vigor over his three starts.
All things considered, this team is coming together quite nicely for Kreis — and the rest of MLS is starting to take notice.
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Central midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan ran the show in the Sounders' win over the Galaxy, combining to complete 136 of 144 passes. That match continued an impressive start to 2017 for Roldan, who tops MLS with 22 tackles won.