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This weekend, Seattle and Sky Blue played one of the craziest games in the history of the league.
I was lucky enough to see it in person, from high above the Memorial Stadium pitch, perched with the seagulls. And when I arrived, my plan was to write a normal tactical column.
— Sky Blue FC (@SkyBlueFC) July 23, 2017
Sky Blue had announced a three-back setup, and I was curious to see if that stuck. Would this be their normal 3.5/4.5 approach that they have used before, with O’Hara ranging all up and down the right side? Would it be a true back three? Something else?
And for the first half, that column still made sense. And we will be turning to that tactical conversation in a moment. But ultimately, it felt pointless to fixate in too much detail on the particularities of positional arrangement, when the true story of the game was its emotional arc and the absolute chaos that ensued in that half-hour of madness. So before talking O’Hara and Sky Blue’s hybrid system, we should take a moment to think about momentum.
The power of momentum
In the space of just thirty minutes in the second half, seven goals were scored. By the 60th minute, Seattle was off to the races, with a 4-0 lead and no end in sight. And yet, even then, things didn’t feel secure.
Still 30 minutes left. Honest to god, Sky Blue could still pull this one back. Or lose 7-2. Anything is possible #SEAvNJ
— Charles Olney (@olneyce) July 23, 2017
Seattle’s coach, Laura Harvey, commented post game that she still felt nervous, knowing how explosive this Sky Blue team is, knowing how easily the momentum could shift. And that worry was prescient. Because in the 60th minute, Merritt Mathias conceded a penalty on a pointless foul right at the edge of the box (or possibly, even, just outside the box). Kelley O’Hara stepped up to convert, and the whole game turned on a dime.
Both Harvey and Christy Holly, the Sky Blue coach, called attention to this change in the tide, though neither seemed to think that it resulted from any cataclysmic shift in the style of play. So there is a lot to unpack here. Did the game open up during this period? Did the teams change their game plans? What, exactly, happened here?
The simplest answer is that the game overtook the players. Adrenaline rushed, the pace of play quickened, the blood began pounding, and the relentless drive to score took over. Meanwhile, the defensive structure became frayed, passes started to go askew, lines broke down.
And there’s a lot of truth to that. As I said above, trying to analyze this game from a tactical perspective feels a bit beside the point. At the same time, the basic structure of the game didn’t change all that much.
Sky Blue made some substitutions and slightly re-arranged their shape, dropping Killion into the back line, bringing on some more wide attackers, and giving O’Hara even more freedom to wander at will. But more than anything, what changed was the sense of belief.
The defining characteristic of the New Jersey side this year has been their deep faith. No matter what, they believe that the game remains winnable. They don’t stop working; they fight and scrabble and push. Meanwhile, Seattle seems to be a team that blows a bit more with the wind. When things are going well, they look great. But when the high begins to wear off, they look discombobulated.
You saw some of this even in their two blowouts earlier in the season (against Houston and Washington). In both of those games they were rampant for long periods, but once the game was beyond reach, they lost the plot. Neither Houston nor Washington had enough time to make a game of it, but the trouble signs were there nonetheless.
This time, though, they were playing Sky Blue, and there was still half an hour left. That turned out to be more than enough time for the lack of attention and sloppiness to completely change the course of the game. Once the momentum turned, their gyroscope was unbalanced and all hell broke loose.
Now, to be clear, it’s not that Seattle looked terrible for the entire period. It’s just that they seemed to switch off in key moments. A Sky Blue team that had been pressing for chances all game, and making a good show of it, suddenly found that extra bit of space that they needed. And they capitalized.
In the end, the game had four distinct phases. In the first half, things were fairly even, with both sides playing the game they expected to play. The first 15 minutes of the second half featured a rampant Seattle time, full of confidence, creating opportunities and finishing their chances. Then, things turned and the next 15 minutes put Seattle on the back heel, with a Sky Blue team that seemed absolutely certain they were en route to a famous victory.
Then, to Seattle’s credit, once the lead was gone, they seemed to right the ship and set out to find the ultimate winner. They had been flailing while trying to hold onto a lead that slipped through their fingers like sand. But seemingly, the actual realization that the lead was gone allowed them to reset their approach, and return to playing their game.
That’s notable, and something that Seattle can certainly take from the game. But they certainly must also be worrying about the lack of attention and structure that allowed things to go off the rails so quickly.
3-5-2? 4-4-2? How about a 4-5-3?
As noted, Sky Blue announced their setup as a back three. And at times, they did play that way. But at other times, they were quite clearly in a standard 4-4-2. So what was it?
The key here is O’Hara, who plays as something of a hybrid. In attack, she presses very high, looking for all the world like an attacking wingback. When she does, the other three defenders spread out to split the field into thirds. And when Seattle broke in transition, they were breaking against a back three.
But when Sky Blue has time to reset their defense, O’Hara drops back and the other members of the backline settle back into a back four.
This isn’t a new setup by any means, though it was arguably more pronounced this week than it has been before. That largely seems to have been due to the limitations of personnel. Clearly concerned about the Seattle attack, Coach Holly chose to use Nikki Stanton as the left back/left CB, and asked her to stay home.
Ultimately, the terminology here doesn’t matter as much as the actual style of play. You can say that it’s a 4-4-2 with one attacking fullback and one defensive fullback. Or you can say it’s a fluid blend of two approaches.
From my perspective, it’s almost tempting to call it a 4-5-3 since, when working well, they manage to get all the value of O’Hara the fullback combined with all the value of O’Hara the winger.
It certainly asks a tremendous amount of her, and her energy in this position is a huge part of what allowed Sky Blue back into the game. It’s a huge advantage, and O’Hara’s attacking chops have been deadly in each of the past three big comeback games for Sky Blue.
At the same time, there are risks to this approach. Managing a back three can be difficult, particularly in transition against a fast team. And Seattle’s fluid attacking corps is particularly tough to handle, as I wrote about last week. A back three is usually well suited to handling a traditional frontline with two forwards but can run into problems when the opposition can rapidly switch between one and three strikers.
We saw some evidence of those difficulties in this game, particularly with Stanton on the left. When they were playing in a back three, she tended to push too narrow at times, leaving acres of space for Seattle’s right side attackers to move through. She also had some difficulty tracking the complicated movements of Naho Kawasumi (a difficult task for anyone, but particularly for a converted midfielder playing in a fluid system).
However, on the whole, the system worked successfully. It played somewhat defensively in most cases, with its main effect compared to a normal 4-4-2 being to put all of the attacking responsibilities on the shoulders of one attacking fullback. That was a useful tradeoff, on the whole, because the one attacking fullback was O’Hara, and she made the most of those chances.
As I noted at the start, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from such a singular and strange game. But even though Seattle came away with the three points, it’s probably Sky Blue who can take the more positive lessons. Their ability to fight back under extreme conditions was proven once more. The team spirit was further clarified. And the usefulness of their overall team structure was confirmed.
Going forward, they will need to clamp down on the defensive profligacy earlier in matches. They are spending a huge amount of energy—both physical and emotional—on these rousing comebacks, and that could be a real problem as the dog days of summer set in. In the end, that may consign them to a strong mid-table finish rather than the playoffs that they have been hoping for.
But there is one thing that we can now state with absolute confidence: writing off this Sky Blue team even one second before they are mathematically eliminated would be a huge mistake.