Armchair Analyst: Creating an on-field identity
There’s nearly a third of the season gone for most teams so far in 2011, and some identities have begun to take shape.
The Red Bulls are a possession-heavy team who want to spread you out and hit on the break. Columbus are stalwart defensively, all the while trying to knock the ball around on the ground and beat you with long build-ups and, eventually, Emilio Rentería flashing into the box to latch onto a cross or a through ball.
The Dynamo and Timbers want to murder you with set-pieces, and quite often succeed. RSL play the way they’ve always played — short, short, long — and even if they’re having trouble finding the net at the moment, it’s doubtful they’ll change.
And FC Dallas have discovered, in Fabián Castillo, an attacker who’s as comfortable slipping between the central defense as he is flitting out wide and creating off the dribble.
Other teams have sundry other styles and methods, but what’s clear is that teams who've won the Supporters' Shield over the past few years are the teams that have found one thing they’ve done better than anyone else has done anything else, then made that their identity. Meanwhile, the strugglers have been the teams that never discovered their strengths, muddling along from week-to-week without a go-to game plan.
With the European season closing and another MLS transfer window opening up soon, let’s take a look at some possible midseason additions — some big names, some not — for clubs on both ends of the rankings. Reinforcements, as it were, to help create an identity for teams currently lacking.
Atop the standings on points — though not points per game — are the LA Galaxy, last year’s Shield winners and 2009 MLS Cup runners-up. LA certainly aren’t the juggernaut they were in 2010, and replacing Edson Buddle’s productivity has, thus far, been too big of an ask for Juan Pablo Ángel and Chad Barrett.
The scoring burden has fallen largely to Landon Donovan, and while he’s carried that weight with aplomb, the reality is that at some point, the Galaxy need to start getting “other” types of goals.
The natural place to look is at restarts. LA have already been very good this year on dead-ball situations, and for whatever you think of David Beckham’s transatlantic travels, the man can still serve a set-piece as well as anyone in the world.
The problem, though, is that the Galaxy have one target too few thanks to the season-ending injury to Leonardo. The big defender was a perfect third option behind Ángel and Omar Gonzalez, and the 5-foot-8 A.J. DeLaGarza — though a better player overall — isn’t much of an in-the-box threat.
The solution for LA comes in the form of Jamaican national teamer and current free agent Claude Davis, a 6-foot-4 inch central defender with nearly a decade of experience in the English Championship (second flight) and more than that with the Reggae Boyz.
Anyone who watched Crystal Palace this season saw that Davis, who just turned 32, has plenty left in the tank. Line him up in the box next to Gonzalez, Ángel and Donovan any time Beckham’s over a restart, and the Galaxy would be practically irresistible.
Up in Canada, Toronto FC have looked a lot like a team with a plan. But with pieces that keep falling away, it's been impossible for the plan to work on a consistent basis. Whether it’s red cards, injuries or international call-ups, there just hasn’t been much in the way of smooth sailing for the Reds.
One thing that’s become apparent, though, is that whenever big target man Alan Gordon is in the lineup, Toronto are a team to be reckoned with. Problem is, Gordon has suffered one injury after another since the opening weeks, and TFC have struggled as a result.
Into the breech, then, steps English Premier League veteran Jason Roberts. The London-born Grenadan international has bounced between the Premiership and Championship for the past decade and has more than 100 goals to his credit in English soccer. He’s also got 12 in 22 games with Grenada, and as US fans can attest — remember, the US met Grenada in a two-leg World Cup qualifying series back in 2004, and the Spice Boys (yes, that’s their nickname) acquitted themselves well — Roberts is an absolute handful.
He’s lost a step from those days, but at 33, he still has something left in his legs and is masterful at holding the ball up and bringing others into the play, an area in which TFC is lost without Gordon. He wouldn’t come cheaply, but proven class rarely does.
Speaking of proven class, it looks like the great Andrea Pirlo’s days are over at AC Milan, after he and the Rossoneri mutually agreed not to renew his contract.
Pirlo’s credentials speak for themselves. He’s won everything from the Scudetto to the Champions League to the World Cup, and was instrumental in all of them. His positioning and creative eye made him, in many ways, the definitive player of the past decade (not the best, mind you, just the one whose deployment had the most effect on shaping the modern game).
And, at age 32, he — like Davis and Roberts — has plenty of gas left in the tank.
It goes without saying that he’d be an asset for almost any team in the world. If an MLS side steps up to try to get his signature, they’ll likely be competing with the likes of Roma, Atlético Madrid, Schalke and a half-dozen other European powers.
But it’s worth the risk, and no one could use him more than Sporting Kansas City.
Peter Vermes’ team is obviously struggling — long road trips historically have that effect on MLS teams — but they're nowhere near as bad as their record.
That said, the struggles have shined a light on just what’s going wrong with Sporting, and the answer is a lack of organization and compactness through the center of the park. They’re not able to get themselves on the same page, and as a result they both attack and defend in segments rather than as a full team.
It’s made for some ugly, disjointed play from a side with a lot of talent and promise. Pirlo, who is — with the exception of Barcelona’s Xavi — the world’s greatest organizer, would be an instant solution.
Play him at the back point of KC’s three-man midfield with Stéphane Auvray just in front of him on the right in a destroyer role, and Davy Arnaud in a freer, more advanced role along the left hand side. Have the central defense play a higher line, and let everyone not named “Pirlo” choose the simple pass. Then when he has the ball, make sure one midfielder, one fullback and one forward check to him for options, while the opposite numbers burn into space to provide avenues of direct attack.
It’s a blueprint not only for success, but for exciting, attacking football that the crowds at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park would eat up.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.