Talking Tactics: Tinkering their way to playoff success

Brek Shea - Tactics

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Playoff soccer is all about energy and effort, about teams’ and players’ ability to handle all the “hot and hectic” spilling out around the park. It’s about rising to the moment.

But that doesn’t mean managers and their tactics don’t play a part. They always do.

Identifying weaknesses or exploiting mismatches is one way managers can influence matches, arranging platforms that allow players to be at their best, maximizing opportunities for their men rising to the moment.

The high-profile New York Red Bulls are first into the playoff pool, along with hosts FC Dallas on Wednesday (9 pm ET, Fox Soccer/TSN2). Those same Red Bulls have been involved in two episodes recently where matchups along the flanks surely helped decide matters.

Last year, San Jose were up against it – in a big way. Having lost to the Red Bulls back in the Bay, Frank Yallop’s men were down 1-0 on aggregate and now had to get a seemingly improbable result from the star-strewn side in Harrison, N.J.

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So Yallop made bold moves. He looked at the Red Bulls back line and strong central midfield and decided the opposition weak links were along the outside, where right back Chris Albright and left back Roy Miller patrolled. In the first leg, leading scorer Chris Wondolowski had set up as a striker at Buck Shaw while playmaker Geovanni worked centrally from midfield.

For the return leg in New Jersey, Wondolowski set up at right midfield – a spot he’d played often during the second half of the 2010 season – across from left midfielder Bobby Convey. Geovanni took up a more advanced position, roughly alongside Ryan Johnson as forwards in the Earthquakes’ 4-4-2.

The net result was trouble for the Red Bulls; neither of Hans Backe’s wide midfielders were known for their defending. Dane Richards on the right and Mehdi Ballouchy on the left prefer offense over defense and can be prone to neglect their tracking duties. Same for Rafa Márquez in the middle, who isn’t exactly the guy you ask to track or rush out wide and provide cover. (We’ve heard a lot more about that since, haven’t we?)

Neither Convey nor Wondolowski had a ton of touches, but they did find space when San Jose managed to move the ball forward. With two central midfielders focusing on defensive duties, San Jose worked the ball forward and wide quickly when in possession; Yallop knew his team was never going to out-possess the superior passers from New York, so he didn’t try.

Rather, San Jose were ever cognizant that Richards and Ballouchy were more concerned about getting forward, less bothered by rushing back to assist those fullbacks. (Later, Convey dropped deeper to left fullback; by game’s end, still pressing forward to keep Richards on the defensive, he had two goals and a massive assist in one of the best MLS matches of his career.)

Two years before, the mismatch was on the other side. Few have dominated a two-leg playoff the way Richards did in 2008 against Houston – and it was clearly by design. Then-manager Juan Carlos Osorio made two critical calls that turned the series (which finished with the Red Bulls’ stunning 3-0 win at Robertson Stadium.) First, he picked the roughest, toughest lineup he could, understanding the need to match Houston’s physical MO. Then the manager opted to go direct, mostly to Richards along the right.

The Red Bulls had been in a 4-4-2 previously. But the choice  to spotlight Richards, to keep him faithfully out wide and isolated on Houston left back Wade Barrett, leaning the New York attack considerably that way, was the high point of Osorio’s RBNY career.

Barrett came in for a lot of criticism after the series, and his declining pace was certainly an issue over the two legs. But Osorio recognized that left midfielder Brad Davis wasn’t always the best at helping out defensively – certainly nowhere close to protecting his fullback the way Brian Mullan did at the time along the right side of Houston’s formation. So, “Go left, and be quick about it” was the order of the day. Isolated so often, Barrett struggled mightily to deal with Richards’ game-changing speed.

More recently, in another flank mismatch, what LA’s Landon Donovan and Eddie Lewis did last year to Seattle’s Sanna Nyassi should not be allowed by law. The Galaxy drove past the Sounders over two legs in last year’s playoffs, and one primary driver was the choice to have Donovan go conservative, concentrating first on shutting down Seattle’s right side.

With Donovan focused on neutralizing one flank – never mind that the veteran attacker is the US national team’s all-time leading scorer – his LA teammates were free to concentrate elsewhere and had a relatively (and surprisingly) easy time in the series. Nyassi’s tactical naïveté, especially compared to the highly experienced Lewis and Donovan, helped create that mismatch.

So, where are the potential tactical mismatches in the wild-card round? FC Dallas go into the playoffs on a spiral. But Brek Shea’s ability along the left gives the Pizza Hut Park gang a chance. New York right back Jan Gunnar Solli, a natural midfielder, is sometimes stretched when it comes to defensive chores. And Richards, once again, is better on offense than defense. So, which side can find a way to make the other team’s midfielder along that side concentrate on defense?

Thursday's other wild-card matchup between Colorado and Columbus (10 pm ET, streamed LIVE on MLSsoccer.com, TSN2 in Canada) is harder to dissect due to some lineup instability on either side. Robbie Rogers’ sore hamstring might keep the Crew winger from being at his best. And Emmanuel Ekpo’s suspension leaves manager Robert Warzycha with another potential adjustment. Meanwhile, Drew Moor’s ability to play centrally for Colorado or at left back (he has manned both positions ably this year) makes any potential matchups hard to pin down.

On the other hand, that’s where one manager might create a tactical edge with a telling matchup.