Armchair Analyst: On gravitational pull, a legend in his last days and other Week 21 thoughts
The Silly Season is just about done, which means there should be a few new faces joining MLS in the next couple of days. Jermaine Jones to Chicago should be the big one (that's gonna get done, right?) but there's also something brewing in Crewland, while LA obviously had something in mind when they gave away Kofi Opare for D.C.'s No. 3 spot in the allocation order.
— Diego Pinzón (@PinzonDiego) August 3, 2014
Things are going to look different. For about 15 teams out there, that's a good thing.
Let's take a look back at Matchday 21:
1. The Relative Weight of Strikers
"Gravitational pull" is a term I've been using a lot over the past year without really having explained what I mean by it. This has caused some confusion for a few folks, and since I'm a little stumped about what to write about this week, now's as good a time as any for an in-depth explanation.
The root of the concept is this: certain players – usually great attackers – command more of the defense's attention than others. "Attention" in this sense isn't just mental awareness; it's a bending of the physical shape of the defense.
So "gravitational pull" manifests itself physically as defenders taking an extra step or two toward said attacker. The goal is to shut danger down before it really starts, something that defenders need to be quicker to do against the likes of Clint Dempsey or Federico Higuain than they do against Chad Barrett or Justin Meram.
Great attackers, then, have greater relative gravity than average ones. They bend more of the defense toward them in the same way that a larger planet (Jupiter) will catch more interstellar debris than a smaller one (Earth, unless Michael Bay is directing).
After this goal happened everybody focused first on DeAndre Yedlin falling asleep at the back post for Landon Donovan's put-back, then on the absolute mess the Sounders made along their own left side with both Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda overocmmitting (hard). And it's right to focus on that, because those were the two primary breakdowns on this play.
Seattle, however, usually get away with that kind of thing because of Ozzie Alonso. He covers up for teammates' mistakes more than any other player in the league, and as such a lot of those mistakes go unpunished and thus unnoticed.
Ozzie couldn't do a damn thing here, though. Watch the GIF again, and you'll see he's in perfect position to contain Marcelo Sarvas as the Galaxy man begins to cut across Zone 14. But rather than shut Sarvas down – the type of attacking movement Alonso smothers instantly 99 times out of 100 – Ozzie actually takes two steps out of his way, basically inviting the shot.
Because that's Keane drifting just to Alonso's left, and the potential threat of that Galaxy DP getting on the ball in the 18 outweighed, in Alonso's lightning-quick risk assessment, the danger of Sarvas dribbling across the box 20 yards out.
When players or coaches talk about how a star player being out there helps the team even if the star isn't making huge plays, this is a big, big part of what they mean. Alonso doesn't step out of Sarvas' way if it's Chandler Hoffman or Rob Friend instead of Keane here, because they just don't have the same gravitational pull.
The game, at its very core, is about creating space. That's what gravitational pull does.
2. The Last Days of a Legend
It looks like we're heading into the final few months of the Thierry Henry era:
— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) August 3, 2014
The Red Bulls striker is, by my estimation, the second-greatest/most accomplished player ever to lace 'em up in the league, just behind Lothar Matthäus. Whether Titi retires or not, he'll hold onto that No. 2 all-time spot ahead of Kaká, David Villa and Frank Lampard next year, and will bump down to No. 3 only if Xavi, Iniesta, Ronaldo or Messi inks an MLS contract in January (only one of those is realistic). He is one of the all-time greats, and it's been a pleasure watching him for the past four seasons.
That's been especially true for New York fans, as Henry has been nearly everything any team could hope for in a DP. RBNY don't come close to winning the Supporters' Shield last year without him, and even as they've struggled in 2014, Henry has still produced performances like THIS.
Last week – a fairly unexpected four-point week that kept New York's season above the red line – was a great one for Titi. He got the equalizer in the 1-1 midweek draw at RSL with a finish that was typically cool and precise (watch HERE).
His follow-up performance, in a six-pointer against the Revs, was even better. He didn't get on the scoresheet and didn't make any game-altering plays in what finished as a 2-1 New York win, but he did stuff like this:
That's 85 minutes in after 40 minutes of 10-v-11 soccer. Henry had spent the better part of the game at that point as a one-man outlet, constantly holding the ball up against multiple defenders. He spent his last 10 minutes as a one-man high press, refusing to let the Revs build anything easy or wear down the New York midfield. He is a boss.
When he's gone, please remember him for the ridiculous goals, and even more ridiculous passes. But also remember that even after 20 years of greatness, after winning a World Cup and a Eurpean Championship and a Champions League and going unbeaten in the EPL, Henry still cared enough to run his tail off 85 minutes into a midsummer grinder against the Revs.
3. Rotating Back to Consistency
True story: Jason Saghini and I have a friendly wager about where the Rapids and Chivas TBA will finish in the standings. I took the Goats and some pretty good odds.
I tell you this to give some perspective on just how low my expectations were for the Rapids this year, and to praise rookie head coach Pablo Mastroeni. He's pulled a lot of the right levers, trusted a bunch of kids, gotten the developmental curve right with his second-year players (which is incredibly hard, as the 2012 rookie class can tell you), and generally been tactically flexible.
Now he's left himself with two big jobs as the playoffs come into sight and Colorado start to dance with the red line: get his team healthy, then figure out the Best Xi to put out there. It's great that the Rapids go 22ish deep – and it's proved necessary given the surfeit of injuries currently annihilating the squad – but a squad's first XI needs to work together during the regular season in order to stand a chance against the truly elite clubs in the postseason.
The big issue for Colorado at the moment is backline cohesion. They were ripped apart midweek in a 3-0 loss against the Revs, as a New England team that hadn't held a lead in two months put together a series of beautiful, flowing attacks:
You can see the problem on that goal – as one defender stepped up into the play, there was no rotation to help fill the gap he left. This same thing happened again in the weekend's 1-0 loss to RSL:
As the play unfolds down RSL's left-hand side, the Rapids are agonizingly slow to recognize danger and don't defend in pairs. It's a series of 1-v-1 duels that the visitors win.
This is a big, red warning sign for a Colorado team that's won only twice in their last nine and are below the red line on points per game. They need some consistency in their lineup and tactical approach to develop consistency in how they execute. Without it, they'll be watching November happen from home.
A few more things to ponder...
9. I was missing 2013, so it was nice of D.C. United to give us a little reprise at the end of their 1-0 loss at Houston. (watch HERE). That's a clip in dire need of "Yakety Sax," though it shouldn't obscure just how dominant United were in midweek's 3-0 win over TFC.
8. Speaking of TFC, their fanbase had a truly bi-polar week that largely revolved around the play of Michael Bradley. He hit two passes like this against D.C.:
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 30, 2014
But because his teammates didn't finish, that clearly meant Bradley's a bum. OK...
7. Bradley "redeemed" himself with a Man of the Match performance in Saturday's 2-0 win over Montreal, which included our Pass of the Week:
Luke Moore eventually finished that one, though Bradley didn't earn an assist – which is yet another reminder that assists are a noisy and pretty unreliable metric for creative prowess.
The game's only goal (watch HERE) is a great example of using movement to create favorable individual matchups. When Chris Wondolowski drops deep he brings Jalil Anibaba with him (gravitational pull), which leaves Yannick Djalo isolated against Zach Scott and with plenty of space to run into thanks to Seattle's high line.
Game, set and match.
5. Not much to say about the Chicago Fire, who picked up two more draws this week – scoreless against the Whitecaps midweek, then 1-1 at the weekend against the Crew. They now have 13 ties on the year, well within striking distance of the single-season record of 16 which the Fire themselves set back in 2010.
Best thing to come from the two games was a Mike Magee PK and this Face of the Week:
4. I wrote a bit about the LA Galaxy's 3-1 win over Portland on Saturday. The Timbers are actually 6-4-4 over their last 14 – which is top five in the league – and they always give LA fits, so that win was a very, very good one for the hosts.
3. The only team I've written about more than the Timbers or Galaxy is the Philadelphia Union, who went on the road to get a tremendous point at Sporting KC thanks to a 1-1 draw on Friday night.
They earned that point despite holding just more than 30 percent of the possession, which means they're defending a ton. I feel like that's all the argument I need to make for keeping Maurice Edu back in central defense even when Valdes arrives and Rais Mbolhi is ready to go.
Philly can worry about possession and keeping the ball in 2015. The rest of 2014 is going to be about creating a killer central defensive unit that can give everyone else the freedom and confidence to go forward on the counter.
2. I've written a lot recently in praise of San Jose's move away from playing a true target forward – which, as I pointed out above, has worked. But that doesn't mean I'm against playing a true No. 9.
Blas Perez gives FC Dallas opponents a reminder of how dangerous an elite target forward can be just about every week. He was instrumental in the only goal of FCD's 1-0 win at Chivas on Sunday, and is guaranteed to be overlooked given the form of rookie strike-partner Tesho Akindele.
1. Finally, a big congrats to Nick Rimando, who earned his 112th MLS shutout in that win over Colorado to tie him atop the all-time list with Kevin Hartman. This is your friendly reminder that he's somehow never won Goalkeeper of the Year.