Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday takeaways: What we learned from Week 2's action

After a spectacular opening weekend to the MLS season, there has been little letup in Week 2, with Saturday's 11 games featuring a heavyweight clash out West, another homegrown making his mark and a first-ever win for Austin FC.

Here are my top takeaways from Saturday's action.

What we learned from LAFC-Seattle

We got an early glimpse at two Western Conference powerhouses when LAFC took on the Seattle Sounders. Despite key players missing on both sides, there were still plenty of takeaways from the game. The first thing I know for sure is that both of these teams — assuming they stay relatively injury-free — will be in the conversation for silverware when the 2021 season is all said and done.

The main takeaway for me today is that Bob Bradley and Brian Schmetzer are constantly innovating and trying to find new tactical ways to get the most out of what’s available to them. Another thing, is that LAFC have got to tighten up defensively.

In 2019 they were phenomenal at protecting leads and seeing out games. However, there was never a doubt in my mind that the Sounders were going to find a way to get at least an equalizer because LAFC have a hard time keeping clean sheets — just three in their last 29 games. With Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, they’ll be able to outscore most opponents so it may not matter in the end, but if the attacking core has an off day, they will be in trouble. One of their issues is that they send a lot of players forward in attack and are left shorthanded at the back if they don’t immediately win the ball back after losing it.

So, what was it about the coaching that got me excited today? I believe we saw some fascinating tactical adjustments from both sides to compensate for their missing superstars. There’s no question that Pep Guardiola is a big influence on the way Bob Bradley and his coaching staff thinks.

In the absence of the last two Golden Boot presented by Audi winners in Vela and Rossi, Bradley opted to play a midfielder in the No. 9 role — something Pep is renowned for. The reason this can be so effective is because a midfielder will naturally play the position from a deep lying starting point which makes it difficult for the opposing center backs to know when to stay tight and when to drop off. Most defenders want to be within touching distance of the striker so it can be disorienting when you have no one to mark because of how deeply they’re positioned.

Playing with a false nine also gives your side a better chance of keeping possession by outnumbering your opponent in the central area of the pitch. In the first 15 minutes, this worked quite well for LAFC as the Sounders backline had a hard time recognizing when to track Jose Cifuentes deep into the midfield and when to hold their position. LAFC were able to get runners beyond Cifuentes and apply a lot of pressure on the Sounders.

Ultimately, the Sounders figured it out and Cifuentes wasn’t able to influence the game in the way Bradley would have hoped, but it was the creativity in tactical thinking that impressed me about the way LAFC set themselves up despite the lack of effectiveness as the game wore on.

The Sounders need Nico Lodeiro in order to do anything significant this season. Not only is he the captain, he’s the one who simplifies the game for everyone around him. When he gets on the ball, Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, Joao Paulo and everyone else know exactly which spaces they should be moving into. He’s the first player they look for when launching a counter or when trying to relieve pressure.

There’s no like-for-like player you can replace him with and so it was on Schmetzer and his staff to find a way to minimize the impact of his absence. They did just that by utilizing Cristian Roldan in an advanced role where he could make runs beyond Ruidiaz and Will Bruin and help to turn the LAFC backline.

When Roldan plays as the attacking midfielder, he’s not going to get on the ball and dictate the tempo of the game and he’s not going to make inch perfect through balls for his teammates to run onto. However, what he will do is make darting runs into wide areas and beyond the defense which forces the opponent to lose their defensive shape, especially in the midfield.

His off the ball running forced Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Latif Blessing to follow him into areas they’d rather not go into which in turn created space for other Sounders players to find some success in the vacated spaces. Brad Smith benefited greatly in the first half as he was able to put in several crosses from the left hand side.

Neither side were exceptional today, but I have to think that as long as they are led by Bradley and Schmetzer we will continue to see tactical innovations and creativity that will only work even better once their very best players are back.

Panic time for Minnesota?

There was a lot of optimism regarding Minnesota United’s 2021 prospects — both from inside the club and from outside expert analysts — and rightly so. They were a Seattle Sounders miracle away from getting to MLS Cup in 2020, and after the midseason addition of Bebelo Reynoso there appeared to be the perfect balance between attack and defense that all the great teams need to have.

Two weeks into the season and they are 0-2, while scoring only once and conceding six. Not exactly Supporters' Shield form. So, is it time to panic if you’re a Minnesota United fan? The short answer is no. For starters, it’s way too early in the season for that kind of thinking and they also have a lot of quality on the roster to find their best form sooner rather than later.

With that said, there are some major concerns we have to acknowledge. Defensively they have been well below par in these first two games. Both Real Salt Lake goals on Saturday came from easily avoidable mistakes and when you add that fact to the second half collapse in the season opener against the Sounders, there’s clearly some work needing to be done in that area.

However, the biggest concern so far has to be Reynoso. He’s not playing poorly, far from it, but with great power comes great responsibility. When you are the talisman, the playmaker, and the team’s marquee player, you will get a lot of the praise when things go well and much of the blame when they go wrong.

He had a Nico Lodeiro-like midseason impact when he joined the team in 2020. The greatness of Lodeiro is that he has sustained that level for multiple years now. Reynoso has to use that as his motivation. So far in 2021 he’s spending too much time getting frustrated by the physical, sometimes rough, attention he’s receiving from opponents (he should have expected this) and rather than channel that into creative play, he’s spent too much time pleading with the referees.

He is a fantastically gifted footballer, but if Minnesota United are to reach the heights expected of them, Reynoso will have to quickly recapture the form that helped power Minnesota to such a strong finish to the 2020 season.

Quick hits

Performance of the Night

Who else but Cade Cowell. The stat sheet tells the story but this performance had to be witnessed to really be appreciated. I’m having a hard time deciding whether I enjoyed his goal or assist more. The goal was special as he showed good close control, quick feet, and then a composure beyond his years to slot the ball into the corner.

But I think I’ll have to go with the assist to Cristian Espinoza. Outside of the foot, along the ground, perfect wait so Espinoza didn’t need to break stride, incredible vision and the ability to pull it off — simply incredible. Not to go overboard, but when Kevin De Bruyne does that we go crazy, the pass was that good and much harder than it looks.

Same old Cincy?

Conceding five goals in any way is a disaster. But five goals off of set pieces? I don’t have the words to describe how shocking that is.

A team has to accept that they will concede goals every now and then because sometimes the opponent puts together a move you just cannot stop. That’s expected and accepted. You can even accept making the odd mistake or losing a runner on a set piece that leads to a goal every once in a while.

But five set piece goals in one game should be unacceptable for any coach. Set pieces are not about tactics but about heart, desire, grit and a determination to say: I am going to beat my guy to the ball.

The third goal was a direct free kick so we can give them a pass on that, but goal number five encapsulated everything that was wrong with FC Cincinnati on Saturday. One of the basics you learn as a team is that when the opponent plays a short corner you need to send two defenders out there immediately. FC Cincinnati didn’t do that, NYCFC we’re able to play 2v1 and then Taty Casetllanos had all the time in the world to curl an absolute beauty into the net.

The funny thing about this game is that Cincinnati actually created some very good chances offensively, but whenever you defend set pieces like they did, you will lose every time.

Goal of the day

Ezequiel Barco’s goal was special for many reasons. Not only was it a sublime strike that no goalkeeper in world football would save. But it was also further evidence that a player who for so long showed glimpses of superstar potential but constantly flattered to deceive, is finally becoming the player Atlanta hoped he would be. He has been brilliant so far in this young season, and if this goal is anything to go by, we — the fans of the beautiful game — are in for a fun ride when watching Barco in 2021.

Austin FC make history

Congrats are in order for Austin FC who put together a monster second half to see off Colorado. I was high on Austin already from what I saw last weekend away at LAFC, they had some positive moments in that game without being able to apply the final touch.

In their second ever game, they showed a ruthlessness that evaded them last week as they ran out worthy winners. Based on their performances so far, there is no reason why this club shouldn’t be aiming for a playoff appearance in their inaugural season.