Armchair Analyst: On the Radar for Week 7 of the 2017 MLS season

ExtraTime Radio Podcast

LISTEN: Get ready for a heaping helping of MLS on Friday and Saturday, leaving you free to hunt for eggs or do absolutely nothing on Sunday. Matt and Andrew round up everything going on around the league, then Dave files a report from the GA Cup in Frisco, where the next crop of Homegrown stars are on display. As always, listeners get a little wacky on the Hot-Take Hotline. Subscribe so you don't miss a show!

No need for a preamble, let's get into it:


I Can Change

ESPN's Jeff Carlisle had an excellent look at NYCFC's luxury superstar, Andrea Pirlo, that I recommend you click upon. Pirlo was never brought to MLS to win footraces, nor really to win duels in midfield or elsewhere. He was brought to the Bronx to spread the ball around the field, spread some fame, and generate goals.

Some of it has worked, but everything has an expiration date. We may be seeing Pirlo hit his as he's become an unmissable defensive liability over the last, let's say, nine months. Teams are gameplanning to go right at him, and by doing so last week, D.C. United found their game-winner.

It's a concern, one that's been ever-present for the regista throughout his career. In his heyday Carlos Ancelotti hid Pirlo's deficiencies by surrounding him with workers (two of Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini or Clarence Seedorf flanked him), but with the way NYCFC's roster is constructed, it's hard to justify adding another midfield workhorse – Alex Ring is the only one right now – at the expense of a winger, or pure attacker.

Or... wingback? Pirlo might suddenly have even less help in central midfield if Patrick Vieira follows through with his plan to play a 3-4-3, which he kinda sorta did last week:

That's a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represents each player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes they exchanged.

Pirlo is No. 21, and you can see how lonely he is. He has a lot of ground to cover in this set-up (think about how much defensive work the central midfielders for Chelsea – currently the best 3-4-3 team in the world – do), and not much help if he can't cover it fast enough.

I feel like we're seeing Father Time win a battle here, and we're also seeing a bit of a "square peg/round hole" phenomenon. Even in his prime Pirlo wouldn't have been a good choice for this type of 3-4-3, and we're at least half-a-decade past Prime Pirlo.

This is a tough ask. Either the player has to change (not possible), the system (duh), or... the personnel. We'll see what happens on Friday when NYCFC visit Philadelphia (7 pm ET; ESPN in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada) to face the winless and desperate Union.

I'll also be watching: Will Philly sit deep and counter? I feel like we could end up seeing that, since they have to like their chances in transition if/when NYCFC push numbers forward. I'd actually consider having Alejandro Bedoya and Derrick Jones swap roles, with Jones pushing up high as a forward destroyer and using his range to force the type of turnovers that have killed the Citizens this year.


On Repeat

The conversation around the San Jose Earthquakes is, has been, and will continue to be the (in)ability to generate a consistent attack. In 2012 they led the league with 72 goals, and here's what their season-long tallies have looked like since then:

  • 2013: 35 (16th place of 19)
  • 2014: 35 (18th of 19)
  • 2015: 41 (tied for 17th of 20)
  • 2016: 32 (dead last)

The current season has started off on a better note, with seven goals from their five outings, and they've yet to be shutout. But at the same time aside from one outlier – a 3-2 win against 10-man Vancouver way back in Week 2 – they're putting up just one goal per game. That was the case last week as they struggled mightily to build anything appreciably dangerous against Seattle until second half stoppage, when they had to throw numbers forward after conceding Nico Lodeiro's Goal of the Week winner.

San Jose found their equalizer for the 1-1 draw, of course, but playing for last-second miracle goals isn't sustainable. Nor is planning around Anibal Godoy's ability to scorch the earth from distance, and here's a number to drive that home: San Jose have attempted 29 shots from outside the box this year, and have put just three on target. All three of those came against the shorthanded 'Caps.

There's just no misdirection for this group. The winning moments still have to come from Chris Wondolowski – who's still productive, but isn't the same type of "build an attack around his skillset" player he was in 2012 – or it feels like they're not going to come at all.

Perhaps there's something new in store when FC Dallas come to town on Friday night (11 pm ET; UniMas in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada | Facebook.com)? 

I'll also be watching: I'm curious to see how far the Dallas fullbacks push forward. Generally when they play at San Jose they sit deep to try to prevent wide service, and then counter into space.


Someone Great

I'm going to tell a story in three images.

1. Here are all of Orlando City's completed passes in the first 55 minutes of their 1-0 win over RBNY last week:

Blue is an assist, yellow is a pass that leads to a shot, and green is just a regular pass. There's not a ton happening there, but that's fine. Often the chalkboard doesn't tell the whole story.

2. Here are their completed passes from minute 55 onwards:

That's right around the time when OCSC switched out of a diamond – which RBNY had finally started pulling apart and blowing up – and into a flatter, flattish 4-4-2. Doing so more or less caused them to vacate the left side of their attack.

3. This is who, when healthy, lines up on the left side of midfield, inverted so he can point directly toward goal:

Orlando City SC will host LA on Saturday (2:30 pm ET; FOX) without Kaká, who is still injured. They'll also be without Matias Perez Garcia, Kaká's replacement as the creative hub, who is suspended – and who played as the No. 10 in that diamond, and did really well with the burden for about 45 minutes. Antonio Nocerino, who's had a mini-revival at the start of this season, is also out hurt.

My guess at the Orlando City midfield? A flat four, with Luis Gil inverted on the left, Servando Carrasco and Cristian Higuita playing in the center, and Will Johnson on the right. Alternate take? Gil at the point of a diamond, Higuita and Johnson as shuttlers, and Carrasco as a pure defensive midfielder.

The Purple Lions have some options, but all are untested and, at this juncture, theoretical. What's not theoretical is their ability to generate danger just by playing long through the forward pairing of Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas. Whatever the midfield personnel and alignment, that'll be OCSC's modus operandi.

I'll also be watching: Nathan Smith, late at the back post. The Galaxy Homegrown right back has had some nice moments, but he's been sleepy off the ball when defending in the final third. That's the type of thing Gil – who's always been better off the ball than on it – can and will punish.


One more thing:

Happy weekending, everybody.

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