Armchair Analyst: Obey the law of gravity & more from Week 23

One of the things I constantly harp on in this space, and on ExtraTime Radio and basically any place where people let me talk about soccer is the concept of "attacking gravity." This is a good time for a re-hash:

"Gravity" in our sport means, essentially, "how much attention does the defense pay to a particular player?" Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa have a ton of gravity – anywhere on the field they go, they're going to capture the attention of their opposition. Their closest defenders will shade a step closer to them than they'd come to, say, Jordan Hamilton or Sean Okoli, and then the next defenders down the line will each shade a step or two closer as well, in order to help out.

And maybe the opposing central midfield drops a little bit deeper as a way of bracketing Giovinco or Villa, and even the wide midfielders play a little bit tighter.

This is all intuitive if you've played enough or watched enough of the game. Of course you don't want to let Giovinco or Villa or the likes of them get on the ball, because doing so is a good way to start bleeding goals, and of course there are certain players whose gravity you take more seriously, and of course great players make everyone better. If they didn't do that they wouldn't be great players.

However, "gravity" as a concept has more descriptive and analytical utility when players like that don't have the ball, because you get to watch them bend defenses anyway. Thank you to Nicolas Lodeiro for demonstrating as much in Seattle's 1-0 win over Sporting KC on Saturday:

The measure of a team is often not how much they can be elevated by their star player in select, special moments. Rather, it's how well they take advantage of the room their star creates – how well they use his gravity – during simple, open play sequences. There has to be recognition and execution and decisiveness, and in putting all three of those things together the Sounders created just enough daylight to beat the league's best defensive team.

Lodeiro didn't factor into that play. He gets no assist in the boxscore, and you won't see a touch of his on the Opta chalkboard. But he was very much a part of it, and you best believe that movement of his from the flank into the hole just underneath the strikers has been on scouting reports all over the league for a year.

You simply have to stop him from getting the ball there or he'll carve you up. Unfortunately for the rest of the Western Conference, the Sounders have now made that a "pick your poison" proposition.

Onto the rest of the weekend:


Moment's Notice

Samuel Piette was with Canada at the Gold Cup last month and he was very good. He signed with Montreal last week and expectations were fairly high. He played his first MLS game this weekend, and his performance exceeded most reasonable hopes.

Piette, who was deployed as a defensive midfielder, won't be getting the headlines this week as it was the DPs – Blerim Dzemaili and the great Ignacio Piatti, fit at last – who got the goals in a 3-0 Montreal win that could prove to be a crucial in the playoff hunt. It bumped the Impact up to seventh place on 30 points, five points back of both Atlanta United and Columbus, but with three games in hand on Crew SC.

At the same time, it feels like a decisive loss for Philly, who don't seem to have a realistic path to the playoffs at this point. Jim Curtin was candid about his team's situation as they dropped to 10th in the East on points per game.

“Now we have to chase,” Curtin said. “We no longer now control our own destiny. We’re going to need help and we’re going to need to do some things on the road that we haven’t done this year."

Piette was perhaps the biggest reason why. Montreal have struggled all season to deny service up the gut to opposing forwards, forcing their central defense into a season-long series of risky, high-leverage tackles. You can get away with this for a game or even for a good month, but over the course of an entire season probabilities tend to shift away from gambles and toward containment.

And so Piette contained the Union attack by choking off service to center forward C.J. Sapong, the nexus for anything good that Philly attempt to do. Below is a network passing graphic for the Union made using Opta data:

The circles represent the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes exchanged. Sapong is No. 17, and this is very much what a striker "stranded out on an island" looks like. He completed only seven passes all game, and three of them were kick-offs after Impact goals. He received only one pass all game from his wingers, and none from his No. 10.

Montreal, with Piette as the lynchpin, strangled Sapong, and thus strangled the entire Union attack.

This wasn't all Piette's doing, of course. Mauro Biello had a good gameplan and the Laurent Ciman/Victor Cabrera pairing in the middle of the backline had, probably, their best game of the season. But I do believe all three of those things are linked, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Piette looked so able for Canada last month, and then picked up where he left off once he switched red for blue.

Neither is his club and country teammate, Patrice Bernier.

"He came in and there's a lot of hype and a lot of pressure," is how Bernier put it to Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald. "But I'm not surprised, because he's played well for the national team and he's the type of profile that we needed. One of those players like Michael Bradley, Ozzie Alonso, Diego Chara [who sits] in front of the defense, covers a lot. He broke up a lot of plays."

It's way too early to expect Piette to edge into that sort of company, and a one-game sample isn't enough to say that he's fixed all the things that have been ailing the Impact. But at the same time, it didn't take long for him to make his presence felt, and the Impact – who have seven home games left, and plenty of time to make up the requisite points needed to jump above the playoff line – have much more realistic postseason hopes because of it.


Locomotion

Pretty much the opposite of all of the above happened for Orlando City this weekend as they fell to a painful 3-1 loss at New York. It wasn't painful because they should've expected to win – they shouldn't have. It's hard to win on the road in this league, but especially so at Red Bull Arena, which has been one of the league's best homefield advantage locations since opening seven years ago. Add in that RBNY are playing well and that Orlando City haven't been, and nobody should be surprised that they took the L.

No, the pain comes from another blown lead for the Purple Lions, who got on the board first and then slowly lost any sort of hold on the game. Just 20 minutes after Carlos Rivas made it 1-0 OCSC, RBNY had pegged it back to 1-1 and subsequently started putting together sequences like this:

Once you allow a team to complete passes like that in the attacking third, it's only a matter of time until you cough up goals. And so that's what happened in the second half as New York found enough time and space to take a touch and turn between the lines again and again. For whatever reason, OCSC were unable to figure out where the danger was at the moment (let alone where it was heading), and for that reason their season continues to come apart.

It really has unraveled, by the way. They were 6-1-0 with a +5 goal differential at the end of April. Since then they're a league-worst 2-9-6 with a -17 goal differential, and have dropped from first to eighth in the East.

Even if they rally over the next two months and make it back above the playoff line, it seems pretty clear that a roster overhaul is coming to central Florida this winter. It's incumbent upon Jason Kreis et al to make sure that the players they bring in aren't just individual talents, but guys who fit specific roles and who can close down the kinds of gaps that have been killing this team for the last three-and-a-half months.


A few more things to ponder...

7. Columbus can put the knife into Orlando City's hopes once and for all this coming weekend thanks to their own 3-1 win over visiting (and slumping) Chicago. Crew SC, still in the 3-4-3 they've been playing for more than a month now, were hard to break down through midfield and continued to compact at the back, which troubled the suddenly slumping Fire.

Justin Meram got his 10th goal of the season. He is a special player, and one that never gets enough ink.

6. Villa and rookie Jonathan Lewis powered NYCFC to a 2-0 win over the Galaxy, who were mostly more organized and feisty, but can't finish if their lives depended upon it.

Even with Rodney Wallace back it will be hard to take minutes from Lewis, who continues to look like he has a USMNT future.

5. The Whitecaps got a double-dose of bad news on Saturday at New England, with both a 1-0 loss and – more important, probably – Matias Laba going down clutching his knee after a non-contact injury. Early reports are that it's serious for the Argentine d-mid, and Carl Robinson's Face of the Week says it all:

Even if Laba's done for the year, the 'Caps should still qualify for the playoffs. They're fifth in the West on PPG, they have games in hand, and they have home games in hand. This will be a test at a position that's never been in doubt since Laba was signed four years ago, but they have enough padding to probably pass it and play into November.

4. FC Dallas will also be playing into November even though they're now winless in three following an unlucky scoreless home draw against Colorado.

I chose the word "unlucky" for a reason and invite you to read Jason Poon's latest at BigDSoccer. Los Toros Tejanos aren't as good as they could or should be right now, but they'll be fine soon enough.

3. Toronto FC steamrolled Portland in the second half, turning a cagey game into a 4-1 blowout. Caleb Porter was not pleased with his charges:

Portland are now 4-7-6 over their last 17 games, or half-a-season's worth of soccer. They're still fifth in the West, though if a couple of the teams chasing them get hot, it could end up being an unpleasant autumn in the Rose City. That final game of the season against Vancouver looms large given how last year ended.

2. San Jose, currently sixth in the West, are probably the likeliest team to drop off the pace given how tough their schedule is, and how helpless they are away from home. They showed that weakness again on Saturday at Houston, once again producing about 60 good road minutes before collapsing to a multi-goal loss. This one ended 3-0 to the Dynamo, which put Houston atop the Western Conference standings nearly 3/4s of the way through the season.

Wilmer Cabrera deserves a lot of credit for the way he's constantly rotated his attackers, and for the way he's kept what's often looked like a dodgy defense from utterly undoing the team's good work elsewhere on the field.

1. And finally, do we officially consider RSL to be "in the hunt"? They went to D.C. and beat United 1-0 on Saturday/Sunday in an unusual rain-delayed game during which Kyle Beckerman gave us some sauce:

That's our Pass of the Week.

RSL are now unbeaten in six, and are 4-2-3 since that disastrous trip to Texas in late May/early June, which is enough to bring them up to eighth in the West on both points and PPG. They're only three points behind the Quakes (who, to be fair, have a game in hand) and five points behind the Timbers. They'll probably have to pass one of those teams and the 'Caps in order to make it to November.

Taking 15 points from their last nine games is a good haul, but over their final nine games of the season they likely have to do a little bit better. Regardless, this team has shown unexpected fight and resilience over the last two months and have the air of a spoiler.

They also have games against San Jose, Vancouver and Portland coming up in the next five weeks. If RSL win all three of those, October will be very interesting.

 

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