Gerardo "Tata" Martino - Atlanta United - Excited with two fingers up on each hand
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Polak: Breaking down the top coaching moves of Week 28

Each week, Sam Polak breaks down the top coaching moves in MLS from the previous week. Here are his top five from Week 28.

5. Cooke's second-half adjustments

Colorado Rapids interim head coach Steve Cooke lands on the list for the second week in a row thanks to his second-half adjustments against New York City FC in a match that ended 1-1.

Down 1-0 and speaking with a sideline reporter during the intermission, Cooke explained that from a defensive perspective, he felt his side “started too passively...too much on the back foot even though [they] were in a decent shape.” And from an offensive point of view, he felt that despite a lackluster first half, when he had his players turning toward goal and “running at [NYCFC]...they look a dangerous team.”

The Rapids came out for the second 45 having internalized this assessment, ready to change accordingly. Right away, the Rapids defense looked to dictate the terms of the game instead of just sitting in an organized but unassertive shape. In the first half, Colorado did not commit a foul until the 22nd minute. They went on to commit a foul within 17 seconds of the start of the second half in an effort to press and regain possession. This renewed energy and urgency translated into their offense as well.

The Rapids, who had taken three shots in the first half, took 10 in the second. They went from winning just four fouls in the first half to forcing NYCFC to foul them eight times in the second. And then just as Cooke had suggested, Dominique Badji ran at the NYCFC defense in the 88th minute and put a shot past Sean Johnson to notch Colorado's equalizer.

It is one thing as a coach to study and prepare your side ahead of the match. It’s an entirely different thing to have to adjust on the fly for the second half. Cooke’s read on the game at halftime demonstrated he has the intuition and capability for adjusting in just this way.

4. Robinson unleashes Reyna

Yordy Reyna flourished in both Vancouver Whitecaps FC matches this week, as they won 3-0 Wednesday against Minnesota and drew Columbus Crew SC 2-2 over the weekend. And in these matches, we saw that much more of Reyna’s potential thanks to the increased amount of freedom head coach Carl Robinson and his staff gave to the young Peruvian.

These two matches were Reyna’s sixth and seventh start for the Whitecaps, and he seemed to have the green light to attack as he saw fit — not really restricted or required to do any particular defensive tasks. This allowed the 24-year-old to not only get on the statsheet with a total of one goal and two assists over the two games, but to be involved in so many different aspects of Vancouver’s attack that don’t show up in the box score. 

Sometimes he arrived late in the attack, sometimes he was the catalyst that started counterattacks, picking and choosing moments to make a run in front of Vancouver’s nominal forward despite his midfield title. Reyna even committed himself to attacking crosses.

Vancouver — who are undefeated in Reyna’s seven starts, winning four and tying three — currently sit in first place in the Western Conference. And they likely haven’t even yet peaked, given the type of games we just saw from Reyna when he has the liberty to do as he sees appropriate in the flow of their offensive possessions. Vancouver fans have reason to be excited with the way Carl Robinson is giving his blossoming attacking midfielder such autonomy.

3. RSL’s Petke keeps it simple

Real Salt Lake has one of the most dangerous collections of technically-skilled and attacking-minded players in the league. Head coach Mike Petke had his team play to that strength when they took down the Portland Timbers 2-1 on Saturday.

The RSL coaching staff set the team up to prioritize what the likes of Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Joao Plata can do individually instead of asking players to make decisions based on the usual ideas of numerical superiorities, where there was space, what the defense was doing or other important theoretical ideas.

There were times that RSL made decisions that tactical purists could easily argue were the wrong choice. RSL’s first goal was one such time. The Claret-and-Cobalt took the lead based on a situation in which most teams would have likely held the ball up or played the ball out wide while waiting for teammates to join the attack. However, with a player of Rusnak’s quality, the decision to take a poor pass from Portland and dribble toward three Portland players worked brilliantly and ended with a beautiful strike.

In the same sense, RSL’s second goal came when Savarino decided to take on Portland’s Roy Miller at a weird angle in the box and almost invite more pressure from Portland’s backline ... as he then proceeded to hit an unbelievable shot into the top corner of the net.

Had other teams made decisions like these in such moments, it would not have worked to their benefit because they don’t the same type of personnel. But credit to Petke for making the move to encourage a style of play that catered to the strengths of his team, and for understanding that theory will never carry his team as far as giving his quality players the opportunity to simply do what they do best on the field.

2. San Jose’s defensive approach comes up huge

San Jose arguably had the most at stake in their Week 28 matchup against the Houston Dynamo. With a win, the Quakes would leapfrog their opponents and find themselves above the playoff line, while a loss would push them markedly further from their goal of reaching the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Given the significance of the match and the fact that the Quakes lost 3-0 to the Dynamo the last time they played, San Jose head coach Chris Leitch’s ability to get the defensive game plan right was all the more impressive.

By beating Houston 1-0, San Jose secured just the third clean sheet the side has earned since Leitch took over. The San Jose coaching staff accomplished this by creating a defensive scheme that moved to reduce the space between their midfield line and defenders.

When San Jose last played Houston, the Dynamo got the game-winning goal by attacking that space. And in their previous game, a 4-0 loss to Toronto FC, two of TFC's four goals exploited the same weakness in the Earthquakes' defensive shape.

This time around, San Jose did a tremendous job suffocating Dynamo players when they tried to find those same pockets — with either midfielders recovering to get back between the goal and the Houston attacker, or by defenders stepping up before they were able to pick their head up.

Such an example is best seen below where Erick "Cubo" Torres tried to exploit the space between San Jose backs and midfielders. But Francois Affolter closed him down promptly, forcing Torres to have to play negatively and even come away limping (and therefore less likely to try that idea again).

If San Jose want to find their way into the playoffs when all is said and done, they still need to shore up their ability to defend crosses. But Chris Leitch and his staff deserve a ton of credit for correcting a major defensive problem and holding a dangerous Houston side scoreless.

1. Tata’s dangerous corner

Atlanta United head coach Tata Marino’s insistence on short corners has become a polished and significant weapon for the Five Stripes. And they showcased this during Week 28, in both their midweek 7-0 trouncing of New England and their 3-3 draw against Orlando City SC.

The Atlanta coaching staff has come up with a problem that opponents have yet to even come close to solving, as their short-corner routines create multiple issues. Atlanta have found a way with these dead-ball situations to catch teams before they are set, pull players out of their typical defensive position during corners, create numerical advantages in all sorts of different spots and prevent teams from counterattacking off one of their corners.

In fact Atlanta have played 60 percent of their corners short, according to Opta, by far the highest percentage in MLS. The Dynamo have the second-highest percentage at 37 percent. This strategy is also in response to the fact that Atlanta lack traditional set-piece targets, with all of their attackers being below 5-foot-9 and Michael Parkhurst at center back.

You can see several of these ideas play out below against New England, where Atlanta pulled multiple defenders out of the box and caught the Revs not fully organized en route to earning a penalty kick.

Then again against the Revs, they found a sneaky early, short ball that caught the defenders ill-equipped.

And though they didn’t score off a corner routine against Orlando, they did create the situation below. The options out of their short corner also allow Atlanta to manipulate opposing defenders into a position where they can create passing angles for their players to receive a pass at the top of the box.

Tata Martino’s move to necessitate his side look for short corners at almost every opportunity will undoubtedly be something to keep an eye on as Atlanta, who have more games left in the regular season than any other team, work to earn a high playoff seed that would earn them a home game, or even a bye, in the postseason during their inaugural campaign.

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