Little Things

Little Things from Week 31: Dallas’ Quiet Dominance & Villalba’s Tact by Harrison Hamm

FC Dallas, slowing things down

I don’t know how one would go about measuring a soccer team’s pace of play. It’s possible, even easy, in basketball, where you can measure possessions per 48 minutes and generally find out how fast teams play. Soccer does not have the defined possessions of basketball; every possession is not created equal, so there’s no easy way to generalize them.

Read More

Little Things from Week 29: Orlando's bunker, Higuita's strength, and Colorado missteps by Harrison Hamm

Sporting KC survived at home against Orlando on Saturday, winning 1-0 on a Felipe Gutierrez strike. They were missing three potential starters (Daniel Salloi and Diego Rubio on int’l duty, Ike Opara on yellow card suspension) and consistently lacked ideas in the final third. But Orlando didn’t generate anything, so SKC walked away with three points.

Under James O’Conner, OCSC have bunkered. Their defensive line is deep, the midfield is tight to the backline and they often sit 11 in the defensive half. At some point, they’ll have to figure out how to do more than that.

They struggled to possess the ball against Sporting, who are a notoriously difficult team to possess the ball against. That doesn’t make abomination this any better from Orlando:

Read More

Little Things From Week 25: Tata Tactics, and the two sides of McBean and Steres by Harrison Hamm

Gregg Berhalter and Tata Martino provided another installment of their budding coaching rivalry on Sunday, a rivalry that will grow to the level of Jesse Marsch vs. Patrick Vieira when they inevitably meet in the conference semifinals this year.

Atlanta United and the Columbus Crew have a way of providing open, action-packed tactical chess matches. They did it again at the Benz, a 3-1 Atlanta win. The Five Stripes’ talent quotient was too much for a Crew team that pales in comparison.

Tata approached the game knowing that Berhalter would have Columbus trying to pass out of pressure and play from the back. The Crew are one of the few teams to go to Atlanta and make a concerted effort to control the game. For the most part, they did an effective job of it, taking the ball off the feet of Miguel Almiron and opening chances in the other direction.

Read More

Little Things from Week 24: Lodeiro's control, Machado about creating space, and Villa's intelligence by Harrison Hamm

Nicolas Lodeiro doing Nicolas Lodeiro things

Nico Lodeiro is a Touch Percentage Superstar. His 14.4 percent leads MLS players with a significant sample size this season, and he was similarly among the league leaders in 2016 and 2017. Most of his competitors are deeper-lying midfielders who are more likely to get on the ball in safer positions, whereas Lodeiro’s touches are situated primarily in a more congested attacking third.

Lodeiro is everything for this Sounders team, the fulcrum through which they pass and create. As John Strong and Brian Dunseth relayed on the FS1 broadcast on Sunday, Garth Lagerwey and the higher-ups consider Seattle Lodeiro’s team. Only a player with the on-ball proficiency and volume of Lodeiro could deserve that lofty mantle.

Few players in MLS’ recent history have possessed Lodeiro’s willingness to control a game’s shape, and almost no one has been able to do so from the advanced positions that he has. The Uruguayan is everywhere, by design. He’s constantly moving and trying to make himself available for passes. That, his never-ending movement and incisive mobility, is what stood out in 2016 when he arrived midseason and dominated everyone.

Read More

Little Things from Week 22: A Healthy TFC, the Galaxy defense, and Adi's Farewell by Harrison Hamm

By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)

Gregory Van Der Wiel and Toronto FC

Toronto FC started their 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire playing a 3-5-2, finally with their best players (Jozy Altidore, Justin Morrow, Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga) back. They played fairly well in the first 45 minutes, for the most part stopping Chicago’s attack and avoiding sloppy mistakes at the back. But it was still 0-0 at halftime.

All three goals came after Greg Vanney pulled wingback Ashtone Morgan for center midfielder Marky Delgado, switching the formation to a 4-4-2 diamond. With this change, they were able to get Jonathan Osorio on the ball in the attacking third (he scored the second goal) without sacrificing distribution deeper in the formation. Delgado could shuttle, Michael Bradley could stay home, and the fullbacks could hug the touchline.

Gregory Van Der Wiel, who was the right-sided center back in the first half and the right back in the second, had tried to fill the Delgado role from his center back position. It was an interesting tactical gamble from Vanney, who likely hoped that Van Der Wiel could step into midfield and let Osorio stay forward, keeping the various benefits that the 3-5-2 allows.

Van Der Wiel is an efficient passer — he completes seven percent more passes than expected, and his score is 56.2 — but he doesn’t break lines or distribute the way that Delgado does. Pushing defenders into roles like this is consistent with the Guardiola inverted full-backs trend, and it was a worthy experiment from Vanney. Credit for adjusting in the second half.

The Dutchman’s pass maps from each half (first half is on the left) reflect the change in tactical positioning:

 Van Der Wiel 1st half

Van Der Wiel 1st half

 Van Der Wiel 2nd half

Van Der Wiel 2nd half

TFC looked really good in the second half, as good as they’ve looked since the CCL final. Hard to say whether they can sustain it, but with their next two games at Atlanta and at home against NYCFC, they’ll have to.

The LA Galaxys defending

Excluding own goals, the LA Galaxy have given up 32 goals on 32.2 xGA, a below-average figure, if not at the futility level of MLS’s worst defending teams. They give up 14.4 shots per game, the worst of any current MLS playoff team.

There’s no doubt that the Galaxy’s defense is a prevalent weakness. No game passes without “what were they thinking” moments out of Michael Ciani and Jorgen Skjelvik.

They’ve settled on a 3-5-2 as their preferred formation, trading defensive solidity (they weren’t going to have much anyway, a known fact that probably went into the thought process) for attacking firepower. All four of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Giovani dos Santos, Ola Kamara and Romain Alessandrini can plausibly play together in this set-up, the only alignment that comes close to getting them all together.

They risked that alignment against LAFC and survived long enough to storm back in the last 10 minutes for a wacky 2-2 draw. They risked it again — albeit with Chris Pontius (a natural winger, of course) in for the suspended Alessandrini — on Sunday against Orlando, and they produced a 4-3 win that lacked any viable defending.

The game against Orlando revealed a lot of the Galaxy’s defensive weaknesses. They were often disorganized and struggled to put pressure on Orlando’s attackers around the box. Defending from the front was always going to be a problem for this LA team, and that major weakness only compounds weaknesses deeper in the formation. They looked a lot better after Servando Carrasco came on as a sub.

42 percent of Orlando’s attacks came down their left side, attacking right-sided center back Dave Romney. Central defenders in a three-at-the-back have to defend in space, meaning they have to possess some measure of athleticism. Romney doesn’t fit the bill. Mohamed El-Munir (usually a left back!) roasted Romney on numerous occasions:

Amidst all the defensive incompetence in Carson, they still managed to give up just 0.91 xG, per Ben Baer, though our model showed them giving up 1.54 xG. They also only gave up 1.61 xG to LAFC. They’re bad, even if recent numbers favor them, but the attack is sparing them a surplus of attacks to blunder.

Adi’s final Timbers goal and the value of emergency defense

As you’ve heard plenty about by now, Fanendo Adi scored in his final appearance as a Portland Timber. His goal proved the difference in a 2-1 Timbers win over the Dynamo, and it exposed more Dynamo defensive weakness:

Houston inexplicably played a five-at-the-back formation against the counter-attacking Timbers. (Wilmer Cabrera’s conservative nature is losing the Dynamo points.) Sebastian Blanco brilliantly dragged Adolfo Machado out of his center back position on this play, forcing wingback Andrew Wenger to step to Blanco and unlock a cheeky give-and-go between Blanco and Zarek Valentin.

Blanco’s first touch in the box was a bit sloppy and forced him to scramble, giving further advantage to the numbers-heavy Dynamo. They shouldn’t have let the Argentine through to begin with, but they had everyone marked by this point. No goal should have been scored from this position.

However, Machado went sliding in on Blanco and missed badly, allowing him time on the ball at the edge of the six-yard box. Blanco’s slip pass to Andy Polo pinged around until Adi managed to have the ball bounce off him into the net. An ugly goal if there ever was one. But emergency defense is a skill, and Houston have decidedly lack that skill.

Earl Edwards Jr. is a weekly starter

This save was lost in the Zlatan show, but Orlando’s Edwards Jr. made the best save of the week on Ola Kamara:

Getting the top-hand to that shot is difficult, and probably the only way he could have saved it. He’s taken Joe Bendik’s job and run with it.

That’s it for this week, check back again after the post-All-Star Game weekend

Little Things from Week 20: Tyler Adams' New Role, LAFC's Midfield, and Chad Marshall's Head by Harrison Hamm

Tyler Adams and the New York Red Bulls Under Chris Armas

Tyler Adams, who is two months younger than Kylian Mbappe, is on the verge of becoming a world-class soccer player. After this season, when he (probably) joins Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig, he will be placed directly on that track.

Already, he’s one of MLS’ best midfielders. His touch percentage of 10.5 percent shows how important he is to the Red Bulls’ system. He fits perfectly into what they want to do — he covers ground, controls himself well in space and wins the ball when he has to.  

Read More

Little Things from Week 19: Luis Gil's first touch, Khiry Shelton’s strengths and weaknesses and Laurent Ciman’s fizzing set pieces by Harrison Hamm

Luis Gil’s first touch and the beauty of the best players

In the later stages of the midweek 2-2 draw between the Houston Dynamo and LAFC, as the Dynamo chased LA’s 2-0 lead, Luis Gil had a play that demonstrated the importance of the first touch, and how difficult it can be for even professional players to combine the mental foresight and technical ability required to make even simple passes.

Read More

Little Things from Week 17: The Union Midfield, Gressel's Quiet Contribution, and Jeff Attinella's Decision Making by Harrison Hamm

Philly’s Midfield

The Philadelphia Union are making a concerted effort to keep the ball this season. They are fifth in MLS in passes per game and have built their attack around getting the ball into the half-spaces and putting the wingers (especially Ilsinho) in positions to run at defenders.

Their 4-0 home win against Vancouver was a manifestation of their newfound approach. They were on the front foot for most of the game against the bunkering Whitecaps, so even with midfield distributor Haris Medunjanin suspended, they demonstrated how good they can be with the ball.

Read More

Little Things from Week 15: Alphonso Davies, Dusting Orlando Defenders by Harrison Hamm

Forty minutes into the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 5-2 splintering of Orlando City SC, Jason Kreis yanked Will Johnson from the game. Johnson was on a yellow card and had just been annihilated by the 17-year-old Alphonso Davies on the Whitecaps’ first goal, one of many instances in which Davies had sent Johnson spinning. In the GIF to the right you can see the exact moment when Johnson’s soccer soul died on the BC Place turf.

Read More