By Kristan Henage (@KHeneage)
Bob Bradley is precise with his words. "We knew when we picked him [Marcos Ureña] up that we had a player that, around the goal, is sharp," Bradley said in pre-season. "His qualities are valued and he feels comfortable.”
On first viewing, Bradley’s words sound like anything you’d expect from a head coach, especially one trying to motivate a forward with a career record of one goal in five games (apart from internationally where he’s at one in four).
Look closer though. He never mentions Ureña being a goal threat, merely that he is ‘sharp around the goal’. That carefully chosen phrase gives an indication that Bradley knew then, and now, exactly what kind of player Ureña is, and why LAFC may miss his influence in the final third.
Marcos Ureña is a facilitator. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi may get the headlines, but it’s the Costa Rican that keeps things ticking over. His role with LAFC mirrors that of a defensive forward. In essence, his benefit is not validated solely by the number of goals he scores. Instead, he is expected to hassle centerbacks when the team is out of possession and run into space when they do have the ball. It’s a selfless role, but one that ultimately benefits the whole team.
You may remember Mista, formerly of Toronto FC. He was better known for his time at Valencia where he won two La Liga titles operating in a similar capacity. In the 2001-2002 season, when Valencia won La Liga, their top scorer --Ruben Baraja-- had seven league goals. Mista had four. He would later go on to score 19 league goals in the 2003-2004 season, but when stacked against his career records this seems like something of an anomaly.
A cursory glance at Ureña’s assists for this season already has him ahead of his total of 3 from last year. He currently has far and away the most key passes of any forward in the league (Ureña is on 3.28 KPs per game, with Joao Plata in second (2.96) and Daniel Salloi (1.88) in third) and sits in the top five for players with at least 270 minutes played.
That might sound high, but as early as the team’s second game of the season Ureña was showing why that’s the case. Granted, the 28-year-old only notched one assist during LAFC’s 5-1 win over RSL, but look at all of the chances he created.
That doesn’t even factor in the roles he had in goals. Ureña is rarely, if ever, taking bad shots. It’s his pass to Rossi that starts the move for the second goal, and again for the fourth goal. It almost seems as if Ureña has been given the instruction to move the ball on quickly to teammates.
His influence isn’t confined to passing, however. Take the fifth goal against RSL for example. Ureña makes a really smart run out wide to draw Justen Glad away from the middle and open up space for Rossi to run into. Ureña likely knows he isn’t getting the ball when making that run, but he knows that’s not the point, it’s about giving his teammates room to play in.
Fast forward to LAFC’s next game against rivals the LA Galaxy and he was at it again. I appreciate that Zlatan stole the headlines, because, well, Zlatan, but Ureña’s performance for about the first 60 minutes was a joy to behold if you’re Bob Bradley and the coaching staff starting with a pass in the build-up to Vela’s second.
If there was one criticism it’s that he should have scored from this play below. It’s a great peel off and run down the side, but his finish is poor and unfortunately a theme for him (more on that later).
Perhaps the best indication of his role came in that game though. Ureña isn’t really registering a high volume of defensive actions. Instead, he’s forcing defenders to make decisions. They’re rushing passes, they’re putting it out of play. He’s trying to get turnovers for teammates high up the field, but from a statistical standpoint, you’re only likely to see the player that receives the ball benefit from that.
There are of course occasions when his foraging earns him a reward, like with LAFC’s third goal against the Galaxy.
Now, let’s examine this a bit closer. First, look at that goal side run on the shoulder of the defender. No defender wants to be in that position. He can’t tell where the striker is and if he should be putting it out, taking a touch, or passing it back to his goalkeeper.
Before the defender has a chance to decide Ureña nips in and barges him off the ball. Technically he's through on goal, but this is where we potentially see the nuance of Bradley's coaching.
Now, ask yourself this, would you try to shoot here? Would you expect a forward to try and shoot here? The answer is likely yes to both unless you’re Marcos Ureña.
Instead, he gets his head up and sees Carlos Vela in a better position so he tries to find him. He gets a slice of luck as his poor pass deflects off the defender and into the goal, but that is just reward for the selfless industry required to make that run and generate that chance. Common sense dictates that Ureña will make this run maybe a dozen times during a game and nothing may come of it 11 times, but on the one occasion it does, it can be devastating. Those are all things that I imagine Bob Bradley has asked of Ureña.
The game against the Montreal Impact tells a similar story. One of the great things about Ureña as a forward is his versatility. He’s willing to come short and connect with those around him or run long and stretch teams in the channels. That makes him harder to defend because there’s less predictability to his play.
Case in point, the Montreal game saw him come short to win the free-kick that facilitated Laurent Ciman’s goal. A few minutes later Rossi picks up the ball in a central area and Ureña is offering to run off the shoulder down the side of the cenrerback. Rossi’s pass doesn’t connect, but if it does LAFC are in a fantastic position with a stretched Montreal backline. Again, it requires a really committed, selfless, player to keep making these runs knowing they’ll likely see little return on investment a lot of the time.
The game in Montreal also served as a microcosm for his strengths and weaknesses. As the half-hour mark hits Ureña tries to play Rossi in with a cute dummy. It hits Víctor Cabrera, rebounds to Ureña, and he wins the penalty. It all seems great until you realise he’s then allowed to take the penalty which he promptly misses.
Ten minutes later he’s setting up Vela for another great chance with a cheeky backheel, and on the 51st minute, he has an assist. Again look at the play here. Ureña doesn’t even try to shoot, he just lays it off for another player, how many forwards in the league would do that? Later in that same game he does decide to shoot after being put through but he fluffs it.
It was a similar pattern during the team’s visit to Vancouver, where Ureña produced a pair of assists as well as three separate key passes.
The notion of a good forward that doesn’t score goals sounds paradoxical. Ureña is clearly good at carrying the ball, moving into space, and making space for others, but what LAFC have done is limit his weaknesses. He’s not a great finisher so don’t ask him to be. Of the forwards in the league to play a minimum of 270 minutes, Ureña is top when it comes to key passes, and yet, of the top 10 players, only two are taking fewer shots per 90 minutes than he is, and only three are recording a lower shots on target per 90 either.
Too often in soccer we try to change the players we inherit. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it’s better to find coping mechanisms for their deficiencies and that’s what LAFC have done. They use Ureña as an industrious forward that can open up spaces for their more clinical/productive attackers to flourish (I’m pained to say better).
As you may have guessed I noticed this trend just before his facial injury. That will put LAFC with a difficult quandary. Unfortunately, I’m not overly familiar with Rodrigo Pacheco, and at the same time I don’t believe Adama Diomande has the same profile as Ureña. He knows Bob very well from their time at Stabaek, but he’s not as quick as Ureña.
At the weekend and on Wednesday Rossi started up top, and it will be interesting to chart his production levels without Ureña to do the heavy lifting for him.
One thing you can be sure of though, is that LAFC knew exactly what they were getting in Ureña, and they deserve real credit for stealing him away and showing how a bit of forethought can unlock a talented player.