By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
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.
His replacement, RJ Allen, picked up a yellow of his own in the 50th-minute and did not have an easier time corralling Davies. The Canadian teen finished with a goal and three assists in what will go down as his first statement MLS game. This is the first time since the Gold Cup — and the first time in MLS — he’s put together significant box score production.
Credit to Vancouver coach Carl Robinson, who has kept Davies at a linear progression since his 2016 debut at the age of 15. He played 26 games last year, mostly as a sub, and now has played in all 16 of the Whitecaps’ games this season — 13 starts, already four more than last year. Robinson’s gradual fast-tracking has been fantastic for Davies’s development.
There is one improvement point that stands out: his ability to maximize the productivity of his Arjen Robben-style straight-ahead dribbles. He increasingly knows when to stop and pass into the space he’s created — if he’s going to get crowded out on the ball, the better option is often to find a player running behind him who will have room to run or pass.
His vertical passing percentage this year is -0.2, meaning he is passing the ball backward more often than forward. Last year, it was 0.7. Given the frequency of his forays upfield, it’s a good bet that many of those backward passes are coming as a direct result of his dribbling into defenders, or the threat of him doing that.
Davies leads MLS with 4.4 successful dribbles per game. He’s fourth in total dribbles (at 6.3, behind Ignacio Piatti’s 7.3) but he only averages 1.8 unsuccessful dribbles a game, far less than many comparable players. He is prolific but efficient.
To be so successful on the ball, he puts his body to good use. He combines aggressive (and most of the time controlled) dribbles with astute ball-shielding techniques; when he pushes the ball out ahead of him and the defender, he tilts his shoulder into the defender, lowering his center of gravity just slightly, which inhibits his opponent’s ability to keep up with him.
This small shoulder tilt also serves to put him permanently in front of his defender, giving Davies an almost unfair head start.
Notice how he does that first tiny step-over to get Allen leaning, and then he touches the ball forward and puts his shoulder into Allen. The more you watch that clip, the more you realize how many subtle body movements Davies is performing to give himself an advantage. He’s constantly shifting and swerving, trying make things difficult for Allen.
Every time he gets on the ball, he’s a threat to make one of these runs. His confidence is really, really impressive, and arguably his best quality. As he gains experience, he has been able to selectively implement the fruits of that confidence, knowing when a run like the above is suitable for the situation.
He conjures attacking opportunities out of nothing, and is a perfect fit for the Whitecaps’ deadly counter-attacking style. Canada have a good one. Even Johnson, the longtime Canadian international, has to agree with that.
NYCFC Chasing the Game
In Patrick Vieira’s final MLS game, NYCFC were down 1-0 late at home against Atlanta United. Alexander Callens tapped in a 77th minute equalizer to save the Light Blues, but not before Vieira could give us a good example of how to chase a game late.
He kicked off NYC’s switch to “attack” mode, speaking in FIFA terms, in the 58th minute, by sending winger Jesus Medina in for center midfielder Ebenezer Ofori. He set his team up in what looked like two blocks of five, counting on d-mid Alex Ring to connect the two blocks.
With players thrown forward, it overwhelmed the central channels. The lineup image to the right is roughly what it looked like.
If it looks congested, that’s because it was; that comes with life in Yankee Stadium.
But it worked. Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi spent a lot of time inverted off of their flanks, and much of NYC’s attack was centered in the area of Atlanta d-mid Jeff Larentowicz. They had enough numbers to create a high volume of effective combination play, and David Villa’s amazing passing ability was brilliantly displayed.
NYCFC finished with 2.58 xG to Atlanta’s 0.29, so it’s safe to say they were pretty unlucky to walk away with a 1-1 draw. But Vieira gave us a great example of how to chase the game without simply lumping in crosses.
The Importance of Counter-Pressing
About 10 minutes into the 1-1 draw between the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew, the Crew forced Luis Robles into a diving save. It came from a counter-attack, after an extended period of Red Bulls attack:
The pass by Ricardo Clark that sprung the attack is too easy if you’re Jesse Marsch. The inherent disadvantage presented by the Red Bulls’ aggressive pressing system is the potential for counters like these. When you put so many players forward to force turnovers, you risk the other team attacking behind you.
The way to combat that from the Red Bulls’ perspective is to counterpress — meaning, when you lose the ball high up the field, be ready to jump back on it to prevent distribution into space in behind. NYRB generally do a great job of that, which is a credit to Marsch’s system.
But in this case, they didn’t, and it resulted in a chance in the other direction.
When San Jose’s Center-backs Forgot how to Defend
The San Jose Earthquakes had a 3-2 lead in the 90th minute at home against LAFC. They lost that lead and the game, 4-3. That pretty much sums up their season in itself.
Poor defending was at the root of it. What else would you expect from the Earthquakes?
Adama Diomande’s equalizing goal is a brutal indictment of San Jose’s two center backs on the day, Yefferson Quintana and Jimmy Ockford. There are two stages to this play, neither of which portrays the defenders well:
First, the ball to the back-post, which was sent in by Steven Beitashour and touched back to the middle by Walker Zimmerman. Quintana (who is number 30 in the video) jumps to try and head the original ball as it makes its way to Zimmerman. He does not reach it.
The antics at the back-post are moreso the fault of debut left back Kevin Partida, who failed to deter Zimmerman at all from putting a juicy pass into the mixer. Partida held his own for most of the night, aside from the above equalizer, the first LAFC goal (in which he similarly headed it back into his own team’s box) and his red card that came shortly after LA tied it.
Diomande would not have had as easy a time tapping in Zimmerman’s pass had Ockford stuck with him in the box. He got caught ball-watching as Diomande positioned himself directly in the path of the ball. He got close to salvaging his mistake, but he couldn’t get back in front of the Norwegian striker in time.
This is not to criticize Quintana and Ockford too much. But everyone in San Jose is too weak to the ball and making unacceptable mistakes, to go along with all of the tactical problems plaguing them.