By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)
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.
But Tata was one step ahead: He designed his defensive system specifically to counteract Berhalter’s possession. Atlanta didn’t press a whole lot more than they usually do, but they did hold a higher line of initiation, and they did it with the intention of cutting off their primary outlets. Julian Gressel took an inverted position to condense Wil Trapp’s space, while right back Franco Escobar played almost like a wing-back to prevent Hector Jimenez from getting on the ball.
When Gressel stepped inside, often to man-mark Artur, Almiron was free to hound Trapp and force him to the left. Columbus use their full backs in possession more than any team in the league except Sporting KC, and Atlanta registered this, too. Hector Villalba is one of their most effective pressers thanks to his speed, so he acted as a deterrent to Harrison Afful.
Afful has completed the 10th-most passes of any player in MLS. The Crew use him as an outlet a lot. By inverting Gressel and advancing Escobar, Martino freed Almiron to drift to either wing and prevent Afful and Jimenez from facilitating things. A lot of teams heavily man-mark Trapp, but few have been as successful as Tata at cutting off Berhalter’s favored secondary hubs of possession.
Escobar and left back Chris McCann became very important in this game, because they would be tasked with higher defensive positioning. They played well, pinning Columbus’s outside backs and preventing consistent overlaps.
Atlanta dared the Crew’s wingers to beat them. The natural counter from the Crew’s perspective is to get the ball to the flanks faster, where wingers Pedro Santos and Edward Opoku should have more space in behind Escobar and McCann. It’s possible that Opoku got the start over Justin Meram precisely for this reason; Opoku would provide more straight-line speed and a willingness to stay wide than Meram.
Santos and Opoku struggled to take advantage. Santos, especially, had another difficult game. His decision-making in space is tentative and often lacking, and he’s not a difference-maker when he’s running at defenders. The Portuguese DP has just 0.39 xG+xA/96, among the worst in the league for attackers who’ve played more than 1,000 minutes. The Crew need so much more from their wingers.
Tata knows that there’s no Jonathan Lewis on this Crew team, and he exploited them accordingly. Gressel’s position inside the formation was his starting point when he picked off a loose pass and created Martinez’s record-tying goal:
If and when these two teams meet in November, it will be interesting to see how Berhalter responds.
Jack McBean’s craftiness
At this point, the Colorado Rapids aren’t doing much more than trying to figure out who’s good enough to stick around after this trainwreck of a season. Jack McBean may not be the long-term answer at striker given his poor scoring record (6g, 4a in over 2,000 career minutes), but he’s displayed a nice toolset this season, especially as the Rapids have grown into a fun and proactive team in recent weeks.
McBean is a natural center forward. He has a sense of how to attract defenders and generally find ways to be productive, particularly with his back to goal. A stout frame, although one not conducive to speed, allows him to body defenders. He holds up play in a classic, archetypical No. 9 sort of way:
Most of his on-ball possessions are done with the intention of driving a defender backwards and waiting for his teammates to give him an easy outlet. He hasn’t played with any real distributors this season, but he makes clever runs out of these back-to-goal positions. His striker instincts and grit add some value. (Yep, he fits those stereotypes.)
It seems unlikely that he’ll ever score 10 goals in MLS given his lack of burst or physicality. He also hasn’t shown much in the way of poaching, either, given his 0.41 xG/96 this season.
But he has his strengths. He also can pass. His 1.37 key passes/96 ranks 21st among players considered forwards by ASA, and nine of the players ahead of McBean aren’t normally strikers. In a lot of ways, he fits the New Rapids’ on-ball style of play.
The two sides of Daniel Steres
The LA Galaxy put out one of the worst defensive performances in MLS this season when they let the Seattle Sounders walk all over them on Saturday, to the tune of 5-0. It was almost comical how dominant the Sounders were in that game, and how futile the Galaxy’s backline looked. The own goal scored by Servando Carrasco, after Jorgen Skjelvik had fallen over himself trying to, you know, defend, was culmination of it.
LA give up the most shots per game of anyone above the playoff line, at 14.6 per game, and while the xG numbers from the Seattle game weren’t quite as bad as they could have been (2.66 xGA), there’s no doubt that the Galaxy’s defending is costing them points.
Daniel Steres, who started in place of Michael Ciani in the middle of their three-man backline at Century Link Field, had this play early on:
Every Galaxy center back, it seems, is terrible at tracking runs. Steres seemed to realize that Raul Ruidiaz was making a run through the channels, but he took a bad angle as the ball flew through the air and ended up flailing at the ball with his head. Ruidiaz’s run was simple. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for an MLS center back.
But Ruidiaz took a bad touch once he controlled the ball in the air, and Steres did well to position his body to shield the ball out for a goal-kick. In these situations, when Steres has an opportunity to use his physicality, he can be an above average MLS defender. He’s tough to get past in tight spaces.
At some point, the Galaxy’s defenders are going to have to bring out their good sides rather than their bad sides.