After 30 rounds of MLS regular-season play, how many secrets can you really have in terms of tactics and personnel?
So the postseason will be decided on effort, execution and intangibles. Managers can still have an influence through prudent personnel selection and through minor tactical tweaks, of course.
These were three such instances of schematic tinkering from the opening legs of the first-round playoff series, including one that worked, one not so much and one that landed somewhere in between.
One scheme that worked: It really wasn’t an adjustment so much as a bend in the mind set and perhaps a few yards of positioning that put LA in control of their home-and-away set with Seattle.
Simply put, Bruce Arena made a choice to go defensive, to clog up, bottle up, obfuscate and frustrate last Sunday. He had no problem asking Landon Donovan and David Beckham, two of Major League Soccer’s premier attackers, to check their instincts for bold attack and become millionaire diggers and grinders for the night.
He asked them to go gritty at Qwest Field—a directive they apparently had no problem buying into, because they basically spent the night tracking back, denying balls into the Seattle wingers, and then working back even further any time Sanna Nyassi or Steve Zakuani did get on the ball.
On the inside, midfielder Dema Kovalenko and center back A.J. DeLaGarza kicked like mules, chasing Seattle’s Fredy Montero and Blaise Nkufo mercilessly. On another night, it might not have worked so famously. But referee Ricardo Salazar preferred a few “talking to’s” over yellow cards, much to the fuming displeasure of the Sounders pair. (DeLaGarza’s presence was interesting on its own; Arena bravely chose the less experienced center back over the slower Gregg Berhalter, denying Seattle a prime mismatch.)
Once the Galaxy had their goal—Edson’s Buddle’s bomb of beauty from 35 yards—LA’s defensive posture was even more effective.
Could Seattle have possibly benefitted by dropping central midfielders Nathan Sturgis and Osvaldo Alonso further back, therefore dropping Montero a little further back to fill the hole and forming something closer to a 4-2-3-1? We’ll never know.
One scheme that didn’t: Only San Jose coach Frank Yallop can say why he tinkered with something that worked so well.
The Earthquakes blazed into the playoffs on Chris Wondolowski’s brilliant recent form. Around the park, the other elements were fairly stable, an injury- or recovery-related personnel alteration here and there notwithstanding.
The formula that worked so well at Buck Shaw Stadium had Geovanni, the Designated Player signed midseason, playing a freeform role beneath striker Ryan Johnson. Geovanni drifted pretty much where he wanted, often retreating back to form, essentially, a five-man midfield out of the Earthquakes’ standard 4-4-2.
Meanwhile, “Wonder Wondo” was scoring like he was playing against the local junior college on EA’s FIFA 11. He lined up on the right but popped up in places that made him tough to track.
Against the Red Bulls, Yallop retained the basic scheme; however, he rotated the important pieces. Wondolowski played alongside Johnson at striker while Geovanni played wide right. The idea was to attack New York through lots of crosses, with Geovanni ostensibly supplying his share from the right while Bobby Convey did his thing from the left.
But the scheme took Geovanni off the ball as often as we saw him on it before. San Jose’s possession just wasn’t crisp, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since it was Geovanni’s introduction this summer that seemed to improve the ball-handling around Buck Shaw in the first place. Unable to possess the ball, the attack often went directly into Johnson, bypassing Geovanni altogether.
Rafa Márquez’s smarts and Joel Lindpere’s industry for the Red Bulls were just too much in the middle for Sam Cronin and Scott Sealy, the Earthquakes' central pairing. The Red Bulls controlled the center of the park, which actually made it that much harder for San Jose to find the wide players.
As for Wondolowski, Red Bulls center backs Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes were able to locate him quickly and eliminate most of the opportunities before they arrived into him.
San Jose players and coaches seemed oddly content with the number of crosses and half-chances generated. That’s their right. But you show me a team that puts just three shots on goal during a home playoff game, and I’ll show you a team that’s not long for those playoffs.
One scheme that almost worked: In Dallas, Jason Kreis had a solid plan that very nearly worked for Real Salt Lake. Actually it worked to perfection for a while. Until it didn’t.
Kreis knew how FC Dallas like to press up high. The Red Stripes’ 4-1-4-1 allows heavy pressing just above the halfway line. So the plan was to take advantage of Dallas’ tactics and the natural tendency for playoff adrenalin to kick in and push people toward the ball, further out than they might normally go. They wanted to go right over the top, quickly, looking for Fabian Espindola or Alvaro Saborio—but only for about 15 minutes.
The hope was to get an early goal and then really turn the screws with tight possession. Kreis thought they could sneak in an early strike and then create increasing desperation by keeping the ball away from Dallas.
“The problem was that we never got to what was supposed to happen after that,” Kreis explained later. “We wanted to possess the ball for long stretches. But we never got to that. The entire first half we kept trying to do what we were only supposed to do for 15 minutes, which was when we got the ball, to look in behind them right away.”
Which just goes to show you: Coaches can study, plan and scheme like diligent bookworms, but the game, as we know, is always decided by the players.
With the Galaxy ahead 1-0 on aggregate goals in the series, LA host Seattle in the second game of the two-leg, home-and-home Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday, November 7 at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. BUY TICKETS