Monday, November 26, 2012

A tactical look at the MLS Cup — The LA Galaxy

My aim today is to go a bit beyond the gentle platitudes being issued from both camps (is there anything you wanted more than to hear Mike Magee say that Houston is "better than last year?" Or that Brad Davis "respects LA?" WHOA slow down there Isaac Asimov, my feeble mind can't handle it) and pull up a few core samples from what it is exactly that Houston and LA are doing correctly in these MLS playoffs. I've combed through some of the archives and, probably to the detriment of my newly-married life, spent far too long watching backlogs of these two teams from the past month or so.

But what I decided is that nothing is so warming as proximity, and the conference finals is where the most robust nuggets are stored. Both performances are analogous enough to their respective form over the past month that I can extrapolate enough from it to make sense.

I've taken the Dynamo's 3-1 win over DC as the example instead of their 1-1 draw for the simple fact that the Dynamo so drastically altered their approach for the second leg that it rendered their approach more or less "other than." Same thing applies to the Galaxy's two-game set with Seattle, which flipped on its head after the Galaxy upended the Sounders 3-0 in the first leg. Which is where we level our gaze today.

In several senses, Beckham's exodus from MLS is an unfortunate turn. There is of course the aesthetic value of having Beckham's brand (blech to that whole idea, by the by) attached to your league, but that's not half of his value, especially not where LA is concerned. No, Beckham in his latter years as a footballer has become more of a stationary canon emplacement rather than a mobile firing turret, meaning he has gradually become more comfortable setting up in the rearguard and fueling play through his right-footed artistry. This move has been almost imperceptible to anybody who hasn't watched his play advance these last five years because it's come in fits and starts and yellow and green lights. Becks will still scramble down the flanks and occasionally stumble into the box, so it isn't as though he has switched off the forward-seeking node in his game. But lately he has been far more comfortable in the frontal architecture of the buildup, and in some senses this has made the Galaxy more dangerous than they've ever been. Allow me to explain.

LA and Seattle fought through 45 scoreless minutes at the Home Depot Center in the initial leg of the Western Conference finals, and Sigi Schmid was clearly in a precarious place. Eddie Johnson was fighting through a hamstring injury, which forced Sigi to play Montero up top as a lone striker, a role that has never suited the mercurial and occasionally brilliant Colombian. Christian Tiffert was nominally placed in the hole behind, but Tiffert failed to bring the wide play upon which Johnson has rested his hat, and the move stripped the Sounders of the defense-stretching speed that has made the Sounders so dynamic at times. Ask LA how they felt about Seattle's offense in early August. That Rosales started on the bench did not help matters either.

This is where the brilliance of Beckham beamed through the dark clouds that sagged over the Sounders' collective heads. While LA ceded the majority of possession to Seattle (57-43), Beckham is a master of fomenting convalescent play from a spark that might look minuscule to anybody else. Here is Beckham's initial burst from LA's first goal.

Look how deep Beckham gets to start this multi-armed action. He is nearly even with Omar Gonzalez when he collects possession, and it is his prescience that begins a flight down the right side that eventually produced the initial goal. The perfectly weighted pass you see above hit fullback Sean Franklin, who had just pushed up past midfield. Beckham undoubtedly saw what Franklin saw, that Seattle had just Alex Caskey to spread between Franklin and Juninho on that side. All it takes is a simple one-two from those two players to free Franklin down the right side. Franklin, who more or less had a free run to get even with the box, finds Wilhelmsson, who deftly flicks on for Donovan, whose Henry-eseque flick back into the run of play found Keane's head. 1-0 Galaxy. The rout was on.

Like I said, this was a multi-armed action that requires us to spread around the accolades. Each player deserves a back pat in some form, and Beckham was not its sole mover. But remember this: in his early years in MLS, Beckham was a man without a position, which contributed heavily not only to his yo-yoing form in the league, but also to the Galaxy's struggles as a whole. Feeling as though he had to be what his teammates could not, Becks tried, quite in vain, to be a winger, a holding mid, an attacking mid and even at times a striker to ill effect. Jack of all trades master of yadda yadda. Until last year. Beckham, now cuffed by his age and perhaps a momentary realization that his galavanting days are over, finally found a role and stuck with it. No longer was Becks making these ridiculously speculative runs into the box that distended LA's attack and left its midfield curiously empty. No longer was he playing like a reckless 24-year-old in a 35-year-old's body, but rather he recognized that his place now was removed from the front lines, set up in the bell tower pulling back the trigger on sniper rounds. It was only then that Becks, in full realization of his limitations, unchained his ability to completely wreck back lines from distance. To plant the seeds instead of pruning the branches.

Becks' ability to sit deep and stay deep was more or less cemented in place when Robbie Keane joined the team last year and proved to Beckham that he was no longer needed up front. As I think back to last year, these words of mine still echo freely.

That Beckham and Keane should share some sort of preternatural bond is not entirely surprising. The two have formed such EPL muscle memory that a sort of shared relative soccer sense is only natural. It is not rocket science, this level of connective tissue. Keane and Beckham are two talented variables with a shared past inserted into an ordered system. It's almost elementary. But it works, which is what will excite Bruce Arena and, perhaps more than anybody, Landon Donovan. No longer does Donovan need to watch his elegant runs into the box end with failed, clunky touches from a Cristman or a Barrett. Nor will he feel an overriding sense to do too much. Much like he does with the Nats, Donovan can now complement the talent on the field instead of attempting to overpower it, which has never been his game. Donovan is a goal-scorer, but he's at his best when the danger is his unpredictability. With a target man making runs from the back of the box like Keane loves to do, Donovan is in winger heaven. So imagine how a sniper like Beckham feels. Christmas in August.

Sniper indeed.

But LA has other pieces, which are more or less glued together by Becks' ability to rule the midfield with a gilded scepter. Here is the early build-up to LA's second goal, which again begins with Beckham. It is easy to see here how LA's setup going forward works. You can almost liken it to a kid's game of 5,000, where a quarterback throws a ball up to a waiting horde of kids looking for points. Beckham is the QB, and LA's potent chess pieces are his canvas.

Here are three options flashing open for Beckham. Magee has cut loose on the left flank while Franklin is available for a through ball on the opposite side, and though this appears to be the toughest choice it is within Becks' ability to find him. But Beckham sees Keane, he sees space and he walks through the correct door. Now that Beckham has lit the coals of the play, we can get to the meat of it. Magee continues his run through the left flank — it is important to note that neither he nor Franklin arrest their runs, a point that will become obvious later — and Keane tanks through empty space created by Alonso's push up the field. Which leads to one of the prettiest through passes you'll see.

That Keano had the wherewithal to rip out the guts of the play, rearrange them just so and create a new, working body is impressive. He placed this pass in the only place it could've gone, freeing a tireless Franklin to feed Magee — neither of whom ever stopped sprinting on this play, each easily covering 70 yards on continuous runs — who finishes with the calmness of a man who has now scored eight playoff goals in his tenure with the Galaxy.

And we haven't even broached the topic of Donovan yet, a fitful runner on the left whose thoughtful runs and careful touch on close-range through balls places him among the league's best ever in both categories. But that's why we have a third goal, which provides us with this lovely illustration.

Of course, careful examination reveals Becks' position, which three years ago likely would've been where Keano has set up shop, and perhaps pushed even farther up the field, all but taking him out of consideration. Though Beckham has no direct role in this play, I thought it was an interesting yarn to yank.

Marcelo Sarvas deserves a mountain of credit for the excellent through ball that resulted from this action, but look at Donovan's body shape here. A neat 45-degree angle to the ground as he kicks off into empty space. He expertly rounded off his run between Johansson and Parke and then peals off both to facilitate the ample hole you see above. It was almost a given that he'd be onside. This anticipatory sense looks easy but is in fact quite difficult, requiring time and the sharpening whetstone of failure to perfect. Donovan is as good as anybody in the world at judging this, and I stand by that assertion. The result here is that Donovan springs to the 18 and uncorks a shot that, luckily, falls to Wilhelmsson, who pokes through for a wide open Keane, who has an easy finish. All because Donovan knows how to run well. A difficult thing made to look extraordinarily simple.

And this is really LA's strength as a unit, something we can come back to as an overarching whole. With Beckham providing deep, Magee and Donovan running tirelessly for 90 minutes, Keane's clinical finishes on his deadly, stabbing runs, Juninho providing constant lateral coverage and the back line cinched up by an Omar Gonzalez humming at top speed, it is little wonder that LA has been the league's best over the final quarter of the year. There are holes, of course, and this team is liable to fall asleep at the back at times, done in by its own confidence that it can throw eight forward in heavy reliance that what's left at the back will clean up the trickle-through. It has rarely bitten them late and is not a large disadvantage, but then that's why LA has been so irrepressible when the season got long in the tooth.

Before the season began, when Juninho secured what seemed to be an unlikely return on loan from Sao Paulo in February, I stridently called LA (arguably) the most talented, cohesive side in MLS history. For a time, they made that bloated comment look hilariously overwrought. Now? The Galaxy are on the short road to vindication. Anyone picking against LA at home in this game is either a Dynamo fan, deluded or quite drunk. Pick your poison, I suppose.

Next up this week is a similar look at what's made the Dynamo such unlikely winners this postseason. For the Orange Creamsicles, this is a rematch made in heaven.

- Will Parchman

1 comment:

dikranovich said...

is it just me, or is it more fun coming and reading some new comments to go along with each, well thought out story, brought to us by NSC?