Hopefully, you tuned into tonight's CONCACAF Champions League match between Columbus and Toluca. Aside from being our region's top tournament, the CCL is usually rife with drama. Granted, this drama is often the result of hot-tempered players, poor officiating, or mistake-riddled play, but entertainment is entertainment. There are few more consistent sources of dramatic, incident-filled games than the CCL, which in my mind somewhat makes up for the standard of play. Sometimes when you go to the movies, you want to see dudes kicking each other more than you want to see brilliant mise en scene. The CCL is a soccer version of, say, "Die Hard" (which makes your local amateur indoor game around the level of anything ever made by Michael Bay).
With that said, I decided to sit down with a Stella and take notes on the first real game for any MLS club in 2010. My collected thoughts, written out at halftime and after the game ended (note: I was watching this off my DVR, since I didn't get back from the gym until halftime) follow the jump.
FSC formations can never be trusted. This is pretty much always the case, and despite their advances in other places, it's still a big problem. If the FSC production booth isn't 100% certain of a formation, they just plug dudes into a random 442 and hope it's right. Tonight, FSC had Toluca lined up like this:
Here's how they actually came out:
I guess it's a minor pet peeve, but in the CCL it's especially bad. Often, their lineups are so far off as to be entirely useless. It kills me, because they have Christopher Sullivan on color commentary, and he loves the Mexican league. You can't ask the guy announcing the game for some help with the lineup? I could have told them how this team was coming out with the info, just based on seeing them last year (where they played either this 4231 or a 433, depending on how attack-minded they were on the night).
Someone in MLS needs to sign Sinha. Toluca's opening goal was the product of quality passing and, most importantly, intelligent players seizing an opportunity. Sinha rolled a shot past Will Hesmer after a sublime interchange from midfield between him, Isaac Brizuela, and Raul Nava. No one in a Crew jersey had the speed of thought to do much about the play; once Sinha and Brizuela had wall-passed their way around Padula by the midfield stripe, it was pretty much a goal. That's the beauty of having players who understand the game at a higher level; Sinha started the move, helped it through its middle stages, and finished it off himself. No one from Columbus knew what was going on before it was already done.
This particular play reminded me of Christian Gomez at his best. Don't write this off as a typical counter, or just the result of high skill. This goal was chiefly the result of a high-functioning soccer brain, and it was lovely to watch. Another example of Sinha's intelligence could be found in watching where he takes up residence on the field. Once it became apparent that Gino Padula couldn't cope with Brizuela, and that Robbie Rogers would rarely be helping out his left back, Sinha drifted to an area more or less in line with the gap between Padula and center back Andy Iro. He didn't need Chepo De la Torre to tell him to do this; he figured it out entirely on his own.
Mr. Chang, can we have one? Pleeeeeeeease? I'll be your best friend!
Steven Lenhart is MLS's top agent provocateur. By the 10th minute, Lenhart had already angered Vladimir Marin enough for the pint-sized winger to go for a full shove once the ball had gone. Later, he went in late on center back Diego Novaretti, and ended up copping the attitude of the aggrieved party (rather than apologizing, as would have been the sporting thing to do). Novaretti did get his revenge later, by predicting a long ball and tripping Lenhart well before the referee or linesman had looked towards the Toluca end, but that's kind of my point. No one in MLS provokes angry reactions, retaliations, and generally negative attitudes on the field more consistently than Lenhart. I can't remember seeing him in any game without some defender being obviously pissed off about some shoulder barge, chippy tackle, or unkind word from the blond version of Sideshow Bob. It might make him unpopular, but it also leaves defenders unfocused and prone to taking needless bookings. Given the Crew's focus on aerial play and directness, Lenhart is a great fit and should be viewed as a real problem by any MLS defense.
Columbus can't replace Chad Marshall. Eric Brunner was a nice find last year, and Andy Iro appears to have grown up a bit in terms of decision-making, but both need to be partnered with an experienced, smart player. You can actually argue that Marshall is the player Columbus can least afford to do without. Frankie Hejduk can be replaced by O'Rourke or Jed Zayner (who was out hurt for tonight's game), and Guillermo Barros Schelotto's absence can be compensated for by being more direct and physical as a unit. Marshall, however, cannot be adequately replaced by any Crew player or by a change in style.
The Crew didn't play too poorly in the first half, but were undone by the two true moments of class produced by either side. This is sometimes your lot in life when you play a stronger opponent (see: Netherlands vs. USA). You play a reasonable half, avoid major mistakes, and even create some half-chances, but your opponent knows that it can reach a level of play that you cannot. The quick passing exchange on Toluca's opening goal, and the absolutely brilliant strike by Antonio Rios on the second, were all that Toluca needed to essentially kill the tie off within 45 minutes. The class gap between the two teams (especially a Columbus team in preseason form and without their three best players) was pretty ruthlessly exposed. Instead of tearing into Columbus, Toluca just stayed in 2nd gear and waited for the Crew to expose themselves just a bit too much. On both first half goals, there was a large gap between the defensive and midfield lines that was immediately attacked and exploited.
Emmanuel Ekpo is a winger. This seems like something totally obvious to me, but I guess I'm just missing something. Robert Warzycha has tried Ekpo as a central midfielder (fitting in between Carroll and Schelotto), and this preseason has experimented with him as a striker. Warzycha's experiments are...odd, to say the least. Ekpo as anything but his natural position is just as bizarre a decision as benching Schelotto in the playoffs.
Tonight's game illustrated why Ekpo should be kept on the right wing if Columbus wants to get the best out of him. As a forward in the first half, Ekpo had little understanding with Lenhart and rarely put himself in good positions to get involved with either Gaven or Rogers. At halftime, Columbus switched from the 442 to a 4231, with Ekpo on the right, Gaven in attacking midfield, and Rogers pushing higher on the left. It is no coincidence that Columbus seized control of the game (though they were aided and abetted by the fact that Toluca seemed to believe that the game was in the bag and stopped playing). Ekpo created the first goal and generally had the better of Carlos Galeana until he was subbed out.
United fans should all be pulling for Warzycha to continue meddling with his team when it seems to be a pretty straightforward job of putting a good set of players into a system they all fit into.
Courtney Campbell is the CONCACAF referee all MLS teams should hope for. Campbell's interpretation of the game consistently favors the more physical style MLS and Caribbean teams play, so he lets heartier challenges go without bookings. Campbell did pretty well in keeping his cards to himself; this game could have easily ended 10v9 with different CCL refereeing. His one mistake was not spotting Padula's clear elbow to the head of Brizuela. However, he did well to calm the ensuing scrum, and the one started by Marin a few minutes later, with a minimum of fuss and without overreacting.
I'm not saying he's a great ref, because there is no such thing in CONCACAF. What I'm saying is that Campbell is the most favorable combination of competence and leniency from an MLS perspective.
Remember what I said about Lenhart being a real problem for MLS defenses? Proving that he's not a one-trick pony, Lenhart bagged two very nice goals to help Columbus get a surprising draw. The first goal was particularly high quality. Ekpo had O'Rourke storming up the flank on an overlap (and both Lenhart and Carroll actually pointing for Ekpo to lay it off), but ignored that option for a bit of fantasy play. He chipped a pair of defenders to feed Lenhart, who responded to the change of plans by spectacularly volleying the ball into the roof of the net after controlling it on his chest. It might not have been as amazing as the Rios goal before halftime on first glance, but in terms of degree of difficulty they're pretty even. If Lenhart is finishing goals like that off with regularity, Columbus is an easy favorite for 1st place in the East.
Lenhart's second goal should never have happened. Alfredo Talavera, who had played very well up until this point, inexplicably threw the ball straight to O'Rourke at midfield (an ill-advised attempt at springing a counter, I guess). O'Rourke easily played it forward to Renteria, who surged forward before slotting a quality ball to Lenhart in the box. Lenhart did very well to stay composed, take a touch, and shoot hard and low past Talavera. It was, as announcers like to say, a real striker's goal.
What did tonight tell me about the Crew: Columbus is going to be very good again. Warzycha may blow the whole thing in the playoffs again, but this is a team with too much quality all over to drop off. They adapt well to the times Schelotto has to sit out by changing their approach to the game (something we have only rarely done when Moreno isn't in), and they fight for each other. They will also improve from what they showed tonight, which should make the rest of the East pretty nervous.