The scoreboard at RFK Stadium looked very odd around 7:45pm this past Saturday night. In fact, it was doing something that it had only done once in 2013: Informing the crowd that D.C. United was winning at halftime, up 1-0 over the visiting New England Revolution.
This was a good omen. United's previous halftime lead at RFK ended in a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, and both US Open Cup victories at the Maryland Soccerplex saw the Black-and-Red up 1-0 at halftime. For a team that scores roughly once per full moon in 2013, a halftime lead is a treasure that can't go to waste.
United got this lead through Luis Silva's long-range shot in the 8th minute, the high point of an opening twenty minutes in which Los Capitalinos had total control. It was a spell that saw a DC penalty shout turned down; a narrow miss by Kyle Porter following some nice work on the dribble; a Porter cross just barely out of reach for Conor Doyle on the doorstep; a Daniel Woolard header cleared off the line; an inviting Nick DeLeon cross going untouched by Jared Jeffrey; and Porter opting to shoot with a wide open John Thorrington surely in a better spot.
In other words, United was dominating the start of a match for once, rather than conceding early and ruining any tactical plans Ben Olsen might have drawn up. Even as the Revs pushed back - with two spells of even play sandwiching a seven- or eight-minute spell in which New England was the better side - one could see the possibilities of United's rebuild. Silva was building off of a good first appearance with the club, Doyle at long last was a striker who could hold the ball up without bogging play down, and Jeffrey was getting into the spots a #8 should get into. It wasn't glorious, but it was definitely not bad.
In retrospect, there were early signs of the problems to come. New England upped the physical side of their game, with Lee Nguyen getting away with plowing into Porter - a foul that eventually forced the Canadian winger to limp out of the match holding his lower back - and halftime sub Scott Caldwell pulling Silva back to prevent a United break forward.
The aggression soon became more constructive, as some laziness in the United midfield let the Revs re-start an attack that appeared dead after DeLeon had hustled back to prevent a deflection from becoming a corner kick. Nguyen worked a couple of combinations and could have easily scored while several United defenders simply had no reaction to the danger.
It wasn't much, but it's the kind of small red flag that usually precedes the actual disaster that seems to come out of nowhere. At first glance, the goal looks like a fairly simple combination of a) confusion of roles by DeLeon and James Riley, b) poor judgment from Willis, and c) poor marking from Taylor Kemp. These three causes are mostly true, but there's much more beneath the surface here (not to mention "mostly true" being shorthand for "66.6% true"). This goal can provide fans with a good lesson on what United's problems are outside of our more glaring issues with goalscoring.
Let's quickly recap the goal itself: United was sitting almost comically deep as the Revs knocked the ball around their defense. The New England midfield wasn't providing much of an opening, and both Doyle and Silva were starting to press up the field to try and disrupt the possession and get United up the field. As the play developed, Chris Tierney and (to a lesser extent) Jose Goncalves pushed up the field; in fact, Tierney didn't receive the ball until he was level with the 18 yard box.
The opposition's best crosser of the ball in acres of space? What could possibly go wrong?
Stephen McCarthy moved the ball to Goncalves, who smartly chose to find the open Tierney along the left touchline rather than try to split Doyle and Thorrington with a pass himself. Saer Sene had presented himself as an option, but Dejan Jakovic had read his intentions and would have arrived to tackle him. Tierney had the time to take a touch and cross under virtually no pressure (DeLeon's token attempt to jump in front of the cross doesn't really count).
Tierney's cross got past DeLeon, who never had a chance, and over Riley, who had taken the "first man" role you always hear announcers bring up when a corner kick is too low. It looked like Kelyn Rowe, who had a step on Woolard, was going to get to it, and that drew Willis to the near post (the only place Rowe was likely to put a header). Unfortunately for United, neither Rowe nor Woolard could make contact thanks to Tierney's excellent delivery. Any good crosser of the ball will tell you that crosses that move quickly and have multiple potential targets are problematic, and this was a perfect example of what a good cross looks like: Driven, bending the whole time, and at such a trajectory that more than one attacker had a shot at it.
With Willis out of position, United's last hope was defenders at the back post. While Jeffrey had done well enough to block off Nguyen, Kemp was simply beaten to the ball by the stronger and more alert Imbongo, who didn't have to do much more than let the ball hit his right leg to convert.
Let's go back to the beginning of the sequence, to a point that the above video doesn't actually show us. Jeffrey had smartly jumped forward to win a bouncing ball ahead of Sene, nodding it forward to Silva. Silva has pressure from Caldwell and Sene, so he got rid of the ball in two touches. That's good, but the devil is in the details: Silva's somewhat awkward first touch eliminated the possibility of finding Thorrington, and Silva could have also used his second touch to turn out of trouble and into some space (or a simple pass to Porter).
Instead, Silva returned the ball to Jeffrey, who had been rushing forward to take part in a potential break later in the move. Jeffrey had time to stop, though, and probably should have completed his pass to Thorrington. Instead, he seemed to forget that Nguyen was close enough to pick off the slow attempted pass, starting a Revs attack. United dropped deep, and Diego Fagundez eventually ran into a blind alley. New England thus had to reset, and that's where we start the picture show:
When I said United had dropped deep, I wasn't kidding. That's Caldwell on the ball at the edge of the center circle, with the United line of contention eventually forming about 45 yards from our own goal. While it's tempting to just blame Silva and Doyle - you can see how far over they've been pulled by the aforementioned Fagundez run to nowhere - but what's going on behind them is just as bad. This was a collective failure to maintain a reasonable shape, and while bunching up did end the first phase of this attack, it also left the door wide open when that phase didn't end with United forcing a turnover.
This issue was exacerbated by what followed. Caldwell played the ball square, drawing Goncalves into the attack. Goncalves then doubled down by intentionally pushing his first touch forward aggressively. Here's the situation as Goncalves is about to make his next move:
It's worth noting first what our defenders - i.e. the guys you'd first suspect if I told you United gave up a bad goal - are up to. Jakovic is at this point slowing down after having seen the possibility of Goncalves firing a pass to Sene, the biggest goal threat in a Revolution shirt. Jakovic's quick step up took the option off the table for Goncalves, which in my book means he did his job in the build-up.
Riley also gets a pass. He has no one to cover, so he's maintained his role in the team's overall shape. If Tierney were to take a hard first touch towards the corner, Riley's in a spot to fire out and pressure him. If the move were to have been inside towards Sene, Riley is in a spot where he could offer support to Jakovic in the form of a double-team or simply defending the space Jakovic would have to vacate to step out to Sene. We don't say this often in 2013, but Riley is doing his job here.
That leaves us with the midfield, and the news is less good. The issue is DeLeon's positioning. He's too deep, yet also too narrow. I would say he's rendered himself redundant, but in this case he's actually had a negative impact on others. During this sequence, Thorrington had to step up higher than he normally would if United's shape was correct, because DeLeon isn't providing that layer of pressure. Meanwhile, DeLeon isn't wide enough to make things hard on Tierney, a job that in this moment is 100% his.
Take note of who the widest Revs players are in this picture: Tierney, a left back, and Andrew Farrell, a right back. At the start of this play, right winger Sene is actually in the left half of the field, and left winger Diego Fagundez was out to the right (having made the initial push forward on a diagonal). This is important, because it indicates the numbers the Revs had pushed up. United had five potential attackers to deal with - Imbongo, Sene, Fagundez, Nguyen, and Rowe - and both fullbacks were in good spots to provide width. In an instance like that, a right back needs to be in a position to help down the middle. That means DeLeon needed to be in a spot to do something out near the touchline, and he wasn't even close.
We hear coaches talk about team shape all the time, and every player has to do well in this regard to prevent things like this from happening. DeLeon didn't hold up his end of the bargain, and it forced other players into less-than-ideal positions while still leaving some space for Tierney to serve the ball. If DeLeon is in the right spot, Goncalves doesn't have the easy angle to ping the ball out to Tierney, and assuming that pass still got through, Tierney wouldn't have had so much room to set his cross up.
Let's jump ahead to the moment Tierney is striking his cross:
DeLeon's only option after his poor positioning was to provide this sort of token pressure. Given the choice between being a very minor issue to be overcome or actually being out of the play altogether (Tierney would have seen the hard pressure coming and simply cut the ball in, a bit like a bullfighter with a bull), DeLeon at least didn't compound his first mistake. There are plenty of people in MLS who would have thumped this cross into DeLeon (some of them play for United....coughNyassicough), but Tierney's crossing ability is the #1 reason he's employed as a pro soccer player.
Going right to left, we can see the varying degrees of success United is having inside the box. Riley is there to block any cross that's too low or lacking the sort of trajectory that would complicate things. Without a runner to mark, he's doing the right thing. Jakovic is actually doing two things here: He's still in line to charge down any potential cutback or rebound that finds Sene, yet is also a potential second option to block anything that barely evades Riley. Since Sene didn't make a run, this is reasonable (though, if Tierney had chopped his pass along the top of the box, Sene might have had time to hit a one-time shot before Jakovic could arrive).
Beyond those two are Rowe and Woolard. Rowe's run on this play was a good one, coming from deeper and cutting across goal at a less-than-common angle for a central midfielder. Woolard read this run about one stride too late, and is only in position to put a body on Rowe if the cross ended up being for the UCLA product. Still, at least he's goal-side of his man and close enough to give a bump.
Behind them, Jeffrey also reacted a step too slowly to Nguyen. However, Nguyen is one of the slower players in MLS, and Jeffrey was close enough to throw an arm out to block his path. Actually, the behind-the-goal angle in the embedded video shows that Jeffrey is actually just grabbing Nguyen's shirt...in the box. It's technically a foul, but it's also the kind of thing defenders do on virtually every play where a cross is coming in. There is a tiny risk of giving up a PK here - not to mention a potential second yellow for Jeffrey - but honestly, if I'm a coach I'm completely OK with Jeffrey bending the rules here. My issue would be that he doesn't anticipate Nguyen's change of pace, but it's a very minor issue in the grand scheme of things and a non-issue on this specific play.
That leaves us with the bad news: Our smallest defender, Kemp, is marking the most physically imposing New England attacker in Imbongo. Making things worse, Kemp is fully focused on the delivery of the ball rather than blocking off Imbongo's run. Imbongo, meanwhile, is in motion to either receive the cross or be there for any rebound if the ball ends up being for Rowe instead. Kemp should not have his shoulders squared towards the touchline, because by this juncture his job has changed from anticipating the cross to man-marking.
Let's skip ahead by barely a second, to the moment the ball went over Rowe's head but wasn't yet in the goal:
This is where we have to confront the fact that Willis misjudged the flight of the ball. If he had judged it correctly, he'd have known that Rowe wasn't going to make contact here. Instead, he's too far towards his near post anticipating a Rowe header there rather than staying central, where Imbongo's shot likely would have hit him in the legs. There was also a hitch in Willis's movements here that makes me wonder if he realized late that Rowe wasn't going to make contact. There's a chance he was considering diving out to palm the ball away or possibly even pin the ball against the ground, but the play was moving too quickly for him to spring forward and make the attempt.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey is firming up his grip on Nguyen's shirt and using his strength to prevent any sort of lunging attempt at a finish. Of more concern, however, is the physical battle United is losing in this picture. Kemp is clearly off-balance, having to push back against the bigger Imbongo with only one foot on the ground. Imbongo has all the leverage here, and uses his arm to make sure Kemp never gets into a spot where he can do anything about the impending finish. If Kemp had positioned himself properly earlier in the sequence - that is to say, both goal-side and ball-side of Imbongo - it would have taken a foul for Imbongo to get to this ball. Instead, Kemp isn't between his man and the ball, and he's always going to lose out to Imbongo in terms of strength (ruling out a Jeffrey-style bending of the rules to hold or push Imbongo aside).
Sadly, these problems are all too common for United in 2013. When Ben Olsen talks about "being hard to play against," he's not just talking about grit, or bite, or being mean. He's also talking about basic stuff like keeping a proper structure throughout the team in terms of shape, so that skillful players aren't receiving the ball so easily or with so much time. He's also talking about anticipating things and not making simple mistakes like misreading the flight of the ball. Finally, he is most certainly talking about positioning yourself in such a way as to prevent an obvious target from holding you off while he converts a sitter.
Team shape, good judgement, marking...these are things that good teams do well, and are things that come down to my favorite word: Focus. A focused DeLeon takes up a better position early in the move. A focused Willis realizes that he has two threats to deal with, and takes up a position where he can deal with both (rather than neither). A focused Kemp gets ahead of Imbongo before the cross comes in. We can talk about tactics and coaching all day long, but ultimately individual players making mistakes will undo all of that stuff every time.
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- Filibuster Podcast: Week 22 - Fighting through technical troubles to preview D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact
- D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact lineups: Last tuneup before the U.S. Open Cup
- Setting the Stage for August: US Open Cup or Bust
- The Last Word: Only One Tune-up Left Until the USOC Semifinal
- Highlights from the D.C. United stadium term sheet signed by Vincent Gray and Jason Levien
- Photo Gallery: D.C. United + Mayor Vince Gray: Stadium Press Conference, July 25, 2013