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D.C. United, Atlanta United, and why pressure is MLS’s defining tactic

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The Last Word dispels the idea that either team scored a fluky goal by dissecting the first two goals from Wednesday night

Much to the surprise of most observers - including me, the guy who felt naive while predicting a draw - D.C. United came up with a crucial 2-1 win over Atlanta United on Wednesday night. I dare say the Black-and-Red even deserved their victory. Outside of Julian Gressel’s goal and the most important save in all of MLS this season, the vaunted Five Stripes attack didn’t do much.

United, for their part, created more and better chances. Yes, I’ve seen an expected goals (xG) chart give the edge to Atlanta, but when a header from inside the 6 yard box is treated as barely better than a 45 yard shot (see the second image here), it seems fair to say that how we define the quality of a particular shot for xG still needs a lot of work.

Anyway, I assembled our Freedom Kicks post for this morning, and part of that process is checking around for articles about the teams we cover. In browsing Twitter and Google results about this game, I noticed a strong narrative forming about the first half goals. Granted, a lot of this came from Atlanta fans or sites, but plenty of neutrals were going along with it. Boiled down, the narrative was as follows:

ATL’s goal: D.C. made a mistake and Atlanta scored. Nothing special or remarkable to note.
DCU’s goal: Dumb fluke goal that was wholly undeserved.

I couldn’t disagree more with this general attitude. It denies both teams due credit for executing an intentional tactical plan based on their opponent’s weaknesses. Not only that, but it essentially ignores what is rapidly becoming the defining tactical battle of just about every MLS game. How and when teams press the ball is a major talking point in most games, and for some teams (Sporting KC and the Red Bulls, for exmaple) it’s the very foundation of everything they do.

Let’s start with how Atlanta generated their first goal. The play starts with an ATL throw-in well into their own half. The throw is a bit too high for Yamil Asad, whose attempted flick-on just goes straight up into the air. The ball falls to Marcelo Sarvas, who opts to attempt a chest trap. Already, the Five Stripes see a trigger here to pounce. Miguel Almiron, standing a step or so away, notices that the chest trap didn’t really take anything off the ball. He’s already stepping when the ball takes a heavier bounce than Marcelo expected.

Almiron’s teammates notice that Almiron has Marcelo in a bad spot, and their collective reaction is sharp. Hector Villalba takes a step towards Marcelo, intensifying the pressure on him. Asad starts a run down the flank that could work if a) Almiron toe-pokes the ball away from Marcelo and into the space Asad is moving towards (and that Chris Korb is not yet prepared to track back to) or b) if Marcelo holds Almiron off, his option to pass back to Steve Birnbaum is gone due to Asad being in that space already.

Marcelo does end up having the strength to hold off Almiron, but that step from Villalba leaves him with only one option: a quick, awkward stabbed lateral pass to Ian Harkes. Playing laterally under pressure is to be avoided whenever possible, but Marcelo has been left with no better options. This is the very idea of pressing with numbers. You want to create the circumstances where the other team’s choices aren’t great, and the odds of success get lower. Eventually, something tends to go wrong.

And here’s what goes wrong: Harkes receives the ball, but he has Kevin Kratz on his back by the time it’s actually at his feet. Villalba quickly turns to more or less eliminate a passing lane straight to Birnbaum, who would have also had Asad in his face if the pass had been direct to him. Harkes, accounting for this, tries the ball on the far edge of the narrow window to find Birnbaum, who in an ideal situation would still be left choosing between an off-balance, odd-angled, long backpass to Bill Hamid or trying to shield Asad long enough to turn upfield (or at least to the touchline).

Harkes doesn’t place that pass well, though, and it ends up between Birnbaum and Kofi Opare. Birnbaum seems to think it’s Opare’s ball, but Opare can’t make a move on it without abandoning his post. He’s the only even remotely central defender in the team structure in this moment; on top of that, if he did make a play on the ball, he’d have to successfully hit a sliding clearance upfield without being blocked by Asad, whose choice of angle has simultaneously made life difficult for both United center backs.

You see where this is going. Atlanta repeatedly puts the player on the ball between a rock and a hard place, and while United escapes several times, they only really delay the danger. Eventually, a bad pass - not a glaringly bad, Mishu-to-Villa pass, either - and a moment of hesitation is all it takes. When Asad gets onto the loose ball, Atlanta has a 4v3 break going forward, and United’s best chance of evening that number is Sebastien Le Toux (who is on the touchline and 25 yards behind Asad).

From there, it’s simple execution. Asad and Almiron are way too good to botch this, and Julian Gressel just has to run towards the goal and not whiff. These are the can’t miss chances that make attacking at a high tempo so alluring. Atlanta’s press feeds the tempo, and in this moment they caught United in a position where they had no chance to recover.

Now, let’s move on to how United got back level. From a goal kick, Alec Kann opts to play short. United knows this is coming, and leaves no fewer than four players - Le Toux, Jose Ortiz, Luciano Acosta, and Patrick Nyarko, going from right to left - strung across the field, about 25 yards from goal. This is a challenge to Atlanta. United is saying “if you want to be this dogmatic, you’re going to have to play through a real line rather than just pass around one or two players.”

Kann passes to Michael Parkhurst almost in the corner, which Acosta sees coming and mildly presses even as Kann is making his pass. Parkhurst makes an odd choice, somewhat hurriedly passing back to Kann even with Acosta over 10 yards away. It would be an iffy choice at any time, but Parkhurst should surely be able to see Ortiz, who has backed Acosta’s step up by getting into the area to close Kann.

This isn’t the Ortiz pressure that ends with Kann’s giveaway. Funnily enough, this is just the prelude. Kann doesn’t slip or take a bad touch here, but he does make an inexplicable choice. Look at this pass, which is rolling at a leisurely pace in a straight line:

I’ve seen this clip several times, and I’m still not entirely certain what this is. Is it a pass for Kratz to run onto? If so, it’s not a natural thing for Kratz, who would have to figure that out on the fly. Is it a pass to Jeff Larentowicz? If so, it’s a bad one, and one that Larentowicz is clearly not expecting (hence the “springing into action” pose). Or is it an attempt to break the pressure entirely by finding Almiron? That would be the best idea, but the ball is not fast enough to get there without being picked off. In fact, it probably would have died about 10-15 yards short of Almiron’s position in this still.

Anyway, Larentowicz bails Kann out, albeit with a very risky pass to Parkhurst that skips barely out of Acosta’s reach, and Atlanta is out of danger with a valuable lesson to boot. Except...they completely fail to take note of what just happened. Parkhurst takes his time on the ball, and his teammates are either stagnant, make a pointless run into space that Parkhurst can’t safely pass to (Kratz) or are covered by alert forward defending (Larentowicz, who Ortiz is within a step of the moment Parkhurst takes an extra second on the ball).

Parkhurst takes a touch towards the right, then a quick touch to his left designed to shake United’s defensive structure enough to find a gap to pass through. It doesn’t come, and crucially Ortiz has already sensed what Parkhurst would have to do if his change of direction didn’t pay off. He commits to pressing Kann. We can’t be sure, but this may have something to do with the homework session he and Acosta committed to doing on their down time.

There is a moment here where Parkhurst could pass to Larentowicz, as Ortiz has to let Larentowicz go to make up the space between him and Kann, but the veteran defender doesn’t recognize it. Larentowicz moves into space that Acosta is protecting, and Parkhurst steps into the trap by passing back to Kann, even as Ortiz gets a jump on what’s coming.

You remember the goal now. Kann’s first touch is poor, and his second involves slipping as he barely avoids having Ortiz strip him directly. The ball goes to Acosta, who freezes Parkhurst one-on-one before fooling Kann with a near-post shot that goes in.

Both of these goals came via mistakes, but they’re not fluky mistakes out of nothing. In both cases, the team that scored used what they knew of their opponent - weaknesses, habits, tactical preferences - to create the circumstances where something might happen. Atlanta relied on the occasionally erratic touch of United’s central midfield, eventually forcing a goal out of what started as a slight misjudgment of how much bounce would result from a chest trap. United took the risk to press Atlanta’s commitment to playing out of the back, and (possibly) read something in Parkhurst’s habits as a player.

That’s the whole reason teams come up with individual tactical plans for games. There’s no guarantee that pressing a specific player will work, or choosing an inverted winger against a specific fullback might succeed. In fact, in the overwhelming number of situations, it won’t work. This game is played in the margins; that’s why we see 90 minutes of play turn out 2-1, or 1-0, or other common low scores.

Particularly in a league like MLS, where the gap between the worst and best teams is still quite small, setting up circumstances that on a marginal level might benefit your team is what everyone is trying to do. No one is counting on a mistake that can be forced over and over again; that’s a winning Powerball ticket.

What every team is trying to do is create just enough of a marginal problem for their opponent that a one-in-one-hundred missed touch cascades into a tricky pass, leaving someone else with a lower percentage chance of success, so on and so on until the pressing team has the ball in a great spot. It might work once a game, or not at all. Even the most committed high-press teams end up getting shut out without really creating much (remember KC’s visit to RFK for the opener?).

Seeing either of these goals as unremarkable, or lucky, does a disservice to all the work these teams do in training, watching video, and even taking said video home to watch further. Remember that story of Bill Hamid re-watching his USMNT match against Ireland “50 times” from a few years ago? It’s the same thing, and people should respect the work these players and coaches put in rather than write off a goal that was the product of intense work and quick thinking as “luck.”