MLS Cup Preview: The Battle of Midfield

Ugh. My head feels it’s stuffed with cotton this morning, so I can’t promise quality, never mind brilliance. This is kind of a tragedy because, today, I’ll examine the pivotal match-up in this Sunday’s MLS Cup: the Houston Dynamo’s four-man midfield versus the New England Revolution’s five.

UPDATE: Because my brain is barely working, I can only just recommend reading what comes below. As much as I feel like there’s good stuff in there, it rambles as if I’m speaking in tongues. Here’s a quicky summary for those interested in ducking all the half-coherence below:

– I expect Houston to attack to better effect down the flanks and see New England struggling to respond in kind. If the Dynamo can’t break through on the flanks – something I rate as a very real possibility – the middle becomes crucial. Assuming that scenario comes to pass, here are my key players for each team:

Richard Mulrooney (Houston): It’s not just that DeRosario is in a funk. Mulrooney will be the one switching the Dynamo’s point of attack and keeping the Revolution pinned in their own end. New England will be hard to break down, so buying time to create the chances matters.

Steve Ralston (New England): If you read below, you’ll see I don’t think much of the Revs’ chances down the flanks, at least by the straightforward, put-yer-head-down-and-run approach. For the Revs to have a shot at scoring, Ralston needs to serve as the pivot point, the means through which New England moves the ball across the field and into gaps in the defense. It’s a role similar to Mulrooney’s, but, ideally, it will happen closer to Houston’s defensive third.

OK, that’s it for this segment. If you’re up for making sense of the gibberish below, have at it.

Because it’s good, relevant filler, I’ll start by listing the anticipated personnel:

For Houston
Brian Mullan (R); Richard Mulrooney (CDM); Dwayne DeRosario (CAM); Brad Davis (L)

For New England
Wells Thomspon (R); Shalrie Joseph (CDM); Jeff Larentowicz (CDM); Steve Ralston (CAM); Khano Smith (L)

Reviewing those names as a New England fan, I can but tremble – at least where the attacking side is concerned. On the upside, throw both midfields into a Texas Cage Match (ringed with barbed wire, a curtain of blue flame, and a host of bellowing midgets), I’d bet my house on New England’s, um, tough customers…OK, thugs. Then again, that’s just Joseph and Larentowicz – and Joseph brings a considerable level of culture to his tough edge; Ralston, as I see it, brings the distilled talent.

I’ll expand on that later, but boiled down to the central strengths of each side it’s attacking ability versus classy thuggery. Advantage to…?

Let’s start with some assumptions: the goal of soccer is to win; a team wins by scoring goals; ergo, the team better-suited to scoring goals should hold the advantage.

As noted above, I think Houston holds the edge in midfield where attacking is concerned. Both teams like to work the flanks, but Mullan and Davis provide better service – especially Davis. Both teams also use their width to make space for the “operators” in the middle: DeRosario for Houston (with help from Mulrooney) and Ralston and Joseph for New England. I’ll get to those specific match-ups below, but most people – and I include myself in this bunch – expect what goes down on the flanks to decide the game.

So, what do New England’s flank midfielders bring against Houston’s superior crossing and, in all honesty, greater experience? In a word, effort; sheer, indefatigable, guts-out running. It’s for this reason that I think New England will hold their own defensively; Smith can certainly keep up with Mullan and, backed by Avery John, I don’t worry much about New England’s left. (For a good dissenting view on why I should worry about this, Blue Blooded Journo posted a good look at this particular match-up yesterday; I’m not about to say he’s wrong). Turning to the attacking side, New England’s set-up (e.g. 3-5-2) means Khano has to carry the offense, something he’ll struggle against Mullan alone, never mind what happens with Craig Waibel skulking behind him.

My bigger worry comes on the other side, where Davis and defender Wade Barrett square off against rookie Wells Thompson and Jay “Scooter” Heaps; here, my concern falls on both sides of the ball. Thompson is certainly fast enough to keep up with Davis, but I worry about his savvy. Add overlapping runs from Barrett and a sub-fleet Heaps to the equation and you get my belief this will be the “trouble flank” for New England this Sunday, the place where the Revs can be broken more than once. And, arguably, things look worse going forward. If it’s down to Thompson to run solo at both Davis and Barrett and they’re watching him closely enough, well, let’s just say Barrett will clean up what Davis misses – end of story. For what it’s worth, I think Houston may key on Ralston and Smith, which could leave Thompson open, provided New England can switch around the ball quickly enough. Call it a conditional opening – and that still relies on Thompson either getting in good crosses (a semi-weakness) or making slashing runs behind Houston’s D, neither of which are guaranteed. Hell, the whole scenario is speculative.

If you take the whole mess above, my bottom line amounts to a stalled New England attack on the flank versus Houston’s difficulty with breaking down the Revs’ going the other way. Assuming I’m right, that’s advantage and initiative to Houston, but it’s a narrow one. Given all that, I don’t expect the middle to open up much – and this brings us to DeRosario/Mulrooney versus Joseph/Larentowicz/Ralston.

In a crowded midfield, it’s tempting to give the edge to New England, at least in terms of winning possession. Starved of options going forward, as I expect they’ll be given my thinking on the flanks, a resort to hold-up play – e.g. Taylor Twellman playing with his back to goal – seems simultaneously probable and decidedly unpromising; I don’t think much of Twellman’s odds against the Dynamo’s central defenders. If I had to figure a work-around to these twin dead-ends, I’d go with playing Ralston in a nearly-free, almost exclusively offensive role; make sure he’s an outlet, not just for Joseph and Twellman, but also for Smith and Thompson when going down the flanks isn’t an option for them. Ralston will need to be roughly omnipresent when the Revs transition from defense to offense. Provided good movement and accurate passing, the Revs should be able to figure out a couple openings from there. It’s that first ball that worries me.

Going the other way, backed by the rock-solid, best-ever defense DeRosario and Mulrooney have the luxury of focusing forward; these are the benefits of balance. Even assuming a crowded middle, Mulrooney’s smarts and DeRosario’s mobility and skill will give Joseph and Larentowicz plenty to do; if all goes well, they’ll suck in Ralston, who will then surrender his key role on offense. With DeRosario probing for gaps and looking to scheme generally, it will probably fall to Mulrooney to play deeper and redirect the attack, something that will be easier for him to do given the Dynamo’s relative strength on the flanks and their superior options for playing a big-man up top (hello, Nate Jaqua). Joseph and Larentowicz can and will try to do the same for the Revs, but I suspect that the Dynamo’s stronger midfield, as well as the general set-up on both sides of it, will allow them to do it better and more easily.

Where does all that leave me? Hard to say. The bigger part of me remains stuck on Advantage Houston: if either team’s flank play is going to work, I’d put money on Houston’s and, effectively scrappy as New England’s central midfield is, the defensive duties it’s likely to assume against a team as good as Houston could very well require it to play too deep to do enough in the attack. As much as I expect them to win 60-65% of everything that comes down the middle, the question of what they do with it from there is a big one. This doesn’t mean the Revolution is doomed: if they move and pass as well as they did against Chicago, they’ll give the Dynamo what for. I think they’ll do just fine defensively, but the entire movement part of this, playing very up-tempo and alertly, will decide how they fare on offense.

5 Responses

  1. OK Jeff. (And by the way, I hope you’re feeling better today. These fall bugs can be a real pain in the Carlos Ruiz, if you get my meaning.)

    The crowded midfield I think will come to Dynamo’s aid if, and only if, the combo of DDR , Davis and Mullan can break free and deliver service to a speeding Ngwenya or well-positioned Jaqua. Nate (and his elbows) has been playing better than he has all year. Since he came over in the trade where we were the latest to win the “Pick Alexi Lalas’ pocket” sweepstakes, I have been wondering why a guy who is 6-6 (!) can lose so many high balls. But I have to admit that in the last 3-4 games, he has picked up this aspect of his game considerably. He’s also showing a nifty touch with the ball, which was something he did not show in the summer.

    But make no mistake about it, Dynamo’s offense lives and breathes on the service Mully and Davis can deliver along the flanks. With Davis finally back to his pre-injury form and Mullan being, well, Brian Mullan, I think the middies will deliver plenty of looks.

    The key to stoppping all of this is Shalrie Joseph. He scares the whatsis out of me back there because if he can shut down the middle pass beyond the penalty box, Dynamo is going to have some difficulties. The second goal against KC is exactly the kind of look I’m not too sure Dynamo gets against NE with Joseph in there. If Joseph has a monster game in defensive mid, it might force Hou into what is effectively a 4-3-1-2 with Mullan and Davis joining Mulrooney and DDR out there fighting for space all on his lonesome. If that happens, we all suffer because we’re headed right back to a repeat of last year’s 0-0 in regulation game.

    Like you pointed out, Davis and Mully MUST break free for Dynamo’s back line to move up and compress the field. That will bring Captain Wademerica into the mix along one back side and Waibel on the other. From that double sided push up the sides will come Dynamo’s chances, as they have all year.

    As far as thuggery is concerned, are the Revs really any more thuggish than the candycanes Dynamo defeated in the first round? This is not a rhetorical question, as I really don’t know. However, I find it hard to believe because little d’s constant fouling and total thuggery did cause problems, though in a way it diverted them from the problem at hand, scoring and winning the game. Not all that unexpected, however, as it was really one of the only weapons they had. New England, on the other hand, I expect more composure from. The point here being is that if dallas’ total thugosity did not distract Dynamo, I find it hard to belive that New England’s possible attempt at that approach will work. But pair it with some smart play from Ralston and Joseph, and it could be pretty effective.

    What do you think Jimmy Chowda? (And please don’t take my use of “thug” pejoratively. I merely mean “physical play” where New England is concerned. Though with dallas, the term was rarely more apt.)

  2. Lovely addition to the debate, Martek. Hmm….

    As for the “thug” issue, physical play comes pretty naturally to New England’s mids, something that I’d argue separates them from Dallas. I didn’t see the first leg of the first round between Dallas and Houston, but read it was ugly. But I think Dallas’ version of physical comes off as thuggish because too many of their players tackle like forwards – e.g. good, legal physical play doesn’t come naturally.

    New England, on the other hand, builds their game around physical play in the middle. Joseph and Larentowicz can hold their own physically with any players in the league; that Joseph passes very well and Larentowicz passes well is only so much more upside. When you get a cream-puff team, like the 2007 edition of the Wizards (who I considered “soft” all season long), the Revs can throw them around like moldering t-shirts. So, yeah, I expect New England will be more composed; the question is whether they can translate the edge in central midfield possession to launch attacks and, god forbid, pin Houston down in their end from time to time.

    My decision to name Ralston the key midfield player struck me as a weird impulse at the time; it still does to some extent. As you point out, Joseph is the key for the Revolution in so many ways and the fact that he’s 100% for this final should help my side immensely. But he’s also so damn consistent that his regular contribution makes him a force. In the end, that’s why I went with Ralston: he needs to do a little more, to really step up his game to make WINNING possible. If he doesn’t do something special I also expect we’ll be watching a 0-0 grind for much of Sunday morning/early afternoon (depending on your time zone).

  3. No offense to the “thug” comment, Martek.

    I summarized the midfield matchup, more specifically the Dero/Joseph contest here:

    Hey Martek, would you be willing to do a Q&A for my blog? I saw a neat concept on a Celtics NBA blog where they exchange questions with opposing fans or blogs prior to matchups. There’s a few questions that I would love to have answered from a Dynamo fan’s perspective.

    Shoot me your e-mail if interested: jimmychowda (at) gmail (dot) com

  4. […] down to write this, how much of the offense/defense stuff I covered in yesterday’s post on the midfield match-up.  That said, I’ll be tightening the focus today, keying in on how, and how well, each team’s […]

  5. […] already gone into how Houston likes to attack – e.g. down the flanks through Brad Davis and Brian Mullan, […]

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