(UPDATE: Blue Blooded Journo is plugging away at match-up previews of his own. Do check out his latest on Shalrie Joseph (and others) v. Dwayne DeRosario (and others).)
Ever start a project only to realize you’ve built in some redundancy? It only occurs to me now as I’m sitting 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 forwards coordinate with their midfield. And, for no particular reason, I’m going to start with New England’s offense versus the mighty, mighty Houston Dynamo back four.
By coincidence (and we’re talking big coincidence ‘cause I really haven’t poked around much today) MLSnet.com posted an ode to the Dynamo back line by freelancer and Very Smart Man, Steve Davis. There, you’ll find both bang-up stats and some entirely valid thoughts as to what makes the four-man team of Craig Waibel, Ryan Cochrane, Eddie Robinson, and Wade Barrett effective to the point of making history.
In his piece, Davis points to the mystery of why these four clearly quality players have earned so few caps for the U.S. National team. The answer centers on the Dynamo’s one weakness, one that focuses, in the main, on one man: Eddie Robinson. And what’s that answer? Robinson plays hard – if a little too hard; in my mind, he pushes the “thug” envelope to the breaking point; when the bitter sets in, I tend to view him as a dirty player. Robinson’s 70 fouls put him second in the league (behind Juan Toja) and his 11 cautions put him in first (stats here, but you’ve got to find ’em), both of which tell me that the refs see at least some of what I do. So, to answer Davis’ question directly, Eddie won’t get a call up because he’ll confront his teammates with a conga line of free kicks.
So, yeah, I’m no fan of Robinson. And his problems with fouls have a meaningful practical downside – not just the free kicks I alluded to above, but there’s also card trouble and what that will do to his play if he picks up one early. Fortunately, he’s got first-rate help all around him: Waibel holds down Houston’s right brilliantly with hard, clean play (take note, Eddie); I rate Cochrane higher than Robinson on both offensive and defensive terms; and I think Barrett is pure class, one of the league’s most complete and accomplished left backs. Add ‘keeper Pat Onstad and it’s no wonder these cats made history in 2007.
And, with regard to how this group works together, do note the stats at the end of Davis’ piece – specifically, the shots and shots on goal allowed.
What do the Revolution bring against this highly formidable back four – a unit that receives useful, at times ample, help from midfielders like Richard Mulrooney and Brian Mullan? Put it this way: I don’t know how many free-kicks “Red Rage” Robinson would have to surrender before the Revolution can exploit one, but suspect it’s higher than he’ll achieve over the course of 90, or even 120, minutes. So, let’s take a look at Plan B (I kid, I kid; this is Plan A).
Start with the good news: the Revolution have two top-quality forwards in Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan – even if the latter isn’t quite up to his high standard. Both can expertly exploit half openings, Twellman especially (if not always legally) and both have a useful, sneaky-shit aspect to their game – again, Twellman, especially. Even if I don’t think much of either player with his back to goal (Twellman, especially, tends toward sloppiness even on simple drop passes), both have great mobility, good endurance, and, with Noonan, an entirely respectable bag of tricks. Get these guys the ball in dangerous places and they’ll do some damage.
Aye, but there’s the rub – e.g. getting these guys the ball in dangerous places. In yesterday’s post on the midfield, I pointed out some places where I expect the Revs to struggle: down the flanks on either side; not at all surprisingly, this is precisely where they plan on going this Sunday (see the conclusion). Doubts about what they can do here left me grasping at solutions – ones, I should admit, that may not occur to or that would be dismissed by Revs’ coach Steve Nicol. (For the curious, it’s the stuff about Steve Ralston; see the link). Assuming, however, the Revs insist on going this way, I’d still point to Khano Smith as the “X Factor” – e.g. if the Revs can make it work down one flank or the other, I expect it to happen down Smith’s. I did entertain a barely plausible scenario around Wells Thompson, but don’t think he’s much on crossing the ball and, even when he gets in behind the defense, his penchant for spaz-passes reduces his effectiveness. (For the record, Thompson is growing on me; if he keeps at it and keeps getting first-team minutes, he could be as useful as Mullan in about five years’ time.)
The above seems to leave unanswered the question of how to get the ball to those forwards. However Nicol lines up his charges, he does tend to emphasize the one thing that could undo Houston: sharp, active movement and the same kind of passing. When asked to comment on losses, Nicol often points out his teams’ failure in this department, so I know this idea hovers around the locker room. And, in Nicol’s defense, the Revs do have the players to pull this off: they’re technically sound and the majority of them have the heart and lungs to run forever.
If there’s an impediment to this, it’s my suspicion that New England will have to play this game up Houston’s middle; that’s not to say the flanks won’t come into play – they’ll have to, or Houston will just choke off the middle – but I don’t think balls over the top are going to beat Houston’s defense, at least they won’t unless and until the Dynamo has to chase the game. This will mean short passing, actively supporting the ball – the basic nitty-gritty hell of inching the ball up the field a la trench-hopping in World War I. As I see it, it’s just going to take good, old-fashioned hard work to beat Houston: e.g. keeping possession and keeping the ball moving so as to keep the initiative and switching it around quickly to keep their defenders off-balance. The point is there are no short-cuts, no weak links to exploit; the Revs’ offense just has to go out there and find a way around these cats…easier written than done.
I think the Revs have it in them and view the extra days’ rest as a big assist in this regard. But, unless Houston comes in under a funk, they’ll have to play as well as they have all season.