MLS Cup Preview: The Revs’ O versus Houston’s (Formidable) D

(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.

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4 Responses

  1. Wow. I didn’t realize Robinson had 70 fouls! If he had 20 less, he would have won defender of the year.

    Cheer up. I think something is going to happen beyond anything we all can foresee which will break this game wide open in the first half. I have no evidence based on past performances, but it is soccer. One kick can completely change a game’s complexion.

  2. The cards were something else as well.

    As for the game, I’m still expecting tight. But anything can happen…let’s just hope it does…and that it goes the right way.

  3. Now, now guys. What is “right” anyway? :>

    Housotn’s back four is indeed formidable, and before we all start condemning Eddie Robinson for his large number of fouls, let’s take a quick look at where those fouls occurred and in what context. Now not for a minute will I defend overly rough and thuggish play, and one thing about both ER and Cochrane is that on high balls both have a tendency to ride guys’ backs up to and over the limit. But ER’s fouls almost always occur out of the penalty area, heck frequently not even with 20 yards of the penalty area.

    So what is he, as a center back, doing that far away from the penalty area so regularly and why is he fouling so many people there? Well, first, Dynamo has a a serious tendency to push that back line way up and compress the field. The problem with making this a habit is that long high balls can get over their heads. So it’s incumbent upon the defense, especially the CENTER defense (Robinson/Cochrane) to stop the attackers right there and then. This slows the attack, allowing the defense to retreat and regroup. Waibel and Barrett are both top-quality, classy guys, but burners they are not, so slowing down the attack allows the four to regroup, with the help of the holding mids.

    Now, are these tactical, professional fouls? You bet they are. Is it effective? The proof is in the pudding. And if you go back and take a serious look at about a third of the goals scored on Dynamo this year, you’ll see they came because a high defender missed an assignment or just missed a ball, giving away a lot of back space.

    Again, I do not defend thuggishness, and I also (perhaps, I will admit, in a homer kind of way) do not believe that Dynamo defenders’ tactics constitute thuggishness. But do they walk the line between aggressiveness and illegal play? Absolutely they do. Robinson has picked up a number of stupid cards this year by going over that line, but he is also so expert at it that I would challenge you to find another player who had fouled so often, received so many yellows and yet was suspended so rarely. How many games did ER miss this season due to reds or yellow accumulation? I know of one off the top of my head and honestly cannot remember another one. That, my friends, is a tough and very canny defender.

    Now, how does that translate into the discussion at hand? First, yellow accumulation is out the window. And if the Revs hope to go at Robinson and draw a card or foul, they wil have a long and frustrating game. ER’s fouls down low are few and far between. And more likely, if Robinson fouls, he will do so on his terms and in good spots. ER and Cochrane are not perfect in the center, but they are damn good, though I have not been a big fan of Cochrane’s this year. Too many time, ER has had to bail him out. He has gotten better recently though, which is good for Dynamo.

    And to go to something else Jeff Bull said, I wouldn’t make too much of the extra day of rest. At this point in the season, these guys are conditioned to playing once a week, sometimes twice. It is highly, highly normal for a team to play on Saturday and then eight days later. It is also normal for a team to play on Thursday and then 10 days later. It’s not like anyone is really on “short rest” here. Any lay off between 7-10 days is a total wash. If it were longer, the Revs would come out rusty. If it was shorter, Dynamo would be tired. As it is, both are right down the middle of the regular turnover “zone” as it were. There’s no edge here, citizens.

    So to conclude this long and rambling post, I think Dynamo’s defense, with them all healthy, has an edge here over the Revs’ healthy offense. Let’s take a quick look at the two goals scored by the Revs and the two goals given up by Dynamo in the playoffs. On Dynamo’s side, you have an amazing throw-in from Serioux that took a lucky bounce off of Cochrane’s chest and right to the feet of Goodson. On the second, you have a 1-2 from Cooper to Ruiz that would be a goal against any defense in this league. On NE’s side, you have a home goal against a terrible NY defense after getting shut out by that same defense on the road. Then you have a dangerous and, I still think, a somewhat illegal high kick from Twellman that, if it were done in Chicago and in somewhat higher temperatures than 30 degrees, might have been waved off.

    Don’t get me wrong, If I had to bet on it, I’d say NE will get its shots, but I’d also bet Dynamo’s defense will be up to the task. NE’s edge will have to come from somewhere else on the field.

  4. Touche….albeit with some clarifications.

    – Regarding Robinson: First, I see where you’re going with a lot of the commentary and, with that in mind, I’ll change my use of adjectives from “dirty” to “cynical.” I’ve seen what you’re describing – e.g. that Robinson rarely fouls in truly deadly places (e.g. inside the box) – but he definitely lays on the professional fouls and, often enough, within free-kick range…damn shame I can’t see the Revs exploiting that. Getting back to the professional fouls, I count that as “thuggish,” but only in the loosest sense; in other words, it’s part of the game I don’t like and, while Robinson may resort to it more than most (as they say, stats don’t lie), he’s not out of bounds. Besides, I wasn’t suggesting that the Revs go after Robinson in hopes of putting him in foul trouble. I don’t think it would do them much good anyway. That said, I view Eddie as the weakest link in that back line, and not just because of the fouls. There’s something about him that would make me uneasy if I backed the Dynamo.

    – Regarding the 10-day-versus-7 thing: eh, you’re probably right there. I don’t know where “big assist” came in. If I thought the Revs would use it for planning/prep, it would mean something.

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