Tactical Breakdown

Defensive Breakdowns: Red Stars Late Game Collapses

Alright Red Stars, we need to talk. Look, you were doing so well throughout the season, especially without your national team players away at the World Cup, but now with the end of the season in sight and playoffs within reach, it's time to look at something that's really bothering me (besides the embarrassing goal against Portland). One win from the last seven games is bad enough, but dropping five points from three goals conceded after the 80th minute in that span is criminal when chasing first place and building momentum for the post season. Let's take a look at what's going wrong. Keeping Calm Under Pressure

Let's start all the way back to July 25th when the Red Stars were on their way to earn another three points against Washington Spirit to add to the gap atop the standings. Chicago held a 1-0 lead after a Christen Press opening goal in the 30th minute and attempted to close the game out. Let's take a look at Vanessa DiBernardo who finds time and space with the ball to keep valuable possession alive. Red Stars captain Lori Chalupny shows for the easy ball, while Press makes herself available, likely for a give and go behind the defense, with Sofia Huerta occupying empty space as the secondary release. However, DiBernardo's eyes are locked on a deeper, longer range target.

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This is the first critical mistake and where inexperience shows for DiBernardo as she releases for Arin Gilliland as Francisca Ordega quickly closes down the space and fights for the ball. The Red Star defense should still be in decent shape outnumbering the Spirit attack six to three should they lose possession, although league leading goalscorer Crystal Dunn (navy blue #2) all alone in the middle of the frame should cause concern.

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Ordega wins the ball from Gilliland and the second ball battle in midfield against Chalupny giving the Spirit an opportunity to counterattack. The webcast direction fails us here as we only see Amanda DaCosta immediately rushing toward goal with Christine Nairn supporting to provide a delayed run at goal. We can't see how the other players react to the change of possession.

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Here's where the next critical development for the Red Stars happens as Nairn lines up a long distance attempt at goal from around the same spot Press scored earlier roughly 25-30 yards out. The camera angle is too tight for a clear picture and too fast to get the exact frame I wanted (Thank you for having a slow motion option, MLSLive), but Nairn fakes out Danielle Colaprico's last ditch slide tackle to block the attempt. With a wider camera angle, we may have been able to see how these three things developed: 1. The effect of DaCosta's run, if any, dragging the back line out of position. 2. Colaprico defending the center of the midfield without cover as Chalupny remains behind the play after losing the 50-50 ball. 3. DiBernardo not dropping into the midfield in Chalupny's place after Ordega releases the pass to Nairn.

Regardless, Colaprico going to ground without cover is an ill-advised risk. Merely closing down the space may not have been enough at that distance away from the shooter to thwart the danger, but losing an all in bet from a desperate position prompted the scrambling Red Stars centerbacks to double down on the next shot attempt.

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With Nairn ready to release her real shot, both Julie Johnston and Samantha Johnson close her down leaving space behind them right in front of the goal. Ideally, Johnson would close down with Johnston covering, as goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc cheats toward her near post and Johnson would eliminate the far post angle. But with the Spirit attack keeping its momentum, there's no time to decide, and it's better for both of them to react rather than neither of them.

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The ball deflects off Johnston fortuitously to Dunn, who manages to find the space occupied by the centerbacks for a clear look at goal. Gilliland does a great job sticking with Dunn deny space for the shot, and even gets a piece of it, but it unfortunately manages to be a deflection that beats LeBlanc at her near post.

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This sequence began with DiBernardo making a high-risk, long distance pass back to the defensive third when easier, safer options away from goal available. Taking care of the ball is absolutely critical to managing close games late and giveaways in the defensive half put immense strain on the tired defense. The Red Stars did well to scramble after Gilliland lost the ball, but the chain reaction had already started and a dangerous attempt at goal became inevitable.

Keeping Track of Wide Danger

This match against Kansas City FC comes the week after the collapse against Washington. This being a home game and after the burn of a late goal the week before, one would expect a better performance in the latter stage of the match. Unfortunately, that was not the case again.

So we see Kansas City take a throw-in late in the match with the Red Stars forming a defensive shell around Heather O'Reilly who receives the throw without immediate pressure and Lauren Holiday making a run to the corner for a pass down the touchline.

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Julie Johnston pressures Holiday as she catches up to the through ball and everyone else follows the play completely abandoning O'Reilly. One of the players from the defensive shell needs to stay behind to track one of the most dangerous players on the team and a USWNT veteran.

This sequence is framed so poorly it is hard to see what is happening in the box. This isn't a provocative stylistic framing choice like on Mr. Robot (highly recommended viewing if you aren't already watching, BTW). Anyway, we can't see the movement developing in the box or if a side has a numerical advantage. We do see Frances Silva making a run towards goal, though.

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O'Reilly receives the pass with too much space allowed by the Red Stars midfield. She will have plenty of time to touch, look up, and pick out a target. Again, it's too hard to tell who is marking whom, but the Red Stars' centerbacks aren't marking anyone. Johnston is still out by the corner after defending Holiday and Abby Erceg is floating around atop the six-yard box.

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By the time O'Reilly attempts the cross, no one is standing in front of her and the goal and the nearest defender is still three yards away. Meanwhile, Sarah Hagen starts her run to the far post.

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Hagan wins the header at the far post as she loses her mark and beats the defender, who had to slide over to cover, at the far post. This is a perfect cross to the top of the six-yard box right in front of goal. The type of cross O'Reilly can make all day with no pressure at all.

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When goals like this happen, we often look at the defender's marking or the goalkeeper's decision of whether to come off the line, but these issues would not come in to play if the midfielders properly tracked the opposition, especially one of the most dangerous players on the field.

Step Up and Stay in Line

Our last late goal to look at comes from last Sunday against the same Washington Spirit as league leading goal scorer Crystal Dunn nets the winner in the 92nd minute. This lost result would send the Red Stars down to their current position in third place behind Washington and eight points behind league leaders Seattle.

This sequence begins with a low-percentage long ball from the Spirit's defensive third that the Red Stars defense should easily recover. However, Dunn's speed puts pressure on Michelle Lomnicki, so instead of an easy recovery and pass to the goalkeeper to regain possession, Lomnicki has to put the ball out of touch conceding possession to the Spirit in their attacking third.

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The defense recovers quickly and appears to be in position to defend the throw-in. It is taken quick and immediately passed back to Dunn. Lomnicki closes down Dunn immediately and Arin Gilliland leaves her marker to double team Dunn. Meanwhile, we see only one Spirit attacker in the box attentively marked by Taryn Hemmings.

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Dunn attempts to power through the double team as Amanda DaCosta makes a run in the box. Abby Erceg tightly marks Spirit attacker Ngozi Okobi with Hemmings closer to goal and ready to clear away a far post cross.

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The Red Stars defense drops deep to prevent any dangerous runs behind the line, but concede all the space at the top of the box. Dunn knows if she can get to the top of the box, she can get a dangerous shot off. At this point, Gilliland has to put pressure on Dunn to stop her, or at least make her pass the ball where the organized defense can intercept. Erceg, however, breaks the defensive line following Okobi's run instead of letting Okobi run offside.

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Gilliland does apply pressure, but it's not aggressive enough as Dunn easily outruns it and continues her dribble. Melissa Tancredi is a peach of a forward who tracks all the way back to apply further pressure on Dunn's shot. Unfortunately for the Red Stars, Okobi's run works as she drags Erceg completely out of position opening a huge window through which Dunn can shoot.

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Tancredi is too late to block the shot (nice to see the effort from a forward, though!), and Karina LeBlanc is very late to cover the far post. All while Dunn dribbled centrally, LeBlanc stuck tight to her near post, possibly screened by her defenders, and reacted far too late to the shot. As for the shot itself, sure enough, right through the huge window vacated by Erceg. Dunn did all the hard work, but Okobi is the unsung hero for opening the space for the shot.

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With only three games left of the season, the Red Stars should still qualify for the playoffs, but the battle for the top position they were winning before these dropped points has been long lost. Thankfully, the Red Stars play two of the last three games at home on Sunday, August 23rd in Lisle and Sunday, September 6th at Toyota Park. Go support your Red Stars as they will have hopefully fixed the problems leading to these late game collapses.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: vs. Charlotte

Hello again fans, I'm back to write about more defensive breakdowns. Let's take a look at Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup win in which our Men In Red conceded a fifth minute goal. Navigate the Learning Curve

I really wanted to take break down this goal because it is another sign of a developing defense with youngsters Matt Polster at center back and Chris Ritter in the midfield. I haven't seen much of the team this year because of my overwhelming work schedule, but I already broke down a Matt Polster mistake from the season debut against Los Angeles and wanted to look further at another hard knock lesson. This may seem like I'm being harsh on the kids highlighting another mistake, but it's honestly quite the contrary. We've all been encouraged by Polster's play this year and seeing him and Ritter log more minutes on the field will reap long term rewards, especially if they learn from situations like this.

So let's establish where everyone is positionally. We have, right to left, Lovel Palmer at right back, Polster and Adailton at center back, and Greg Cochrane at left back with Ritter and Matt Watson in the central midfield and Sean Johnson back in goal.

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Here we see Polster aggressively step into the midfield from his position on the backline to intercept a pass. Well done, son.

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Unfortunately, his interception goes directly to Paolo DelPiccolo who quickly outlets to Jorge Herrera to start the counter attack. With Polster out of position and beaten, the back four becomes a back three with Palmer and Cochrane pinching in to cover Adailton.

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Adailton does well to stop the immediate counter attack as Ritter and Polster both drop back to cover the empty space Adailton vacated when stopping the play. The fluidity of the play sees Adailton at right back, Polster and Ritter at center back, and Palmer applying pressure to the ball.

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Charlotte retains possession of the ball and now Alex Martinez finds time and space to pick his head up to make a play. We see Herrera dropping into the midfield with no one around him and Tomasz Zahorski on the inside of Cochrane's shoulder calling for a long ball put in the huge gap between Cochrane and Polster. This is where the unfamiliarity of the defense and inexperience of Polster and Ritter shows itself.

A decision has to be made, and quickly, at this time: Should Ritter or Adailton close down Herrera? Adailton was closer to Herrera and Ritter was in position to provide cover at center back during the retreat, but Ritter starts returning to his midfield position leaving the heart of the defense completely vulnerable. Either Ritter has to stay in position to cover allowing Adailton to close down, or Polster has to slide over to close the gap between him and Cochrane allowing Adailton to return to the defensive line. The defense is now off balance over committing to the near side with an attacker in an advantageous position over Cochrane and Andrew Ribiero on the far side starting a run to the weak side flank. Cochrane would have been able to address Ribiero's run if he had Ritter or Polster next to him to track Zahorski.

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Zahorski receives the through pass and attacks the goal with Ribiero well behind the defense, and offside, but available for an easy square ball tap in.

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Of course, I don't like seeing defensive mistakes, but these are the kind of mistakes I classify under "acceptable growing pains" of our future generation. Show the kids the tape, teach them, encourage them, and this kind of problem will happen less frequently. Nothing about this was careless or lazy or from a veteran who should know better. It's a sign our boys still have much to learn and will continue to progress as long as they see meaningful game time.

But still, shuttle runs, fellas.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: at LA

Here we are, folks. A new season and new defensive miscues to look at. Let's see what went wrong last weekend. Communicate and Clear

My top two soccer pet peeves are teammates not communicating and a player not using their weaker foot when it's clearly the better option. Well, guess what we saw with this goal...

This sequence starts off with the Fire dropping back to defend their own half allowing Omar Gonzalez to distribute from deep. Shaun Maloney closes down Gonzalez with Harrison Shipp in a good position to provide cover and shut down the penetrating pass and force the play wide. Gonzalez finds Stefan Ishizaki who had success 1v1 on the right side all night long against Joevin Jones. Usually a long ball from the back isn't much of a note, but this will become an issue again later. 1 Villarreal 1

Ishizaki collects the pass in a dangerous position and I'm not at all happy with the time and space he has on the ball. To be fair, this advantage is more a product of good positioning on Ishizaki's part than poor positioning by the defense. Ishizaki places himself as far wide as possible to use the width of the field and give himself time to collect, touch, and cross, while riding the offside line to cross behind the defense.1 Villarreal 2

By the time Jones applies pressure, Ishizaki is ready to send the cross between the defense and Sean Johnson and the forwards make their dangerous runs before the defense tightens up their line. A perfect low cross puts Jose Villareal 1v1 against Johnson. 1 Villarreal 3

The cross comes in and Villareal thankfully doesn't anticipate the run and the defense recovers. The only problem is Lovel Palmer and Jeff Larentowicz attempt to clear the same ball. In the moment, it is difficult to decide who should attack the ball as Larentowicz has the first opportunity, but Palmer has the momentum and better body positioning to clear it out of danger. There must be communication between them and it must be assertive and immediate to prevent any mishaps. 1 Villarreal 4

This is a terrible Monday night league attempt at a clearance trying to swing the right foot around the body to deflect the ball somewhere else instead of using the left to knock it back from where it came and away from goal. There was no aim to the attempted clearance; just get a foot on it and hope it finds its way away from goal. Meanwhile, both Villareal and Robbie Keane anticipate any error by making runs to recover a missed clearance. You can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket and Villareal ended up winning a chance at a goal and finished to the far post. 1 Villarreal 5

Defend the Rotation

This next goal is particularly displeasing as multiple mistakes compound to a fantastic volley from Keane. Let's take a look at the buildup again as this starts in almost the same way as the first goal.

This sequence starts with another Omar Gonzalez long ball only this time the Fire have dropped deeper into their own half. At this point the Galaxy were much more likely to score their second goal than the Fire to equalize leading to a possible counter-attacking strategy from Yallop to absorb the overwhelming pressure from the Galaxy attack. Unfortunately, Gonzalez has an immense amount of time and space to collect the ball and see the field while Los Angeles start their off the ball rotations. 2 Keane 1

This is where the defense falls apart and I start losing my cool. Gonzalez takes an absurdly long touch to attack the open space in front of him knowing he's not under any pressure at all. Alan Gordon checks to the open space and pulls Eric Gehrig with him. Baggio Husidic makes the run from midfield when he catches Matt Polster ball watching. This is how to rotate to open the space for a deep midfield run. Meanwhile, Keane waits in the distance looking for Gonzalez to hit a long ball behind the defense and Ishizaki stays wide to repeat his role from the first goal. 2 Keane 2

By the time the Fire defense realize what happened, Husidic is in position to win a header for either Gordon who follows up on the play completely unmarked, or Keane who also finds himself unmarked as Larentowicz over commits to his covering duties. 2 Keane 3

Keane pounces on the knockdown and Larentowicz almost recovers but has too much space to close down after pinching in too much. 2 Keane 4

The Fire fell victim to a Galaxy team that knows how to move to open up space for teammates willing to go forward. With Bruce Arena developing a sophisticated attack, the only question was if or when Los Angeles could finish the multiple chances they were going to create on the night.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: at D.C.

Oh boy, here we are again talking about goals conceded. Alright, let's get to it. Compensate the Overload

Normally teams will attempt to overload a defense by pushing their fullbacks to overlap the winger and pulling one of their strikers to the channel to give a numerical advantage or to force defenders into making bad decisions. One such way to combat this is to compromise your shape to address the immediate danger.

This instance reminds me of the second goal conceded against San Jose earlier this year when Gonzalo Segares loses out on a 50/50 ball exposing the Fire's backline. Bill Hamid's goal kick is perfectly placed as it is too far behind the diminutive Harry Shipp to get the ball and drags Segares to challenge for the header against United forward Fabian Espindola and forcing Jeff Larentowicz (#3) and Patrick Ianni (#2) to slide over to mark the other overloading forward Eddie Johnson and the wide positioned Nick DeLeon. A giant gap opens between Ianni and Lovel Palmer for the D.C. attack to exploit.1 Pontius 1

DeLeon collects Espindola's header and holds the ball expecting Johnson to 1. attack the wide open space or 2. bisect the centerbacks to run onto a through ball. Instead, Johnson chooses door number 3 and overlaps DeLeon, which is probably the smartest option since Ianni covers Larentowicz well enough to cut out the through ball.

Meanwhile, the gap between the center back and right back still exists. If I were Matt Watson I would abandon my central midfield zone to fill that gap allowing Palmer to mark Chris Pontius on the weak side. 1 Pontius 2

With the Fire defense retreating and in a 3v3 situation, the margin for error does not exist. Larentowicz shepherds Johnson into making a cross taking away the surprise scenario of a cutback, Ianni retreats and sticks close to DeLeon but is really out of the play, and Palmer tracks Pontius until taking the position of the center back atop the six yard box while Pontius ghosts to the far post.1 Pontius 3

Johnson's cross is dead on the money. DeLeon starts celebrating before the ball even hits Pontius' head. The overload worked. 1 Pontius 4

Staying Out of Pressure

When distributing as a defender, large amounts of time and space greatly help when trying to pick a pass to build the attack. There's a reason defenders defend instead of attempting to dribble through players or play killer balls. Dribbling into that time and space is like going to The Oakwood after closing out The Globe. You're going to try to force the replays out of your mind as you think back in shame and avoid eye contacts from your teammates the next day.

In this first screenshot we see Ianni with the ball at his feet with the time and space to comfortably distribute to any one of four open teammates with Kyle Reynish back as an additional safety option.2 Johnson 1

Instead, he makes the grave mistake of dribbling into pressure triggering D.C.'s high press and the Fire attack to get open for an easy pass largely do nothing. Let's take a look at Ianni's options now: 1. Palmer is still open, but Ianni can't see that and would need to completely turn around or do a Blanco-esque heel pass. 2. Go all the way back to Reynish for the safest pass. 3. Larentowicz is still open but Chris Ritter is now obstructing the passing lane and... 4. ...draws Johnson with him. 5. Segares starts attacking the wing running away from the play. 6. Harry Shipp is open for a pass if Ianni passes behind him away from his mark. 7. Matt Watson calls for the ball stationary behind Espindola and with a man marking him. 8. Alex is on the field for some reason. 9. Quincy Amarikwa is too far removed from the play to be an option. 10. Florent Sinema-Pongolle is wearing number 99 and allegedly exists.2 Johnson 2

Yeah, whoops. Truly Fedora-esque from Ianni there. Still, there's defending to do and Larentowicz could close down Johnson's right foot forcing the play to go wide and to Reynish's near post. However, committing to that aggressive step could allow Johnson to burst forward with speed and in on goal against Reynish.2 Johnson 3

Instead, Eddie Johnson cuts back and has the whole goal to shoot at. 2 Johnson 4So there we are. Two more goals conceded in this nightmare season. Ianni is completely to blame for dribbling into pressure even though Ritter deflects the pass to Larentowicz. Shuttle run for Ianni.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: Set Pieces

So we're going to do this a little differently today. I've often looked at the breakdowns game by game but in the interest of my brutally busy schedule I'm going to look at the two set piece goals conceded in the last two weeks. Defend the Second Phase

When defending corner kicks the main emphasis is on the direct ball in: mark your post(s), mark your men, watch the short corner and close down if necessary, watch the top of the box from 30 yards in, and get a man in position for an outlet to counter attack or hold possession while the rest of the team regains its shape.

Often we overlook the second phase; when the immediate danger gets cleared away but the attacking team retains possession of the ball for an immediate second attack. Defending the second phase tests the organization, awareness, and communication of the team, all three things the Fire defense have struggled with all season long and those struggles continue with these two goals.

In this first goal, Diego Fagundez takes the first corner from the near side and the Fire defense handles the immediate danger well. Seven attackers position themselves in or around the box and six of them are marked with the exception of Jose Goncalves in position to collect the weak side garbage. 1 Fagundez 1

Bakary Soumare misses the clearing header and Goncalves chases down the loose ball to keep the attack alive. Soumare follows as he's closest to the play and Goncalves is his mark. It's big man vs. big man in the corner, which is both unusual and less than ideal considering Goncalves's comfort with the ball at his feet, agility for a man of his size, and Soumare's lack of pace and quick reactions. Notice Lee Nguyen communicating to his team at this time as Goncalves collects the ball. Everyone in red looks on as Alex moves near the play but not to close down and offer Soumare any defensive cover. 1 Fagundez 2

As Goncalves turns and faces the field with the ball, we see a couple small problems that compound into bigger problems. First, the immediate pressure on the ball from Soumare is good, but not good enough. Soumare angles his body to direct Goncalves toward the end line hoping to eliminate the back pass to recycle possession. The only problem is Soumare is too central to Goncalves still allowing the Revs defender to move or pass in either direction. Alex could help the situation if he covered Soumare or at least cut out the passing lane to the top of the box where Nguyen happens to position himself. 1 Fagundez 3

Here's another angle of this. Soumare looks to position himself much better from this perspective but Alex is still nowhere near the play to offer cover and close the passing lane to the top of the box. Ideally, when Goncalves charges the endline, Alex would leave his cover position to give chase as he is the fastest of the three with Razvan Cocis closing down the direct route towards goal. Notice Matt Watson marking the eventual goal scorer Diego Fagundez here. 1 Fagundez 4

Sure enough, Goncalves manages to poke the ball into that danger area at the top of the box that Nguyen runs into to collect the ball. The tight marking in the box loosens as Watson ball watches and loses Fagundez. Look at Gonzalo Segares here: he notices the space Nguyen has and Sainey Nyassi unable to challenge Nguyen but maintains his position. A player with less positional discipline would close down Nguyen, but Segares still has to anticipate Nguyen taking another touch towards the endline, shooting far post, or passing to Patrick Mullins or Darrius Barnes. 1 Fagundez 5

Instead, Nguyen lobs a cross to the far post where Fagundez finds himself unmarked to head home. The far post cross is always tough to defend as the best case scenario for the defense, besides having the goalkeeper catch the ball, is to glance a header out of play for another corner. Assuming the defender properly marks the attacker, of course. 1 Fagundez 6

The important lesson to take away from this break down is never underestimate the importance of defensive cover. This goal may never have happened if Alex provided better cover as Goncalves would have been forced to take on the playmaker role instead of the in-form Lee Nguyen. The other lesson is remember the threat the corner kick taker presents in the second phase. Often they are left to their own devices and spring up in threatening positions if the defense lacks the awareness to keep everyone marked. All of the defenders in this sequence ball watched and never checked the far post. Just a quick glance over the shoulder and a shout helps solve these problems. Extra shuttle run to Alex and Watson.

Taking the Initiative

This next goal is rather unpleasant to break down as it's completely avoidable and exposes a complete lack of awareness and desire to close out a game. For elite teams especially and playoff teams in general, closing out tight games are an essential part of success and noticing the details and having the indomitable spirit of wanting to win every game, 50/50 ball, tackle, and header from the opening whistle to the final whistle are core characteristics to these teams and is not currently present in the current incarnation of this club.

This sequence starts out with a few things to look at that play a part in this goal. First, let's acknowledge Patrick Nyarko on the near post where he should be. Good job. Next, let's look at the top of the six where Alex marks eventual goalscorer Dwayne De Rosario and Quincy Amarikwa in more of a zonal marking role to cut out any direct low crosses to the penalty spot. Next, we see Lovel Palmer marking Michael Bradley and finally, Nick Hagglund at the top of 18 looking starting from a deep position to attack the ball in a situation we've already seen a couple times before. 2 De Rosario 1

Jackson's outswinger goes all the way to Hagglund who has to waste his running start to back pedal for the header. Cocis challenges the header from a standing position but still loses out to the taller Toronto centerback. A call for a foul here may be warranted as Cocis has the position but Hagglund jumps over his back to win the ball. Besides that, um, what about Bradley and De Rosario who are now completely wide open? Did Sean Johnson call for his defense to clear out? Why is Nyarko still on the post and Segares still marking Gilberto? What the hell is going on here? Why did Palmer and Alex abandon their respective marks? And why isn't Johnson screaming at his defenders to come back for their marks or to Nyarko and Segares to push up to hold the offside line? 2 De Rosario 2

Hagglund's header pops way up into the air allowing Gilberto more than enough time to get under the ball. The problem is Segares had more than enough time to challenge for the header and simply doesn't do it. It's truly disappointing from the Fire's most consistent and aggressive defender especially in the 90th minute with the slim hope of the playoffs in the balance. Meanwhile, Palmer does well to recognize he abandoned his mark and retreats to mark Bradley. Alex ball watches leaving De Rosario wide open and onside right in front of the goal. 2 De Rosario 3

Um, yeah. That's not good. One other thing: with the ball coming in to De Rosario, Johnson steps out to collect but stops short and moves his body up and away instead of down towards the ball. Another disappointing instance of an established veteran not throwing himself at the play with the season in the balance. Go back and look at the replay as the still shots don't fully tell the story. 2 De Rosario 4

Hopes of making the playoffs drifted away a while ago, but this goal, and conceding it in such shambolic style, really hammers home there is nothing left to play for but jobs for next season. Still, I can't get over the disorganization at the back on the initial ball in. Johnson must command his box better and if he doesn't, someone else has to step up to keep everyone on the same page. Shuttle runs for Alex, Segares, and Johnson.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: at San Jose

Alright, this is an enormous undertaking. Let's make this as quick as possible since there's so much to get to. One of the observations our very own Stephen Piggott made in his tactical preview was to take advantage of the transition from defense to attack and keep Yannick Djalo contained. Well, we saw the opposite of that last week as all five of San Jose's goals were from catching the Fire defense out of position with Djalo getting a goal and two assists.

Lost in Transition

This first screen cap illustrates Lovel Palmer getting forward and unleashing a shot on goal. Palmer has amped up his aggression in both his defense and his forays forward and his game has vastly improved as a result. This is a good attempt at goal as he has the space to take a shot with no other attackers around 1 Salinas 1

He tries this again two minutes later, only this time there are four Fire attackers in the box and Jason Hernandez steps up to close down the space. Palmer hesitates as his chance to shoot is gone and none of the Fire players are making hard runs to get into threatening positions. Instead Palmer floats a weak cross in the box to no one in particular. 1 Salinas 2

Victor Bernardez emphatically heads the ball clear so well it starts a counter attack that already defeats seven Fire defenders. Now it's Shea Salinas vs. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado for the loose ball and Hurtado must at least contain Salinas or risk Salinas and Chris Wondolowski taking on Bakary Soumare (both right of frame) in a 2v1 situation with Gonzalo Segares still recovering. 1 Salinas 3

Hurtado blocks the pass to Wondolowski but no one in red is in position to collect the second ball or close enough to challenge Yannick Djalo who recognizes the counter-attack is still on. This is the first of a few unlucky bounces that directly favored San Jose on the night. 1 Salinas 4

Salinas chases down the long ball that seemed destined to go out of bounds and cuts inside. Hurtado hustles back but defends the wing like a centerback failing to cut off the pass to Wondolowski and the angle for Salinas to cut to the inside. This is the first of many conundrums in which Hurtado finds himself throughout the night. Does he close down Salinas without cover in a 3v3 situation or react to the attacker's next move with a positional disadvantage? 1 Salinas 5

Salinas bears down on goal and clearly wants to move to his favored right. Wondolowski shows for the ball, which Hurtado calls out. Soumare is in decent position to provide cover but can't get too close in case he must close down Wondolowski should he get the ball. Jeff Larentowicz catches up to the play but does not hold a defensive position yet. Segares positions himself well to close down any of the three attackers. 1 Salinas 6

I don't know what Soumare is attempting here but it doesn't look good. Salinas shoots through the gap in into the upper corner of a net. Helluva shot from Salinas. 1 Salinas 7

When the Bounce Doesn't Go Your Way

Much of the defending in the second half was greatly reduced to desperately recovering from disadvantageous position. Still early in the second half there was reason for Frank Yallop to push the game for the tying goal. However, on a smaller field like the one at Buck Shaw Stadium, this often backfires when the ball doesn't bounce your way as we see here.

Sam Cronin sends a long ball forward for Atiba Harris that Segares does well to anticipate and clear away the danger. Unfortunately, much like the first goal, the clearance lands right to Shawn Francis who immediately finds Djalo in space who already has a pass lined up to exploit the out of position fullback. 2 Harris 1

The pass goes right by Soumare and the defense initiates scramble mode. Harris charges at goal and the defense must reshuffle. Segares is already out of the play because of his failed clearance. Soumare is chasing the play after closing down Djalo. Larentowicz has to recover from midfield after finding space for a pass in the attacking transition. Hurtado must make another difficult decision of closing down the ball or track Wondolowski who is so good at losing defenders through his attacking runs. Palmer must catch up to Salinas charging at the far post. 2 Harris 2

Once again Hurtado does not cut out the cutback angle most likely to compensate for the lack of speed against Harris should Harris run directly at goal. Wondolowski slows his run at the top of the box to collect the square pass from Harris and to exploit the space left open by Hurtado and Palmer. 2 Harris 3

Wondolowski shoots as the Fire defense collapses the space. Once again, they are a half step too late and Wondolowski's shot threads the needle. Meanwhile, Larentowicz follows the play ball watching, Harris follows through towards goal, and Segares is nowhere to be found after giving up on the play. 2 Harris 4

Sean Johnson makes a great save and Harris is the only player near the ball to follow up while the Fire defenders stand and watch. This is absolutely infuriating if you're the manager or one of the fans to make the away trip. 2 Harris 5

Cutting out the Mistakes in Midfield -- As a Defender

This third goal here really illustrates the frustrations of the night and was the worst goal to take. Coming back from 2-0 down is not impossible but the mistake that caused the third goal really took the wind out of the Fire's sails.

Soumare is positioned to win the ball with no one around to challenge. This is less of a 50/50 ball and more Soumare's ball. However, as Soumare approaches the ball you can see he gets his body mechanics all wrong. He leans back as he approaches the ball in a weak stance instead of leaning into the play in a strong stance. 3 Wondolowski 1

Predictably, Soumare loses possession and here we go again. Harris gains possession of the ball and bursts forward, Djalo advances to create a 3v2 as Segares pinches in to close down Harris and Hurtado marks Wondolowski. 3 Wondolowski 2

Wondolowski receives the pass from Harris and again Hurtado must close down the ball without immediate cover. Segares and Larentowicz hurry back well to provide cover and mark Djalo on the far post, but Hurtado recognizes that cutting out the cutback angle on this occasion is unnecessary as Wondolowski likely won't cut back into the retreating cover. 3 Wondolowski 3

Here's something that confused me, though: where exactly are Larentowicz and Segares going? As Wondolowski slows waiting for Hurtado to lose balance or commit to a challenge, it appears no one helps Hurtado or marks Djalo on the far post. 3 Wondolowski 4

This view here gives us a better look at Segares' positioning. He's in the spot a center back needs to occupy to clear away a centered cross or a cross to the back post, but it doesn't help the immediate danger of Wondolowski 1v1 against Hurtado. Soumare and Larentowicz are too slow to retreat for either... 1. Soumare to take Segares' spot letting Segares cover Hurtado or... 2. Larentowicz to cover Hurtado. 3 Wondolowski 5

Wondolowski does an incredible job chipping the ball over Hurtado's leg and to the far post. Really, there isn't much more Hurtado could have done. 3 Wondolowski 6

Ball Watching and Lazy Recovery

To continue the Bakary Soumare power hour, look at how this routine goal kick and 50/50 ball turns into a lightning fast goal. There's not much to break down here other than Soumare's lack of concentration rears its head again.

Hurtado actually wins this 50/50 ball against Wondolowski, but again, the ball bounces right to an Earthquakes player. Djalo collects facing goal but the Fire are positioned well and have a 4v2 numerical advantage. 4 Djalo 1

However, Djalo completely whiffs his first touch and must scramble to gain control the ball. This pulls Soumare in to close down leaving a gap in the back line. Meanwhile, Salinas moves up and Cordell Cato races forward to exploit the space in front of him. The defense is tight, with the exception of the gap created by Soumare, and still retain a numerical advantage as Alex and Matt Watson sniff around for a loose ball. 4 Djalo 2

Here's where the problem comes in: As Cato collects the ball on the right drawing in Segares, Djalo darts into the open space Soumare leaves open as he ball watches. One of two things need to happen at this moment: 1. Soumare needs to retreat to his position on the backline to mark Djalo. 2. Hurtado and Palmer have to recognize the danger of Djalo in that open space and step up even with Segares to trap him and Salinas offside.

Option 1 is much more preferable as it mandates Soumare return to his original position and isn't dependent on two players interpreting the situation in the exact same way. Another alternative would be if Larentowicz abandoned his zone to cover Soumare's ball watching mistake, but you can't do everything for everyone else. 4 Djalo 3

Cato lobs the ball into all that open space and Hurtado's like, "Guys, what the fuck?" as Djalo leaves everyone behind to finish the play. 4 Djalo 4

There really isn't much Johnson could do here. Another extra shuttle run for Soumare. 4 Djalo 5

Getting to Know You

Until now the defenders have caused the vast majority of the mistakes, but now we see the Larentowicz and Matt "The Fondler" Fondy get their signals crossed and cough the ball up in midfield.

I suppose this is only normal for teammates still learning to play with each other but communication is critical and would help prevent Fondy and Larentowicz from going after the same ball. In this screencap, Fondy's position is that of a defender as he recognizes too late that Larentowicz will claim the ball. I can draw a solid blue arrow toward the ball to signify a player in position to defend Larentowicz and it would make sense. Instead, Fondy needs to start running toward goal to open up the midfield for Larentowicz to touch and pick out a pass. 5 Cato 1

Larentowicz's touch gets away from him and he's now tangled with Fondy over possession of the ball. Instead of someone calling out for the ball and the other getting away from the play, they hold each other up while Djalo swoops in, closes them both down, and eventually robs Fondy of the ball. This is thoroughly embarrassing Monday night pick-up stuff. Extra shuttle run to Larentowicz and Fondy for not taking the initiative to communicate. 5 Cato 2

Djalo runs into the space, Watson closes down the ball, and what else do we see? Well, I try to keep a cold, analytic, emotionless tone throughout these recaps, but we see Bakary Soumare goddamn motherfucking ball watching again. Flat footed too. These are basic principles of defending and Soumare has failed yet again. Hurtado is probably thinking, "Dude, I'm tired of covering your mistakes tonight," as the ball rushes into open space behind the defensive line. 5 Cato 3

So here we go again. Wondolowski receives the ball in space, Salinas charges toward the penalty spot, and everyone in red chases the play. Segares is on a dead sprint to catch up to Wondolowski. 5 Cato 4

Out of nowhere, Cato rushes into the box and collects a pass from Wondolowski deflected by Segares. I know Cato is a quick guy, but he runs past the Fire centerbacks as if they were standing still. Hurtado has run out of hustle at this point. 5 Cato 5

Cato recovers well from the ball taking an unexpected bounce off Segares and strikes mid-air. Palmer still tries to close down the shot but he's too late. Good effort from Palmer who was the best defensive player on the night whose only mistake leading to a conceded goal was sending in an aimless cross right before halftime. 5 Cato 6

 

The final result on the scoreboard was a disgraceful sight for those of us at the game and Bakary Soumare turned in one of his worst performances in a Fire uniform yet. If this was a 5-a-side performance from someone in the cage at Humbolt Park, I'd ask them to play forward in the next game. I feel for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado who had to repeatedly cover the center of the defense while Soumare made mistake after mistake. I mean, this is how bad it got during the lead up to the second goal. Soumare nutmeg

Shuttle runs. All week. With games at home against Vancouver and Columbus coming up, I expect clean sheets. No excuses.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: at Columbus

Yep, I'm back which means the Fire defense conceded more goals last weekend. Both clubs were missing players on the backline, but Columbus had their full compliment of attacking players to put the Fire defense to the sword. Let's see who earned some extra shuttle runs this week. Limiting Counter Attacks

Chicago lost the possession battle to Columbus this weekend by an alarming 59-41% continuing the distressing trend. Playing loosely aimed long balls to opposing defenders won't help reverse that trend and leaves the defense susceptible to counterattacking teams that know how to find their danger man quickly in space.

This sequence begins with Jeff Larentowicz attempting to play a long diagonal pass to Dilly Duka. The pass goes directly to Crew leftback Chad Barson and Columbus starts another dangerous attack after already just coming close once and getting caught offside on another less than ten minutes into the game.

As you can see from the screen cap, there are at least six Crew players between Larentowicz and the ball. The attack is so disjointed that when possession is lost, half of the field players are already defeated and the defense are at an immediate numerical disadvantage. 1 Finlay Goal 1

Now we see Barson's pass to Justin Meram beating five players in an instant. With Duka forward as the intended target, he is in no position to put immediate pressure on Meram meaning someone must leave their position to close the attacker causing the defense to lose shape. 1 Finlay Goal 2

Larentowicz leaves the center of the field open to close down Meram, which is certain death considering that's Federico "The Lesser" Higuain's favorite spot to collect the ball, turn, and face goal. This time, though, Higuain is already in the midfield and can take a layoff from Meram in stride with no one to challenge him. Getting out of this situation unscathed looks very unlikely, but some clever positioning from the backline can still seal off passing lanes or at least delay the inevitable. 1 Finlay Goal 3

With Higuain facing goal with the ball at his feet and still no one directly in front of him to challenge, Ethan Finlay starts the run behind the defense. At this moment, Greg Cochrane hesitates as he has a choice: tighten up the backline or track Finlay's run. It is absolutely critical for Cochrane to retreat facing the middle of the field to cut off the through ball and to hold the offside line. 1 Finlay Goal 4

Larentowicz closes down Higuain but it's too late. Higuain releases the pass, Finlay has the momentum to beat Cochrane who decides to track Finlay's run leaving a huge gap between himself and Patrick Ianni. The pass bisects Ianni and Cochrane, though I have to think Ianni could have done something to get a foot on the ball as it went by. 1 Finlay Goal 5

I also have to think Cochrane could have done a little more to put a foot on the ball before it crossed the line. It's hard to judge reaction time, but Ianni and Cochrane were too close to the final pass and shot to score to not question if a little more effort could have prevented this outcome. 1 Finlay Goal 6

Fans always appreciate when their players wring out one more drop of effort whether it's on the attack or defending. That one last ditch effort can be the difference between saving and conceding a goal.

Who Wants It More?

The "Who wants it more?" question is an old cliche we've all heard at practice since the grade school years, but, as we'll see here, it really does apply to the big boy games too. We've seen Patrick Nyarko win the battle of Who Wants It More many times for us, most recently against New York, so it was difficult to watch when Jairo Arrieta out-worked Ianni in the lead up to Columbus' second goal.

Of course, even a goal like this still has it's own technical and tactical breakdown which is what I attempt to illustrate, it's just that the critical moment where the Arrieta wins out is not from a defender making a wrong decision, missing mark, or a product of a spacing problem; rather, the breakdown culminates in the opponent mustering the effort to overcome the defender.

Still, there is work for Columbus to do to get to that situation and it originates with a heavy touch from Quincy Amarikwa in the box that unluckily bounces right to Hector Jimenez who initiates the counterattack by finding Tony Tchani is space around him. 2 Arrieta Goal 1

Tchani traps the ball with Larentowicz the only Fire player around him in a position to challenge. The problem is, Larentowicz has been man marking Higuain throughout the game and must decide whether to close down Tchani or leave him with space to make a pass while tracking Higuain. It's a split second decision that must be purely instinctual and fully committed or else space will open up for both Crew attackers. 2 Arrieta Goal 2

Larentowicz decides to track Higuain, but his attention remains on Tchani while Higuain looks to find space for himself. Steven Kinney also retreats but he focuses his attention on Tchani instead of Higuain also. 2 Arrieta Goal 3

Higuain finds the space he wanted while Larentowicz flounders in no-man's land never legitimately challenging Tchani nor accurately tracking Higuain or passing him off to anyone else. Kinney, still retreating from his attacking position can not immediately challenge Higuain either forcing Ianni to make the same decision Larentowicz had to make: close down the ball (Higuain) or track the run (Arrieta). 2 Arrieta Goal 4

Ianni easily put himself in position to recover Higuain's pass but slowed down as he approached the ball. Arrieta ran through Ianni to win the ball and charged at goal. Not much to discuss here tactically; Ianni made the right decisions and put himself in position to make the defensive play but just didn't follow through. 2 Arrieta Goal 5

This defensive lapse reminds me of Juan Agudelo's goal from last year when he muscled Larentowicz off the ball to score. 2 Arrieta Goal 6

For years the Fire have lacked killer instinct to close out tight games, bury weaker teams through an onslaught of goals, close down crosses, and now make the easy defensive plays. I don't really know the answer to fixing this problem besides shuttle runs. Lots and lots of shuttle runs. Double for Ianni this week.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns: vs. SKC

I'm back with another tactical breakdown this week and thankfully there was only one goal to breakdown giving me time to catch up with Sunday night TV watching Selina Meyer, the Silicon Valley gang, Don Draper, John Oliver, and the Lannisters. HBO is where it's at on Sunday night. Speaking of the Lannisters: Sporting Kansas City. The Fire played them on Sunday afternoon and predictably conceded a goal. Unfortunately, the old problem of defending set pieces returned missing another opportunity to record their first clean sheet since October 19 against Toronto.

The important part of defending set pieces is holding the defensive line and recognizing how the attack sets up. In these first two screencaps, you'll see the difference between a successfully defended set piece and the set piece that resulted in a goal.

Track the Deep Runs

Look at this first screenshot. All of SKC's aerial targets are bunched up in that one group inside the big blue oval with Benny Feilhaber aiming his cross for the small blue oval. The Fire defenders have an easy time sticking their marks since the SKC attackers have no momentum to move past them. 1 Setpiece Clearance

Now look at this one. We see roughly the same allotment of defenders to attackers but the difference is Dom Dwyer (blue #1) starts deeper, gets a running start at the defense, and runs between Fire defenders that are already marking men. Lovel Palmer (red #2) is marking Kevin Ellis (blue #3), Patrick Ianni (red #5) is marking Chance Myers (blue #5), and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (red #4) is keeping an eye on Jacob Peterson (blue #4).

Dwyer's run works because he runs away from Jeff Larentowicz (red #1), the one player available that can pick him up and through the occupied backline to the spot where the ball should be. Quincy Amarikwa is in good position to force Feilhaber to make a perfect cross, and unfortunately, Feilhaber makes the perfect cross. 1 Dwyer Goal 1

Dwyer's run should look very similar to this heartbreaker. Notice the space Bobby Burling has to attack the ball from a deep position. 1 Burling Goal 1

As Feilhaber is about to strike the ball, Palmer recognizes Dwyer's run and forces Larentowicz to pick up Ellis. Unfortunately, Palmer's momentum pulls him away from goal as Dwyer streaks by and Larentowicz picks up the goal-side Ellis too late. In the other battle, Myers charges past Ianni to the near post. Peterson retreats from his mark to make a late run reacting to Feilhaber's cross. 1 Dwyer Goal 2

Feilhaber curls the ball around Amarikwa and hits the target. Hurtado just misses the clearance and there are three SKC attackers in prime position to finish the cross. Also, Myers finishes his run to the near post uncontested to clean up any rebound or finish any headed pass across the six. There are nine Fire defenders inside the 18 and only four SKC attackers, all of which beat their marks. This is unacceptable set piece defending. Shuttle runs for everyone. Double because it's against SKC. Triple for the man markers. 1 Dwyer Goal 3

More Determination on the Wings

Here's a continuing pet peeve of mine from last year: lack of determination defending crosses from the wings. Applying pressure on a cross is the minimum defensive effort I expect from a winger. Blocking the cross would be great, winning the ball would be awesome, but making life difficult for the attacker is all I really ask for.

The sequence starts off well with Patrick Nyarko hustling to drop back and defend the left wingback Igor. 2 Dwyer Miss 1

Igor cuts back and faces the across the field. Ideally, Nyarko would force Igor to stay wide limiting the space into which to dribble and forcing a longer cross or pass to a dangerous area. However, Igor now has the entire field to work with and an easy pass available to him. Nyarko can still defend this play rather easily, though. 2 Dwyer Miss 2

One can assume Igor's strong foot is his left as he operates on the left side of the field so Nyarko can close down that space forcing Igor to pass or cross with his right foot limiting his accuracy. Also, Palmer is in a good position providing cover if Igor cuts back again to the outside and beats Nyarko or to close down the easy pass. 2 Dwyer Miss 3

Instead, Nyarko holds his position allowing Igor to take yet another touch to set up his next move. Notice the ocean of space and the huge window in front of Igor. This kind of defending will get you razzed in a Monday night league game, let alone against one of the top teams in the MLS Eastern Conference. Nyarko has the speed to gamble a little bit defensively and still be able to close down an attacker or get in position to cover the fullback should he get beat. 2 Dwyer Miss 4

Nyarko never even attempted to close down Igor, which opened the Filth Dimension in the Fuego Box. Dwyer makes his run at goal and Igor sends his cross through the window. This is an after practice training ground play at this point. 2 Dwyer Miss 5

It's all over but the finish now. Luckily, Dwyer hits the post. Extra shuttle run for you, Patrick. 2 Dwyer Miss 6

 

The back four had a much better game against SKC not allowing many chances through the run of play. The wings continue to be an area of concern for me. Keep an eye on the wingers and the space they allow to cross. Against teams with dangerous crossers (like Real Salt Lake), this will continue to ruin clean sheets for the Fire defense.

The Goals Broken Down: at NYRB

Nick and Gregg here to break down all the goals from this weekend's match. Nick gets the defense while Gregg handles the offense. Here we go! 1-0 Fire lead

I didn't bother to screen cap Harrison Shipp's first goal. This should have been disallowed. Mike Magee is clearly in an offsides position interfering with Luis Robles. The referee got this one wrong and in a big way.

Yes, Gregg, but in my opinion Jamison Olave clearly took out Magic Middleit with a slide tackle in the box and should have been called for a penalty seconds before the goal. Seems like scoring from an overlooked offside call is more likely than from the penalty spot, so good for us. 

However, if we're talking likely goals, we must mention Fire goals conceded from the right side by way of cross. Lovel Palmer proved to be a bit of a liability on the right side last week by conceding time and space to opposing attackers sending in crosses. This time he commits a mortal sin for any defender by conceding possession in the defensive third. 

Red Bulls level 1-1

Eric Alexander's circular defensive run (sorry I don't have a circular arrow option) cuts down the margin of error Palmer has to make the pass to Benji Joya checking to the ball. 1 Cahill Goal 1

Palmer recovers well keeping very tight to Alexander not letting him turn or cross, just shepherding him into negative space. Palmer's pace allows him to knock the ball into touch giving the defense time to drop back, mark up, and defend a throw in deep in the defensive area. 1 Cahill Goal 2

Alexander takes the throw and plays a one-two with Roy Miller and the defense comes undone. 1. Nyarko closes down Miller too aggressively and is out of position to defend a return pass. 2. Jeff Larentowicz loses his positional advantage after Thierry Henry (at the top of his dark arts game this evening) does a bump and run giving himself the space to receive a cross in a dangerous position. 3. Joya finds himself in a difficult position to track his mark Dax McCarty or the immediate danger from Miller. 4. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado must now make himself aware of an impending through ball to Miller in addition to marking his zone to clear away near post crosses. 5. Palmer must close down Alexander's (assumedly) stronger right foot to block the cross trusting Hurtado to cover in case of a fake cross. If Palmer gives Alexander the endline, the only option the attacker has is to keep dribbling left footed or cross left footed. 1 Cahill Goal 3

The cross comes in and Tim Cahill and his Michael Jordan-esque hang time easily beats Greg Cochrane. Not much Cochrane can do there, really. Dude's got ups. 1 Cahill Goal 4

Much like how the first Red Bulls goal originated, the Fire could have done plenty to prevent their second conceded goal of the match by not giving the ball away in a dangerous position again. 

Red Bull take the 2-1 lead: The Ballad of Patrick Ianni

Central midfielders must remain composed on the ball in times of immediate pressure and find the safe pass to keep possession especially when the fullbacks move to an advanced position trying to find space for a forward pass (a.k.a. the critical Logan Pause skill). The Red Bulls pressed hard in the midfield, which the Fire handled well even springing Magee behind the defense narrowly missing an opportunity on goal right before calamity struck.

Shipp sends a pressured pass back to Joya who must navigate five Red Bull defenders with only three teammates to whom he can pass in the immediate vicinity. Note the positions of Bradley Wright-Phillips (grey #1) and Cahill (grey #4) as the jaws of the trap. 2 BWP Goal 1

Joya safely turns away from the pressure to look for an easy pass just as expected. The jaws of the trap spring shut and close away two of the three immediate options with McCarty tracking down Shipp. The only place for Joya to go is back to the defense where Henry anticipates Joya's next move. 2 BWP Goal 2

Henry intercepts Joya and immediately breaks on the counter running right at Hurtado. Not having the time to force Henry wide, Hurtado retreats dead on to Henry who has the angles to make all the decisions with the ball. Patrick Ianni must keep track of his two runners while being cognizant of the possibility Henry gets by Hurtado. Cahill and Wright-Phillips start running in divergent directions to maximize the 3v2 situation. 2 BWP Goal 3

Sure enough, Henry gets by Hurtado with ease and hurtles forward at goal. Now would be a good time for Ianni to provide cover but Cahill and Wright-Phillips change their runs to give Ianni another decision to make: close down Henry or leave one of two men unmarked on the far post. It's a classic damned if you do whatever you decide to do. Hurtado sticks with Henry since it's not a guarantee Ianni will provide cover. 2 BWP Goal 4

Hurtado can't close down Henry and as Henry prepares to cross, Ianni retreats to put himself in the best position as possible to mark two men on different runs. Cahill slows his run to provide an option atop the 18 yard box and to avoid Wright-Phillips' run to the far post. 2 BWP Goal 5

Henry gets off his cross and Wright-Phillips buries it in the net. Ianni did an admirable job to block the shot and, I must suspect like Larentowicz last week, if he uses his left foot he would have a better chance to block the shot. 2 BWP Goal 6

Still, Ianni did an incredibly admirable job to keep track of the two off the ball runners, position himself to provide cover and yet almost prevent the goal. Good work from a player I immediately wrote off as soon as I saw the trade to acquire him.

Alright, Gregg, I already wrote way too much about the defense going to hell. Why don't you remind us of the happier times from Saturday's game and what went right?

Fire level at 2-2 in the second half

Thanks Nick. Things indeed start to go much better after half. Quincy equalizes quickly in the second half. From Larentowicz? As you can see below Jeff is left in tons of space by the rather lackadaisical Red Bull defending. Quincy seizes upon the opportunity and asks for the ball. second goal 2 edited

Quincy and Jeff are on the same page as one great diagonal run later turns into the equalizer past a very surprised Luis Robles. Robles came out of his net to handle what looked like an errant cross and ends up in no man's land. You will note that Jamison Olave does not run with Quincy even though he initially has a better defensive angle.

second goal 4 edited

 

3-2 Fire take the lead

Minutes later Harry Shipp puts the Fire ahead on a play where he rightly shouldn't have. First off Amarikwa's excellent effort allows him to get the ball deep into the offensive third. Armando thinks he has control of the ball but Nyarko is there to disrupt things. There were three other options, not including the goalkeeper, for him to pass the ball to. third goal 1 edited

 

 

Well look at that the totally wrong decision was made and now Nyarko has taken the ball!

third goal 2

 

 

 

Still it looks like the Red Bull has the defensive upper hand. That upper hand is eliminated as Quincy makes a run towards the near post. He takes two defenders with him. Armando still has not gotten up from his rather speculative dive. Dax McCarty is trying to cover but the distance looks to be to far. Olave is far away and appears to be marking Magee? Who knows what Olave was thinking. third goal 3

 

Olave steps up but it is too late as Shipp has taken a touch, driven forward and has the ball on his favored right foot. McCarty is also too slow to make up the space from behind. One nutmeg shot later and the Fire are up.

third goal 4

 

4-2 Fire

What another goal? Another one from Shipp? The heavens have opened up and produced a multitude of awesomeness! This one turns out to be another set up involving Jamison Olave. Magee is on Olave's back with Kimura waiting for Olave's pass. Quincy is camped out in the box and Shipp is moving towards Olave. This does not look threatening at first glance. fourth goal 1

 

Olave does indeed dump the ball back to Kimura. Shipp is closing on him quickly. Kimura decides he can go around the young player. Not his finest moment.

fourth goal 2

 

Shipp wins the ball and is now moving towards goal with Kimura on his back. Olave hilariously just sort of half asses it after Magee. Quincy opts to move towards the spot in front of goal. This does three things. Offers a better target should Shipp decide to pass, forces his marker to stay put and opens up more space for Harry to operate in. Another positive movement from Quincy.

fourth goal 4

 

Shipp easily finishes past a rather snake bitten Robles. Kimura gave him far too much space to operate in and was unable to disrupt the shot in any fashion. He tries to use all of his dark arts but is unable to turn Shipp's shoulders before the shot is taken.

fourth goal 5

 

5-2 Fire

Patrick Nyarko gets a rather lucky goal on a mis-hit cross. Red Bull, a bit shell shocked at this point, have left Nyarko in space. Lots of it. He is looking to find Greg Cochrane on a run as Cochrane calls for the ball. Instead the ball goes in. As you can see below if Patrick hits the cross correctly a chance may have arisen. Cochrane is wide open and the Red Bull backline is laboring at this point. fifth goal 1

 

Red Bulls pull one back to 5-3

You get all of the fun, Gregg, breaking down the goals everyone wants to see. Alright, here comes the stressful and frustrating part: almost losing a commanding 5-2 lead. 

Where does it all go wrong? How did the Fire defense screw it to hell this time? Well, in my opinion, they don't.

This one starts out on the Fire's right (this has to be the weak spot scouted by every opposing team) with the Men in Red in a nine-man defensive posture. 1-4 are holding the front bank to resist any direct attacks from Johnny "Hard As" Steele, defenders 6-9 in the box to man mark or clear crosses and Joya (#5) to patrol the zone between the front bank and the box, covering the bank, clearing out any passes, or marking any runs. Everything looks tight, except, again, there's still too much space to cross. 3 BWP Goal 1

Now the chaos begins. Wright-Phillips dummies the ball to Lloyd Sam and the defense remains disciplined, not over committing to any possible scenario. However, Cochrane is alone at the back post marking super jumper Tim Cahill and mountain of a man Jamison Olave. That's a bit concerning. 3 BWP Goal 2

Sam chest traps the cross with a heavy touch. He reacts to recover his poor touch as Wright-Phillips readies to strike the shot. The defense is still in good position with Hurtado, Ianni, and Shipp forming a defensive shell with a window open through which Sean Johnson can see. 3 BWP Goal 3

Wright-Phillips strikes, Ianni covers his junk, and Johnson has his near post covered. The defense is tight. Wright-Phillips just hits a helluva shot. All you can do is tip your hat and close down the cross. 3 BWP Goal 4

Red Bulls convert from the spot for 5-4

Now we review one of the more frustrating goals to concede: goals from a throw in. Well, it's not directly from a throw in, but it created the opportunity for a penalty and some dark arts from Henry. 

Olave takes the throw and aims deep where Henry looks to position himself behind the defense. 4 BWP Goal 1

Henry posts up in the box and grapples with Hurtado for position. The wide angle is a little blurry, but there does appear to be some grabbing. Henry goes to ground and Hurtado is called for the peno. But the question at the time was how severe is the grabbing? Is Henry grabbing too? 4 BWP Goal 2

Ah, yep. There's lots of grabbing. Hurtado has two arms around Henry's right shoulder and Henry grabs back. Is there enough contact for Henry to go to ground? That's a debate in ethics. Is Henry in position to play the ball and a victim of illegal contact from Hurtado? It's hard to say no. That's a debate of the law, and, unfortunately, Hurtado lost. 4 BWP Goal 3

Wright-Phillips completed his hat-trick, but the real hat-trick hero was Harrison Shipp. It has to feel great to see a homegrown player make such a significant impact on the road in the team's first win of the season, isn't it, Gregg?

Damn right it is.

Breaking Down the Breakdowns

Saturday night's collapse against Real Salt Lake was not a fun endeavor at all. If anyone had less fun than the fans watching that capitulation, it would be the defenders who were directly responsible for the capitulation. Let's take a look at the mistakes that led to Salt Lake's comeback. Lost Markers

Let's start in the 69th minute when Alvaro Saborio missed a clear chance to get Salt Lake's first goal. What we see here is Bakary Soumare slightly out of position ball watching, Saborio finding too much space in front of goal, and Greg Cochrane left to mark two men.

As I mentioned last week on the FuegoCast, Joao Plata, Saborio, and Javier Morales often drift wide into the channels to collect the ball with one of the other two posting up in the box and the other finding space for an outlet pass.

This first example partially illustrates that as Plata gets wide to send a cross in and Saborio at the penalty spot awaiting service. Soumare gets caught watching the ball and loses track of his mark drifting about three yards from Saborio. With Plata trying to find the space to cross and Soumare slightly out of position with no instruction to pick up Saborio from either Cochrane or Sean Johnson who can see what Soumare can't, Cochrane has to position himself to pick up both his original mark, Luke Mulholland, in addition to Saborio. 1 Saborio wide open 1

As the tricky Plata finds the space for the cross, Soumare still is not in position to challenge Saborio. At this time, Cochrane is left in no-man's land as Mulholland retreats to the top of the box to open up space for himself and Saborio inches forward to collect a cross. In a split second, Cochrane has to decide who to follow knowing that letting one of them drift away could mean trouble. Cochrane must also be wary of Mulholland checking to Plata and call out a switch to Soumare to pick up Mulholland while scrambling to cover Saborio who is already ball side/goal side to Cochrane and has the physical advantage. If Soumare was marking Saborio tighter, Cochrane could follow Mulholland himself and neutralize the physical mismatches.1 Saborio wide open 2

The cross comes in and it's over Soumare's head forcing Cochrane to retreat to cover Saborio. Because Salt Lake sacrifices so much weak side width with their compact diamond midfield, there's little danger of a far post flick on from Saborio. Mulholland finds himself in a good position to have an effort on goal should the Costa Rican striker decide to lay the ball off as Cochrane has already committed to challenging Saborio. 1 Saborio wide open 3

Saborio gets a great opportunity and should have scored if he squared his shoulders to goal. Cochrane was in no position to cut off Saborio's angle to the back post or challenge physically. This was a breakdown in positioning and communication that went unpunished. 1 Saborio wide open 4

Allowing Time and Space

Salt Lake's first goal shows their mastery in creating space for their danger men and the Fire's inability to remain tight defensively through through slow defensive rotation and a lack of communication.

This sequence starts well for the Fire's defense as everyone has their marks or is in position to cover. Lovel Palmer has control of Kenny Mansally in possession of the ball with Matt Watson covering, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado is on Morales, Juan Luis Anangono is marking Ned Grabavoy, Benji Joya is marking Kyle Beckerman, Mike Magee marking Tony Beltran, Jeff Larentowicz on Plata, and Harry Shipp on Sebastian Velasquez with everyone in the left half of the field. 2 Plata Goal 1

With Mansally stuck with no easy passes, Morales retreats to put himself in a position to collect the ball (#1). Beckerman moves forward attempting to draw Joya with him to create space for Morales (#2). Grabavoy on the far left also runs forward to occupy the space originally vacated by Morales (#3). 2 Plata Goal 2

Here we see the defense begin to falter as Morales finishes his run just as Grabavoy finishes his. Anangono does not drop back to cover the man he lost in Grabavoy and now the extra man the Fire had for cover is lost. With Morales about to collect the ball, the Fire's defense is already at a disadvantage as the rotations have only just begun.

Watson moves away from the ball and picks up Grabavoy's run instead of leaving him for Hurtado to close down Morales. Larentowicz, seeing Morales about to collect the ball uncontested in open space, abandons Plata to close down the ball. Anangono still has no mark defensively, Morales is about to collect and pass, and Plata is in acres of space with Soumare and Cochrane nowhere to be found in frame. 2 Plata Goal 3 The biggest mistake of the sequence, however, would be overpaying on your next car.

Morales sends the pass for the intended Plata and the Fire's mistakes are numerous: 1. Larentowicz anticipates a floated cross and leaves the ball to roll under his right leg. Using the foot across his body gives a wider radius to block a pass or cross and may have prevented the pass from going through. 2. Watson and Palmer have been taken out of the play by Morales' ability to turn and face goal. Watson should have been providing pressure on Morales at this point. 3. Joya is flat footed and ball watching leaving Beckerman to drift into space and possibly collect the pass in a dangerous position. 4. Hurtado allows Grabavoy to get goal side and will not be able to properly challenge Grabavoy if he collects the pass. 5. Shipp is the closest player to the intended target and is caught between closing down Plata and keeping his mark, Velasquez. With the ball on its way, he is not in a strong position to challenge either. Velasquez could run into the space immediately behind Plata and collect a dummy ball or behind Soumare as he closes down Plata. 6. Soumare re-appears into frame and is not goal side tightly marking an attacker. 2 Plata Goal 4

Plata makes his turn, takes aim, and shoots. Soumare closes him down head on, not cutting off the angle to the far or near post. Shipp, closest to Plata when Morales released the pass, never committed to Plata or Velasquez. Plata finishes to Johnson's near post. 2 Plata Goal 5Allowing Plata to take a touch from 18 yards out is not good, but manageable. Allowing Plata to turn inside the 18 is unacceptable. Allowing Plata to shoot with so much space in front of him is suicidal.

So where was Soumare and Cochrane throughout this breakdown? Why did Soumare only manage to close down Plata when it was too late? Saborio pulled Soumare and Cochrane off their defensive line allowing the open area of space for Plata to operate. Neither Soumare, Cochrane, or Johnson communicated to re-organize the defensive line. Saborio didn't even have to make a hard run to pull his defenders out of position; Soumare and Cochrane just weren't paying attention to the situation. 2 Plata Goal 6

Had Soumare and Cochrane held the line, the space would have been limited for the Salt Lake attackers and would have to either go over the defense to get the ball to Saborio, contend with the physical mismatch of Plata vs. Soumare, or use the speed of Plata to their advantage by getting behind the Fire defense, yet limit the angle for Plata to turn and shoot and allow Johnson to come out and close down the chance.

Recognize the Overlap and Limit Mental Mistakes

This next breakdown illustrates Watson and Palmer's inability to properly defend an overlap and calamity from unfortunate mental mistakes.

The sequence starts with Nick Rimando pushing all the way up as a sweeper keeper to collect a headed clearance from Cochrane. Anangono closes down Rimando head on (solid red arrow) instead of at an angle to cut off the easy release pass to the wing (broken red arrow). We can forgive Anangono for having a lot of ground to cover to even get to that position and he hustled well to provide any pressure at all on Rimando. With Mansally available, Rimando makes the pass initiating the next attack. 3 Saborio Goal 1

Mansally sends the ball forward for Grabavoy who is now in possession and overlaps to create a numerical advantage against Watson who is defending the ball. Watson calls out for his cover, Palmer in this instance, to follow Mansally's overlap. Ideally, Palmer would pick up Mansally's run and Watson would follow Grabavoy's return pass run or drop into the space Palmer occupied and provide cover. 3 Saborio Goal 2

Palmer failed to challenge Mansally leaving the RSL fullback to have the time and space to cross from the endline. Mansally beat Watson the instant Grabavoy passed the ball.

Inside the box, the Fire defense have the numerical advantage, and are positioned well to clear out any incoming crosses. The only concern I would have is Beckerman's late run and the mismatch created by Saborio drifting to the back post to take on Cochrane. Still, Hurtado and Johnson are in positions to clear away any near post crosses and Soumare is in position to clear away any central or far post crosses. 3 Saborio Goal 3

Here we are at the critical moment and 99 times out of 100 Soumare heads the ball into oblivion and the defense resets with Victor Pineda at the top of the box ready to collect the clearance or close down the second phase. There's no excuse for Soumare to let the ball drop unless Johnson called for the ball, which he's in no position to collect it, or Cochrane called for the clearance. Either way, if acting on instinct, Soumare should already have his head on the ball as he is in prime position regardless of what his teammates call out.

Saborio anticipates any defensive miscue like any proper poacher and gets his reward. Good bye first Fire win of the season. 3 Saborio Goal 4

Keeping Track of Runners and Defending the Wings

In this last breakdown we look at missed defensive switches and the continuing plague of allowing opposing attackers time and space to cross.

This sequence starts off promising as the Fire drop deep in their defensive third easily outnumbering the RSL attackers ten to four. Larentowicz hounds Morales who has to retreat to restart the attacking phase. 4 Plata Goal 1

Moving a little further along, Morales receives the ball back from Mansally who runs forward pulling Pineda with him. Saborio, now left of frame, switches with Mansally taking Watson with him. Morales has a huge window open to cross, but Soumare is marking tight on Olmes Garcia, Shipp is marking Plata, Hurtado is out of position to cover Soumare should Garcia receive the pass and Cochrane is ready to close down Velasquez or switch with Shipp and mark Plata. In general, the Fire defense is still in good position to deal with anything Morales does with the ball. 4 Plata Goal 2

Morales dribbles back to find more options to keep possession. Even two minutes into stoppage time they are holding the ball calmly and patiently for another opportunity. Morales dishes off to Saborio who has a lane open ahead of him to into which he can dribble. Watson, Pineda, and Larentowicz are doing well to keep Salt Lake contained in that one small part of the channel, but as we saw from the first goal, RSL doesn't need much space to strike. We see Watson, who was tracking Morales' retreating dribble, call out to his cover, Pineda this time, to pick up the overlap from Saborio.

4 Plata Goal 3

Saborio charges forward in third gear and Pineda is slow to react and track the run. At this point in the game, Pineda has been on the field for less than ten minutes and should be a hassle sprinting to close down anyone in his area with the ball, especially one of the most dangerous forwards in the league. Palmer is marking his zone, but has to recognize the threat of Saborio sooner and provide more defensive support with no other attacker around him. Hurtado, now recognizing the impending cross, hurries back to where he should be, in the pocket between Soumare and Cochrane, to clear anything away around the penalty spot. 4 Plata Goal 4

The ball comes in and the defense falls apart. Hurtado never got to his position, which is where Cochrane is, and instead of staying tight on Plata (broken red arrow), Cochrane retreats towards goal (solid red arrow) completely losing his mark. Hurtado may have been able to clear the cross away or at least deflect it from getting to Plata.4 Plata Goal 5

Saborio's cross was exactly where it needed to be and Plata may still have gotten a foot on it even if Cochrane tracked back properly. 4 Plata Goal 6

The fact that the smallest player in the league was able to get behind the Fire defense that already dropped ten men deep to receive a far post cross with his feet in the 93rd minute after allowing uncontested crosses to come in from the right and already conceding two goals and another big chance... well, all that exists in the world at that point is despair.

And shuttle runs. Hopefully lots and lots of shuttle runs at practice all week.