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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. 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.
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. Allowing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.