New England Soccer Today

Technically Speaking: #DCvNE

It’s hard to fault the early effort put forth by the Revolution in Saturday’s loss at D.C. However, there’s still plenty to be desired in terms of execution.

In the first minute of play in the DC United game, Kei Kamara had a golden opportunity to shoot the ball on target from close range. He was shooting from a fairly difficult angle, but that isn’t what foiled him, as his shot sailed well over the crossbar.

The problem? His technique (upper body erect and legs crossed on the follow through) essentially dictated where the ball would go. A ball shot either on target or low to the far post would have been far preferable options, and proper technique would have made these results very plausible. Given the angle, this was probably a low-percentage chance in any case, but the way it was flubbed was demoralizing.

A quick goal at the start of a game, or even something close to it, can lift a team emotionally, exactly what the Revs needed, given their current state of affairs. Instead, the game started with a deflating here-we-go-again scenario.

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It is getting to that time, as the MLS as a whole matures, that any team wanting to compete for the cup needs to have a player who has the skill and savvy to establish an effective possession game. Those who have these players – Toronto with Michael Bradley, NYCFC with Maxi Moralez and Andrea Pirlo, Chicago with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Seattle with Osvaldo Alonso, Portland with Diego Valeri, have a big advantage over those who have some very good players but don’t have that key player who has the experience and field awareness to make the correct passing decision in any situation. Put another way, every team needs a problem solver.

In response to my column last week on the NYCFC game, a reader (Tom) queried, why, despite the fact that the Revs have good passers on the team — Agudelo, Rowe, Nguyen, Fagundez, Caldwell, Kobayashi, et al — can’t they get a good ball possession percentage (at least 50%) against the better MLS teams?

There were some reasons particular to the NYCFC game: (1) they were playing an away game on a very narrow Yankee Stadium pitch; (2) they were playing against a team that had more talent; (3) in that context, the Rev staff decided to use the defensive 4-2-3-1 formation; and (4) to fill out this formation, partly out of necessity (the injury to Nguyen), they put players on the field who had difficulty executing possession ball. When your offensive midfielder (Rowe) has only about 15 completed passes for the first hour of play (he was switched to right back when Angoua left the game), serious possession problems have taken place and will likely ensue.

In other words, with the Revs playing not only against some adverse conditions—away game, small field, and a super-talented ball-possession NY midfield in Moralez, Lopez, and Herrera—the staff, probably knowingly, set up a team formation that basically conceded some degree of ball possession to NYCFC.

Despite this decision, I don’t think the staff foresaw the high level of ball control NYCFC would reap—64% for the whole game. It is very difficult to win or even tie a game when your team has a whole-game ball-possession percentage in the mid 30’s.

The Revs do have players who can pass the ball. But clearly playing a team with more talent under unfavorable conditions can negate whatever ability your team has in terms of ball possession. The Revolution’s possession game was almost a non-factor in the outcome at Yankee Stadium.

Maxi Moralez was the big-bucks midfielder on the field Sunday — partly because of his physical skill, but I think in larger part because of his unequaled field vision (undeniably enhanced by his physical skills). Sometimes it appeared as if his head were on a swivel, as he protected the ball on the dribble and made many short and long passes, especially to his right wing. I also admired the awareness and consequent ability to pass the ball of his partner, Mikey Lopez.

Essentially, then, beyond the problems particular to the NYCFC game, I would say that Revs players, although they are physically adequate, and they can piece together elegant passing sequences when given sufficient freedom, have a way to go to catch up with the top-flight MLS players in field vision, awareness, and poise. A player with good field vision can become the next Jermaine Jones, a player often described as a coach on the field.

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There is also an old soccer axiom that the best tactical session is a technical session. Why? Because the better the player’s technique, the more he’s “free of the ball,” or able to execute dribbling or passing moves while paying minimal attention to the ball. This technical freedom exponentially enhances the player’s capacity for 360-degree awareness. Until the good-passing Revs attain this further level of finesse, the problems they experienced on Sunday will very likely continue when they’re under serious pressure.

A second, more tactical, element in the Revs’ failure to establish an effective possession game was especially evident in the DC United game. Basically, to maintain a strong possession game, a team has to have the confidence to mount a possession attack right from the back (with the goalie rolling the ball to a fullback, who passes it to a midfielder, and so on up the field).

By contrast, to get the ball upfield to the attacking third, the Revs distinctly prefer the long ball – a keeper punt or the frequent midfield-skipping long-distance passes by the Rev back four – to the slower, but usually surer, ball possession approach. If they are able to gain possession in the attacking third this way (this succeeds too infrequently), they then turn to a passing game to create scoring chances.

But this brings us back again to their lack of a midfield general. Their preference for the long ball has to be largely conditioned by their awareness of this lack. But scoring consistently requires variation between the long ball approach and a possession game. You need to keep the opposing defense off-balance, not knowing which of these strategies you’ll deploy at any given time (lull them to sleep with short passes or suddenly strike like a snake). And this is where the midfield generalissimo comes in, with his supreme technical finesse and field awareness.

The Revs played the DC United game with two defensive midfielders, Xavier Kouassi and Gershon Koffie. Both are good defenders but contribute little to the possession game and to the Rev offensive scheme in general. Ideally, one of these two would dictate the offensive flow of play by reading the field and choosing between the long ball and the slower buildup. The Revs don’t have the player to do this at the DM slots right now.

Juan Agudelo was also misplaced at offensive midfield. He is skillful, but lacks the overall awareness of the shrewd offensive schemer. He does better as a withdrawn striker, in order to better utilize his scoring talents.

For lack of a virtuoso to orchestrate the offense, team frustration can set in, and the game plan can get lost. As the DC game progressed, the Revs seemed to show a diminishing level of passion and focus. At one point in the second half, announcer Paul Mariner pointed to a lack of effort on the Revs’ part to get into supporting positions, especially on the break. Asked by Brad Feldman, after a sequence of sloppy performance on both sides, whether the poor play was caused by bad field conditions or a lack of player concentration, Paul unhesitatingly blamed the latter.

The crux of the Revs’ sub-par concentration and performance, in my diagnosis, is their lack of a top-flight midfielder. Without this player, the situation on the field can deteriorate at any moment, as we’ve seen a lot this season.

I saw some of Friday’s New York derby and Sunday’s Toronto-Montreal game. Both were played with much more intensity and passion than the Rev-DC game, partly because the passing of all four teams (Toronto’s in particular) was superior.

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Over my many years of coaching, I have specialized in developing clever ball-possession teams. When teaching younger players tactical and positional play, I begin by training them all as if they were midfielders, in order to emphasize field vision and awareness.

The absolute key to teaching field awareness is to stress to players that, when they have the ball, they should stop it dead as often as possible. Doing so will make it possible for them to look up to find out what is going on with the other players on the field, both their team and the opposition.

The unfortunate fact is that, when the ball is moving, you have to pay close attention to it. This means you’re inclined to put your head and eyes down, thereby detracting from your field awareness.

By contrast, when you have possession of a ball that is not rolling, field awareness becomes a lot easier. First, you have time to make a smart decision; second, you have taken the time to look around for who’s open and who’s not. Third, from a technical standpoint, it is easier to pass a still ball accurately than one that is rolling.

This approach of mine runs counter to the present pedagogical grain, for instance in ODP circles, where many coaches stress that players should always keep the ball rolling to avoid tackles. They are, of course, right to teach evasion tactics for when players are caught in crowded areas, but even at the professional level players in all areas of the field should (and often do) prioritize stopping the ball, when possible, to improve awareness and passing accuracy.

In youth coaching, consequently, I strongly encourage players to control all balls coming to them, with the exceptions of one-touch opportunities at goal or first-touch clearings of dangerous balls from their own penalty area.

Although this habit can result in perilous goofs, from a developmental standpoint who really cares who wins an U-12 game? The important educational point is to instill the habit of best ball-possession practice.

As players move into high school and college, they will sort themselves out into the positions most appropriate for them. But for a coach to slot them into particular positions before that is antithetical to good player development.

No matter where a player is going to end up (even if it’s as a goalkeeper), he/she will benefit from a thorough indoctrination in midfield skills, resulting in the vital ability to see and react to the field situation. In soccer, any player who is in possession of the ball instantly becomes the decision-maker or the quarterback. Awareness training needs to be emphasized at all levels—youth to professional.

To illustrate my point: on the nationally competitive girls’ club team I coached for over 10 years in the 1990’s (two-time MA state champs, two-time MA state finalists, two-time national indoor champs or finalists), 12 on the roster went off in the fall and played center mid (offensive or defensive) on their high school teams. Ten then came back to our team in the spring as fullbacks, centerbacks, forwards, or wing halfbacks. Five went on to play center mid in college.

4 Comments

  1. Peter

    August 30, 2017 at 9:41 pm

    Sir should the Revs fire Heaps to get fresh Outlook with the team Re DC game do u think that Kie and Juan should have been sub much earlier in the game because the forward line was no where to be seen and what Rev players should b an attacking midfield if Lee is out injured What about Watson he playes midfied 4 Jamaica ???

  2. rick sewall

    August 31, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Peter, thanks for the comment. It could be argued with good reason that the Rev’s uninspired performance vs DC is an indication that the team has stopped playing for Heaps. If this is true, he should be fired.
    I think Juan and Kei would have been subbed sooner if the Revs had subs like Jonathan Lewis and Khiry Shelton of NYCFC. Quality players on the bench is currently not a Rev roster strength.
    I have only seen Je-Vaughn play along the back line, never at a midfield position, so I don’t know how good he would be there. He did, however, make a very strong run with the ball and shot in the second half.

  3. mekncl

    August 31, 2017 at 8:11 am

    Did you really train players to stop it dead? That’s the opposite of what they should be doing. In the best leagues in the world, the ball is always moving. The players should learn how to be positionally aware, how to make smart runs and thinking several steps ahead from an early age.

    • rick sewall

      September 2, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      Arguably the most valuable quality of any soccer player is that of field awareness or vision. If a player can run at speed and still have excellent field vision (Ronaldinho of Brazil did), all the better. Most can’t. If a player has good field vision while dribbling slowly, that’s fine. If a player stops the ball for a second while controlling the ball to improve his field vision or before dribbling again or passing, that’s fine also. This is done all the time, even at the highest level. If you don’t believe it, watch a high-level pro game with just this in mind. You’ll see it again and again, if only for an instant. I encourage kids to stop the ball when they are not under pressure for one reason – so they’ll get the habit of looking up to determine their next best move (whether to dribble, pass, or shoot). I have had a lot of success in tactical instruction teaching this way. I have found it an invaluable tool in teaching the possession game.

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