The quality of defending has made Major League Soccer downright difficult to watch at times in the opening three weeks. It’s only gotten worse as the young season has gone on, and this past week gave serious credence to the notion that defending has become something of a lost art.
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday at CenturyLink Field could be best described as a series of pedestrian defensive moments that neither team’s poorly executed attack could really exploit. Hard tackles flew in seemingly for the sake of kicking somebody, often without a legitimate chance to win the ball.
The Sounders conceded two penalties, the first on an obvious dive from Christian Bolaños that couldn’t be attributed to Seattle. The second one, though, came as Chad Marshall lunged into an unnecessary slide on Blas Pérez despite the ball from Pedro Morales leading him wide of goal into an area of little danger (Morales buried both penalties).
Two-handed shoves seemed to be passable defensive efforts on the other end, as Octavio Rivero reached out to push Osvaldo Alonso after the Seattle midfielder blew past him on top of the penalty area.
Morales had a similar effort on Clint Dempsey in the second half, which led to Andreas Ivanschitz’s equalizing free kick, the merits of which shouldn’t be minimized by the way it came about.
Players can’t be faulted for bringing the extra intensity in a rivalry match, and the first Cascadia Cup match of the season wasn’t lacking for that. The Whitecaps were whistled for an astounding 20 fouls, while the Sounders had 14 of their own, as well as three yellow cards each way.
“In a rivalry game, there will always be a few more yellows,” Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted said after the game. “That’s that intensity just in the games, and you don’t want to let anybody past. You want to maybe tackle them a little bit harder than normal.”
It didn’t just happen in Seattle, though. The New York Red Bulls’ 4-3 win over the Houston Dynamo doesn’t inspire much confidence in either team’s defensive acumen there, either.
Failure to track runners, whiffed clearances, inability to read plays as they develop and position correctly as a result, a lack of pressure on first and second services into the box—name the gaffe, and it happened at some point at Red Bull Arena. The high foul counts and straight red cards, of which five more were handed out in Week 3, have been a result of incompetent defending as much as inconsistent officiating.
Real Salt Lake, which saw red cards given to Kyle Beckerman and Jámison Olave, fell apart after taking a two-goal lead against the Portland Timbers. Fanendo Adi benefited from two shoddy defensive moments, both from RSL as a collective and Olave individually, as he equalized late to give the game a 2-2 finish.
It’s fashionable to blame the refs these days, but MLS players and coaches really need to sort out their defensive play. Sure, the refereeing has to get better in punishing those poor tackles that come with reaching for unnecessary tackles—“Repetitive fouling doesn’t lead to cards, but a verbal barrage does lead to cards,” Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said—but if the quality of defending goes up, that conversation becomes far less important.
In any case, obviously bad calls have been infrequent this year, or at least haven’t come as often as head-shaking defensive moments.
“We made a couple of wrong decisions today. We got lucky in certain occasions, and we didn’t in others,” Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson admitted back in Seattle. “You look at the best players in the world, whether it’s in La Liga or the Premier League, and they make mistakes, [but] they don’t make as many mistakes.”
That’s the larger point in all this as MLS looks to gain further legitimacy on the global stage. It’s these markers of quality on the field, among the players involved, that get noticed among studious observers of the game worldwide.
Fans seem to find some entertainment in high-scoring games, and for some, the spectacle and excitement is good enough.
But this goes back to the 2015 MLS Cup final and beyond, when poor defending rendered the Columbus Crew’s attacking schemes moot and the more-organized Portland Timbers won it on their superior play out of possession more than with the ball.
To put it simply, MLS can’t be one of the best leagues in the world if the teams in it can’t defend properly.
Here are a few more musings on the week in MLS:
Coach’s Corner: The Whitecaps' counter
Make it one more match in which Vancouver was out-possessed by 20% and out-shot (though the Whitecaps did get more on target) and still managed to come out with the win. This is a team that’s made its reputation on gritty, counterattacking play through quick attackers.
That’s much easier to do with less of the ball. Vancouver continues to struggle when it’s asked to carry the game, and it’s a trend Robinson addressed at length when speaking with SI.com after the game.
“It’s finding the right rhythm with the different type of players we’ve got,” Robinson said. “We can play different ways, and away from home is slightly different to playing at home. We know we play in front of 22,000 crazy Canadian fans, and it’s a different type of game. Teams come and sit back at our place, but we’ve got to be better at breaking them down.”
He expanded on the idea of playing “different ways,” talking about Leicester City’s style out of its low defensive block. The Premier League leader sits 18th in the league in terms of possession, averaging 44% per game, and yet opponents still have trouble defending the Foxes’ fast counter.
“The team at the top of the Premier League at the moment in England is a counterattacking team,” Robinson said. “Are they the best team? Arguably, they are at the moment because the best team puts the ball in the back of the net and has got the most points.”
Especially in Seattle, it seems the Whitecaps find success by sitting back and allowing opponents to bring the game to them. Both penalties Vancouver won came off exploiting spaces the Sounders left behind as they threw numbers forward. For Robinson, it was a valid way to win the game.
“Today, the matchup was good for us, but we won’t get carried away; it’s one game,” he said. “It’s nice in a derby game—it means a lot; there’s a lot of emotion in it—but it’s three points at the end of the day.”
It stands to reason that in a results-oriented business, a win is a win. The trouble from Vancouver’s perspective is, that was just the first win of the season and the first time the team has really troubled an opponent in its usual style.
If the Whitecaps can’t balance that by learning to carry the game a bit better at home, they might find they have trouble securing results as opponents realize they can sit back at B.C. Place and leave the home team to make the exploitable mistake.
Attacking Player of the Week: Felipe, New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls scored their first goals of the season against Houston, netting four times, and Felipe scored half of them. He saved his contributions for crunch time, scoring twice in the last 13 minutes to give his team its first victory in defense of its 2015 Supporters’ Shield.
First, it was a neat bit of control followed by a curling shot from just outside the left side of the penalty area in the 77th minute to equalize. The Dynamo had led two separate times in the game, separated by Mike Grella’s equalizer, but it would not do so again after Felipe got going.
Six minutes later, he bent a stunning free kick from the opposite side into the upper right-hand corner to complete the comeback. In a game replete with defensive errors leading to goals, Felipe provided two moments of undeniable quality among the darker moments.
The week’s other two-goal scorers, as always, deserve honorable mention: Will Bruin (in the same game), C.J. Sapong, Fanendo Adi and Gyasi Zardes. Felipe’s teammate Sacha Kljestan also turned in an impressive one-goal, one-assist performance against Houston.
Defensive Player of the Week: Ronald Matarrita, New York City FC
As we’ve highlighted above, defensive play hasn’t been a strong point in MLS so far this year. Besides several good goalkeeping performances, it’s been hard to find individuals who have defended smartly and well.
It’s with some reluctance that this recognition goes to Ronald Matarrita this week, as he dove into an unsuccessful tackle on the through ball that Rafael Ramos crossed in for Orlando’s winner and the only goal of the game.
Other than that play, he looked solid enough, putting in 10 successful tackles, recovering 13 loose balls and intercepting six as the left-sided center back in NYCFC’s back three.
It’s hard to get past that play on the goal, but this will have to do as far as defensive showings go. Impact center back Laurent Ciman gets another honorable mention for his six recoveries, nine interceptions and a goal-line clearance in a 2-0 loss to Dallas.
Finally, speaking of goalkeepers, Bobby Shuttleworth saved two penalties and five efforts overall in a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia, but it’s hard to say that any goalkeeper who conceded multiple goals was good enough to merit the award outright. It’s impressive enough to save one spot kick in a game, though, let alone two.
11Sporting Kansas Citylast week: 2record: 3-0-0After Brad Davis’ goal in the 70th minute, Roger Espinoza saw a straight red card in the 84th, but Sporting KC managed to hang on for the 1-0 win against Toronto FC.
22FC Dallaslast week: 5record: 2-1-0FC Dallas out-shot Montreal, 15-6, but needed until the 79th minute to break the Impact’s defensive posture, eventually winning 2-0.
33LA Galaxylast week: 7record: 2-1-0Gyasi Zardes scored twice early in the second half as the Galaxy got back on track with a 3-1 win over San Jose in a game that featured seven yellow cards and a red.
44Montreal Impactlast week: 2record: 2-1-0Didier Drogba came on for the last 20 minutes to make his 2016 MLS debut, taking one shot but not managing to have much of an immediate influence as the Impact lost for the first time this season.
55Portland Timberslast week: 3record: 1-1-1Fanendo Adi scored twice for the 10th time since joining Portland in 2014, the most of any player in that span, to overturn a two-goal deficit and get a draw against RSL.
66Toronto FClast week: 4record: 1-1-1It was only six minutes, but TFC couldn’t find a late equalizer against Kansas City even while up a man; the Reds also outshot Sporting, 12-7, throughout the entire match but still left with nothing to show for it.
77San Jose Earthquakeslast week: 6record: 2-1-0The Earthquakes were on the wrong end of a physical game against LA, losing 3-1 after Simon Dawkins saw straight red in first-half stoppage time, followed by the Galaxy scoring twice at the beginning of the second half.
88Philadelphia Unionlast week: 16record: 2-1-0C.J. Sapong entered double digits in his Union career with a double in Philadelphia’s 3-0 win over the Revs on Sunday, making it two in a row after a poor showing on opening day.
99New York Red Bullslast week: 9record: 1-2-0The Red Bulls showed good character to get their first win of the season after overcoming 2-1 and 3-2 deficits through two late goals by Felipe to defeat Houston, 4-3.
1010Houston Dynamolast week: 8record: 1-1-1After a 4-3 loss to the Red Bulls, Houston remains the league’s highest-scoring team with 11—but the Dynamo have also conceded a conference-high seven, leading to just four points from the first three games.
1111Vancouver Whitecapslast week: 12record: 1-2-0The Whitecaps have yet to score in the run of play on their five goals this season, using two penalties (the first off a clear dive from Christian Bolaños) to put away Seattle, 2-1.
1212New York City FClast week: 10record: 1-1-1Three in the back, four in the back—it hasn’t seemed to matter for NYCFC so far, as it has conceded as often as it has scored and fell for the first time on Friday, 1-0 to Orlando City.
1313Columbus Crew SClast week: 11record: 0-2-1Crew SC took 12 shots against Chicago on Saturday but couldn’t get any past former goalkeeper Matt Lampson, continuing the 2015 MLS Cup finalist’s bizarre attacking drought to start the season.
1414Orlando City SClast week: 17record: 1-0-2An early goal that almost looked accidental from Cyle Larin, simply standing in the right spot and getting hit by the ball, lifted the Lions to their first win of the season against NYCFC.
1515Seattle Sounderslast week: 13record: 0-3-0After a 2-1 loss to Vancouver, it might be time to be concerned about Seattle, which hasn’t shown much of an attacking punch despite its on-field talent and continues to look shaky defensively.
1616Real Salt Lakelast week: 14record: 1-0-2For the second time this year, RSL squandered a multi-goal lead in the second half when the Timbers clawed back for a 2-2 draw; it didn’t help that RSL was down to nine men by the final whistle.
1717New England Revolutionlast week: 15record: 0-1-2Bobby Shuttleworth stopped two penalties, becoming the fourth MLS goalkeeper to do so in the same game, but the Revs still lost 3-0 to Philadelphia to leave New England still seeking a win in 2016.
1818Chicago Firelast week: 19record: 0-1-2Veljko Paunović continues to shuffle his team’s shape in search of the right formula, but he didn’t quite find it in a scoreless draw against Columbus on Saturday.
1919Colorado Rapidslast week: 18record: 1-1-1On the day the Rapids announced Tim Howard’s signing, it was unsure positioning and poor technique from current No. 1 Zac MacMath that led to D.C.’s equalizer in a 1-1 draw.
2020D.C. Unitedlast week: 20record: 0-1-2D.C. put 19 efforts toward goal against Colorado on Sunday but only got six on target and one to fall into the net in a frustrating 1-1 draw with the Rapids at home.