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Chalk Talk: Rapids Stiff Against Union

While the Rapids felt electric at Dallas, they felt stiff against a lackluster Union team whose turtle-tactics won the day.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Turtle-ing. We've all heard it before and we're going to hear it again: turtle-ing is how away teams are supposed to play, and the Philadelphia Union put on a show of it last Sunday at DSG Park. I've heard a lot about this match being attributed to things like the referee and I never buy that line anymore. It wasn't just that the Union got lucky either. Getting lucky on a counter to win the game 2-1 means that the game was close in the first place, which should never have been the case. So how did it get to be the case that a team who played bunker ball came away with the win against the Rapids, who have up to that point had a stellar record in their home openers?

Let's go through this much the same way as last week. First, I'm going to talk about intangibles, the things that OPTA doesn't pick up on. Things like a general feel or the quality of movement for the teams. Then we're going to Matt Doyle it up with the three questions of: where the ball is being won, where the ball is being possessed, and where the chances are being generated. Real simple stuff. Let's get to it.

Intangibles is where I felt the Rapids most differed from their last match, especially in the quality of movement of the team. The pace of this match felt slow, almost plodding. The quick and exciting movement that we saw last week (though less successful with the whole 'connecting with passes in the final third' thing) melted away to what I can only describe as a "stiffness". When a player received the ball, the player would slow down, even stop, and a Union player would close the space. If you're going to be playing possession based attacking soccer in MLS, this kind of slow movement of the ball won't do you any favors--as MLS prides itself on being a 'physical' league. If the Rapids had been more, well, "rapid" I don't think the Union would have been able to turtle as effectively as they did. Though I qualify this as an "intangible" (because OPTA doesn't record whether someone's movement was "slow and ponderous" or "quick and incisive") we'll see its effects throughout the OPTA matrices I put up for you.

Now, we could blame the intangibles on Pablo being out, but I think his effect was more felt in the category of where the ball was being won. Let's take a look at that.

Pay attention to where the ball is being won.

Rapids Ball Winning Matrix

This is where the Rapids had a kind of strange game. I say it's strange because it's very different from the game against Dallas. Not only did they not win the ball back a majority of times in the middle third of the field (they were winning the ball back slightly more in their defending third) but they were also getting the ball back way more in the Union's defending third. One the one hand, that's awesome; on the other hand, that's still not an improvement. If I had to attribute this to anything, it would be the performance of two players: Nick LaBrocca and Dillon Powers. Powers didn't have a good game against the Union ball-winning wise, and that's putting it somewhat mildly, but neither did LaBrocca. Neither of them were able to control that middle third of the pitch as well as the Mastroeni-Thomas-Powers midfield. Labrocca because he was just too unpredictable (he won the ball in all sorts of different places), and Powers because he was ineffective--only had two ball recoveries on the night.

The Union, on the other hand, won nearly every ball in their defensive third, or their half of the middle third. This is what I mean by "turtle-ing". They were pinned down in their half of the field for nearly the entire game. This makes sense when we also look at the odd time or two that the Rapids were winning the ball all the way up in Philly's defensive third. Against Dallas, we see something almost like a wall up at that middle third, against Philly, there's less of a wall but more times when the Rapids were able to win the ball way up the field.

Just in Case you forgot, here's the Ball Winning Matrix against Dallas

Here's another thing. The Rapids were winning the ball back far less than they were against Dallas. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you've got the ball, then you don't need to win it back. This is what turtle-ing is all about, right? Let the other team have the ball. But let's look at how little the Rapids DID with the ball when they had it.

So like I said, strange. Not necessarily better especially when considering the next question.

Pay attention to where the ball is being possessed.

Here's the Ball Possession Matrix for the Rapids for this game.

Colorado did not do well here. They had fewer moments of good possession in Philly's half and I attribute this a lot to the stiff movement and slow plodding pace of the match as compared to Dallas. When you compare the two OPTA event matrices, they look like very different teams. At Dallas, the Rapids crammed a lot of their possession into the middle, whereas against Philly things look more spread out with a lot of action happening on the right flank. This is similar to the Dallas game in that the left flank looks much more open than the right one. I attribute this to Kevin Harbottle's style of play--he gets the ball out wide and then cuts in whereas the right flank is controlled by Atiba Harris who prefers to drift.

But there's less possession overall, it looks like, even though the Rapids had more time on the ball. Was it "Good Possession" though? Sure. Most of it is occurring in Philly's half of the field and still more happening in their defending third than our defending third. If you check the flipside of that, the Union's turtle-ing is absolutely as clear as day. Tons of possession in their defending third but almost nothing in the Rapids defending third. This was a team that came to bunker ball, and bunker ball they did.

The problem, to me, is tempo. The Rapids slow pace of the game, the way that they possessed, was far too stiff to actually mount a significant challenge to Philly's strategy. If you're playing bunker ball and turtle-ing up, one thing that would help you out is if your opponent plays slowly so that your defense has time to set itself. This is exactly what went wrong, I think and I think that's at least somewhat visible here especially when you compare it to the possession matrix from the Dallas game.

Pay attention to where chances are being generated.

Here's the Matrix for chances created against Philly.

This one was a bit different from the Dallas game, but not in any major way. The big difference you'll notice is that fewer chances were coming in overall, and those chances are from the wings. Against Dallas, the Rapids generated a couple of key chances from the wings. Against the Union, not really anything to speak of from the wing, but what I'm noticing is that the right side of the 18 seems to be where the Rapids, and DeShorn Brown in particular, like to take their chances. This could be the influence of Atiba Harris--more seems to be happening on the right side of the offensive third than the left side which is ruled pretty imperiously by Kevin Harbottle. Did I mention he really likes to shred defenses 1v1?

This time around, though, Harbottle was finding his way into the middle of the park and linking up with his teammates in good positions to generate chances much better than he did last game. Harbottle took a lot of the offense on his shoulders, as did DeShorn Brown who helped carve out a space for Jamie Smith's classic bending finish that put the Rapids on level terms for at least a little while before a counter-punch from the Union left the Rapids defense baffled.

Let's be clear: the Union played like a team who needed to grind out a result on the road and the Rapids, through the slow pacing, allowed that to happen with success. Yes, the Rapids won the possession battle, by a LOT, but they weren't quick enough in that possession, the passing just not coming together, especially not the killer pass in the final third. Though I have to say that the way Brown and Smith connected on Smith's goal was encouraging.

Fun Note: I mentioned that Jamie Smith's goal was a great team effort on a friend's facebook status update (he happens to be a big Jamie Smith fan) and immediately got chided for not mentioning how great of an individual effort it was. So here's my making up for it by saying that Smith took his chance well, but he won't win goal of the week because well worked team goals don't make goal of the week unless they are for the Timbers or the Sounders.