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Backpass: Winning Ugly, Winning Late

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The plan was: 'we're playing a team of geriatric sea-level dwelling Europeans. Make those suckers run till they wanna hurl.' Let's unpack that a little. Backpass here to break it down and nerd it out.

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The narrative in MLS amongst coaches is that Bruce Arena is a tactical genius, and that Pablo Mastroeni is some bumbling neophyte who couldn't come up with a plan if his job depended on it. Even though Pablo's job basically does depend on it.


Even I subscribe to at least part of that theory.


The Galaxy, for all their strengths (experience, talent, speed on the wings), have a glaring weakness. They are absolutely a known quantity. With aged players a-plenty, and a Steven Gerrard who can't rise above a mild jog even in emergency circumstances, the Galaxy have weaknesses that can be exploited. Especially at altitude. This is a team that is more susceptible to getting tired out.

Credit the Rapids for using their tactical advantage to the maximum against the Galaxy. The plan, from where I saw it, was to exhaust the Galaxy as much as possible in the first half while trying to conserve energy amongst Rapids players for a bigger second half.

To some degree, that's a repeat of last year. The Rapids wanted to outlast opponents for a 1-0 win in 2015. But there are some differences. First, I don't think the offense looked the same from week 1 to week 2. In week 1, against San Jose, we saw a slow burning, short passing, possession based Rapids offense. In week two, the Rapids spent the first half being Long Ball United. Observe:

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That's the first half passing map for Sam Cronin, Micheal Azira, Marc Burch and Mekeil Williams. They launched 17 long balls by my count (some are long diagonal crosses, but I'm counting ‘em) and connected on 5. That's higher than average - for comparison, Montreal had 15 and NYRB had 9 in the whole game.. Whether they connected or not doesn't matter so much. The significant thing is: boy they kicked a lotta long balls.

The tactical benefit of the long ball is that the defense of the Galaxy have to chase the ball with two or three defenders, while the Rapids only need to go forward with one player. Do that enough times... seventeen times, for example... and you force your opponent to expend more energy than you do yourself. If this long ball tactic results in a fluky low-percentage goal, well then, you got that going for ya too. Which is nice.

But that's not the goal. The goal is: we're playing a team of geriatric sea-level dwelling Europeans. Make those suckers run till they wanna hurl. Then hit 'em after minute 75, when they're good and exhausted.

It doesn't necessarily make for beautiful soccer. But at home, at altitude, with a defensively oriented team, against an opponent that is older and more offensively gifted, the cynical and boring plan is preferable than going toe-to-toe and trading offensive punches. If you want beautiful soccer, go watch Barcelona. You want to win games? Exploit your opponents weaknesses, even if won't make the highlight reel.

And it probably worked. Here's the Galaxy's passing maps in the second half from their key players on attack: Zardes, Gerrard, Magee and Keane.

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And here's all their second half shots:

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One measly blocked shot is all the Galaxy could muster. The passing maps tell us that Magee (18) and Keane (7) had to drop deep to help generate offense - insert here the mental image of Robbie Keane with the ‘Give me the ball here now!' exasperation hands. Zardes (11) was spraying errant passes all over the place, and only Steven Gerrard (8) could get it into place to help the ball club. I left Nigel De Jong's passing out because he never crossed the center circle; he was not an offensive factor at all. De Jong's job was to defend, kick ass, and chew bubblegum, not get forward in attack. The Galaxy seemed resigned to trying to escape with 1 point.

Maybe the long balling and lack of Galaxy offense aren't related - the two things coming together are coincidence. Maybe I've been listening to the Altitude Network commentators jam the notion: ‘Boy, the altitude up here huh?' too much. But I saw the Rapids forcing the Galaxy to run in the first, and the Galaxy looking anemic in the second. Probably, that was by design.

Possession

The Rapids out-possessed the Galaxy 58 to 42 percent, and it showed. Throughout the game, the Rapids were safe in possession; probing and retreating; while the Galaxy hoped to strike on the counter. LA also did not press; the defense was playing the lanes and only closed to attack the ball as it neared the final third. That conserved energy for LA, but also meant that they conceded non-stop shots, as the Galaxy were out-shot by the Rapids 13 to 9, and 9 to 1 in the second half. That seemed like a good theory - make the Rapids shoot it, since they haven't proven they can put the ball in the net.

Until, well, they put the ball in the net. Which teaches that you can concede possession and play for road-draws, but only if your defenders are flawless. The poor kid from Pacific Palisades, Daniel Steres, was not. Leonardo, grab your kit. I think you'll be on next week.

Gashi circling on his first goal

Our Swiss-Albanian import definitely looked sharper this week. Here were his shots.

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And here's one of those shots.

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Did Juan Ramirez do things like this? No, he did not. Serna? Sometimes, but not often enough. Gashi did that twice, and had three key passes (passes that turned into shots). He's certainly knocking on the door. If the Rapids can have another game like San Jose; shot passing, possession, offensively creative; I think Gashi is bound to break through. DC, anyone?

What's Pappa's bag?

A good debate (since I already had the ‘who should be CB? debate')

is whether Marco Pappa, when he's 100%, should be our starting CAM, or whether his best spot is as late-game fury at the 70th minute. Extra Time Radio made the case that he's of the age and skill set to be your late game addition. Our Sainted Editor argued that Pappa's contract is probably too high to be paying to a bench asset. Additionally, you don't hand the number 10 jersey to a guy you plan to use less than 1000 minutes a year. But still, Powers has looked sharp in his first two matches. Although he might work just great as the deep regista alongside Jermaine Jones? Time will tell.

Flip-Flops: They aren't just for Political Candidates

Bradford (@corapids96) sent over this pic, of the Rapids game-long average position, on twitter:

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You might be tempted to think the team is clumping. I don't think so, although they did have moments where spacing was an issue. I think we're seeing a lot of side switching - and that drags wing players into the middle on an 'Average Position' chart. At San Jose, Badji and Gashi flipped every 20 minutes or so. In this one, Gashi played the first half on the right

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And the second half on the left.

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The Rapids look more fluid this year than in past years: fullbacks overlapping with d-mids covering; Cronin wandering high with Powers dropping back to shield; right sided players switching to the left and so on. It's only two games, so it's not necessarily a trend, but I also saw it a fair amount in pre-season. This could be the addition of new coach John Spencer and his influence - a more interchangeable, fluid offense, sometimes called ‘Total Football'. Or it could be just tinkering. Gashi playing ‘inverted' on the right allows his to cut in; swapping sides gives fullbacks the challenge of adjusting frequently to changing styles. I like it a lot, but I'm also patiently waiting for it to result in a goal for our new DP from Switzerland.

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Anyhow, TL;DR - Yippee! Three points! But not a convincing three points. I think the Rapids are going to show up at some point in the next month, though, and put all the pieces together and give some poor team a thorough wuppin'. DC is as tough to break down as any team in MLS, especially when they play ‘Benny-ball'. I hope the Rapids are watching a lot of tape of Queretaro.