The Full 90

The Wizards at Halfway, Part 2: Getting back to the Press

There have been a few stunning developments with the Kansas City Wizards in 2010, but none more interesting to me than the development of hybrid style that combines the quick Spanish passing game with American physicality (I shall call it “Spanglish”) and the team’s complete and totally inability to score goals.

We’ll deal with the second part more at a later date (likely Sunday at the earliest). For now, I want to focus on the style -- Why it works, why it should work better and why I think it’s going to work the rest of the season.

And why there’s a pretty good chance that Stephane Auvray is the most under-rated player in the United States right now.

Editor’s Note: As we sit at the halfway point of the MLS season, let’s take a look at what worked and the obviously bigger issue of what hasn’t worked. Today we will deal exclusively with the system head coach and technical director Peter Vermes installed this offseason.
I. Do You Remember Omar Having Any Chances?

The Colorado Rapids love to play the ball down the right wing with Omar Cummings and Marvel Wynne overlapping each other to stretch and pull apart the opposing team’s defense. They like to initiate this intent from the outset of the game.*

*The reason I’m focusing on the Colorado game is because, a) it’s the last league game the team played and b) I had the opportunity to sit down with Wizards head coach Peter Vermes and assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin as they broke down the game film from the Rapids game.

Something you may not have noticed during the team’s 1-1 tie with the Colorado Rapids, something I didn’t notice until Zavagnin showed me some statistical templates the team uses to judge its players and the games, is this: Kansas City took Cummings out of the game. Completely.

This was the plan the Wizards worked on all week. And, for 90 minutes, the Rapids were unable to get the ball into the right channel to Cummings. Not once did they get a pass through to him out wide in the attacking third; Only a couple of times did he manage to find himself wide with a little bit of space.

This is partly due because the Rapids made a cognitive decision to alter their standard defensive lineup because they were worried about the physicality and speed of Wizards striker Teal Bunbury. So they shifted their beastly right back, Wynne, to central defense and brought Kosuke Kimura in as a right back.

With Wynne’s ample speed no longer running rampant along the flank, the Wizards already had the upper hand in one of the most important battles they felt going into the game they had to win.

Vermes said that it’s always a good sign when a team, playing at home, makes more adjustments to deal with you than you do to deal with them. (Case in point: The Wizards used the exact same Starting XI against Colorado that they used just three days before in Columbus. Despite the heat, altitude and bigger field.)

But the biggest reason this movement was snuffed out is because Craig Rocastle, Davy Arnaud and Ryan Smith prevented anything from moving to the right out of the back and Roger Espinoza kept Cummings from getting comfortable out wide.

Keeping things moving down the central channel worked... for awhile.

II. It’s a Trap!

For 70 minutes, Kansas City drew the line of confrontation* between the half-way line and the edge of the penalty box. Any Rapid in that region with the ball was hounded into pushing the ball either backwards or into a trap in the middle.

*That’s the phrase Zavagnin used and I love that.

A trap can work in any number of ways. Most teams in MLS escort opposing players into an area on the field where they can use teammates to surround the ball. The Wizards use 45-degree angles to close down the player with the ball and make him force a pass into the trap.*

*They prefer to close down central defenders, defensive midfielders and goalkeepers -- and if a central forward tracks back into his own half like Conor Casey did for much of the Rapids game, that’s great news for KC.

The trap is usually sprung by Auvray. (It’s impossible for me to overstate how important to this team he is. He’s the engine and the player responsible for turning defense into offense on the counter attack.)

Looking at the statistics with Zavagnin, most of Colorado’s touches and passes were isolated to the middle. A second study of the game film bears this out.

Eventually, though, Colorado figured out how to pull the Wizards out of shape: Moving away from the middle and switching the field quickly.

III. When The Pressure Broke

Here’s the goal Conor Casey scored to tie the game.

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At first glance, that just looks like a really great move by a really dangerous attacker.

But, unfortunately, what the video doesn’t show you is how that play was built at the beginning and how out of position the Wizards were.

During the build up, no less than three Wizards over-committed to the guy on the ball. Sensing the trap, Colorado cleared the ball to the left flank, where only Michael Harrington was located. Given his role on the team, Auvray made a mad dash to close down that side, covering at least 40 yards.

When a simple ball played back across the middle unsorted the entire defense, into the space that Auvray left, two Wizards were split and that left Shavar Thomas alone trying to guard one of the most dangerous players in MLS, and the rest is history.

A win became a tie. Over-commitment and useless running undid a solid game plan. But, if you’ll remember our post yesterday, you’ll have to at least give the team credit: It wasn’t a soft goal.

IV. Breaking Man United

I was joking on Wednesday night when I tweeted after the MLS All-Stars got thumped by Manchester United, “This must mean Kansas City > MLS’ best.”

Here’s how Kansas City has been the the only team to upend the Red Devils on their North American Tour: KC was the only team to field it’s regular starting XI (or, at least, the exact same lineup it used in the two games prior) and they were the only team to take the battle for space seriously. Celtic were in preseason and experimented with new players, Philadelphia had a few trialists in the mix and prefer to own the ball and not hunt it, and the All-Star team had literally less than 24 hours together and were more interested in flowing and attacking (which created a wide-open game).

There’s also this:

Celtic, the Union and the All-Stars didn’t have a guy like Auvray putting pressure on the ball.

Darron Gibson and Paul Scholes had zero time to think when they were on the ball. Ryan Giggs was pushed from the side and behind. Dimitar Berbatov wasn’t given the two-yard halo he likes to operate with at all times.

It’s all Auvray. He’s Edgar Davids without the goggles.

And I think he’s, easily, the most under-rated player in Major League Soccer.

V. Moving Forward

As the team showed in the two games against Colorado and Columbus and in the exhibition against Manchester United, when healthy and when the players communicate and play the high-pressure system as a team, they can be very fun to watch. If they can keep the physicality going, keep Auvray healthy and avoid the soft-goal bug that’s bitten them this season, they can be a very dangerous team over the second half of the season.

Now... if only they could score a goal or two. Let’s hope more than two against Toronto tomorrow.

Coming Later: If you can’t score, you can’t win.

*My regular job is keeping me wrapped up and the third-part of this series won’t run until Sunday at the earliest. Apologies in advance.