Sunday, April 9, 2017

Toronto FC 2-2 Atlanta United FC: A Report (With Big Digressions on Video Review and the High Press)

Hoplite. Before and after.
I’ll start this one with a statement: MLS, and soccer as a sport, needs to figure out how they want to cope with the rise of video technology – specifically how much they want to let it into the game. Yeah, I sound late to the party, but I think it’s live more now than ever, and more subtly. Of course I’m referencing the sending off of Atlanta United’s Yamil Asad for knocking Eric Zavaleta in the back of the head in Atlanta’s 2-2 road draw at Toronto FC. The lag was long enough to make it look like the referee flashed red only after a chorus of rage rained down from the crowd, maybe even after he caught video of Asad’s dubiously raised elbow.

I know video technology is coming, but I still think its introduction begs questions that are more dichotomous than its advocates want to admit. Assuming yesterday’s ref (David Gantar (clearly from Planet Awesome)) responded to pressure from the crowd, what does that detail, specifically, mean to the larger problem (yeah, I see it as a problem) of video review? I think there’s a lot of ambient faith that soccer fans get pissy when someone interrupts their collective flow. Maybe, that’s all I’m saying. What I’m arguing is that, the more people bitch about every last failure that any given referee will inevitably make, the more readily those gripes translate as pressure to “clean up” more and more parts of the game, Dr. Frankenstein didn’t want to create a monster, etc. (come, there’s a slippery slope to ride down!)

The underlying logic to video review gets at a symptom: the unspoken desire for a perfectly officiated game. Consider, however, the incentives. Once video review for certain circumstances comes into play, a referee has every reason to just blow the whistle and let video sort it out momentous decisions. The trick is, the referee has to patrol the rest of the game relying entirely on his own judgment and, personally, I think the mindset of relying on video will bleed through

I’ll be the first to admit this makes for a two-step argument, but I think it holds, so here goes: the second greatest service that any referee can bring to any game is consistency in the way he/she calls fouls, and generally handles shit (The first greatest: barring violence from the game to the extent possible). It is my strong belief that anything that causes a ref to second guess himself undermines said second greatest service.

But enough of that…to the game!

TFC 2-2 Atlanta United FC
Intellectual honesty compels me to confess that my desire to see the high press broken as a tactic may overwhelm my balance. To hit that from the other side, I think Toronto looked the stronger team tonight, precisely because they kept finding ways to evade Atlanta’s annoyingly relentless pressure – pressure that, by way of theory, led to Asad’s sending off. (I mean, what else besides tactical direction gets a player to chase down an outlet pass at a dead sprint, and with enough desperation to swing an elbow in what may or may not have been a swim move?)

At any rate, after succumbing to an early, breakaway goal by Atlanta, and even after…succumbing again at the top of the second half, Toronto kept finding ways to settle down and carve an impressive number of paths to Atlanta’s goal - and they followed those paths to the end in their best moments. Think of Atlanta as a hoplite, basically (or at least my understanding of one): once you get past the long spear and the shield, there’s just a squishy human behind them, and that’s an ass you can kick. “Can” makes for a good, accidental verb there because, for all the chances Toronto created, or even all the botched passes that could have led to chances (Jozy Altidore, in particular bumbled a bunch; and Victor Vazquez murdered a few early), Toronto blew too many of theirs; sure, they forced a couple out of Alec Kann, but they never got their goals.

They didn’t do much else, but Atlanta got their goals, both from Hector Villalba, and both on different kinds of breakaways (theme; also, that second one was pretty damned inexcusable), and that’s how Atlanta’s season looks like it’ll go: if their pressure trips up your players, your team will lose; if your team gives their team room to run in the open field, Atlanta will score on you. And that brings up a useful point about Atlanta, and a good way to get into bullet points.

On Atlanta United
Can they actually break down a packed defense?
I’m not saying they’ve never scored one, but I can’t recall Atlanta scoring any goals this year that didn’t rely on breaking into space like maniacs. They had to run at Toronto a couple times tonight, and with Toronto compacted. It didn’t go well, and there are lessons to be learned from that.
Assessing Almiron
The kid is damned fast, and gets faster the further he runs; he runs well off the ball and hits a reliably good pass: again, though, he does all that best in the open field. Almiron can play decent passes in tighter quarters, but his best passes, and his best runs, happen in space – i.e., where speed can compensate for lack of precision. Almiron’s clearly great at jailbreaks, but how’s he do with picking locks? (And will that matter? I mean after the summer?)
Two Key Pieces
I hereby admit that, at time of writing, I severely underestimated how much gas Jeff Larentowicz has left in the tank; the man racked up more interventions yesterday than Dr. Drew did over three seasons. Atlanta also picked a peach (mm…just didn’t want to use the “gem” metaphor) in Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Tough fucker, and mobile too.

On Toronto FC
One-Man Answer to the Key Question
Every team that faces Atlanta this season will be asked one simple question: can you handle the pressure? TFC answered with a tempered “yep” tonight, but their first confident answer came from Armando Cooper. The man crushed it tonight, especially when it came to spinning out of Atlanta’s pressure. Sometimes you beat them on the dribble, sometimes with a pass; Cooper did it just by twisting and turning over the ball, and keeping it under him, until he could face forward and find an outlet. Toronto rode his composure back into the game, at least as far as it got into it.
The Essential Victor Vazquez
Toronto recovered impressively from Atlanta’s early pressure (e.g., these cats can ball), but you can get a sense in how easily that can break down in the body of one player: Victor Vazquez. When Toronto struggled early, Vazquez fluffed a lot of those passes. Once he got rolling, though, Toronto did too, not just in the attack (two assists, especially this one), but all over the damn place – as in, Vazquez started providing a great outlet for Michael Bradley.
Michael Bradley Still Has A Special Purpose
It’s just mostly as a defensive player. If he simplifies his passing, he could become a great asset.
Wingbacks Flying
Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow (or Rasheem Edwards) play such a big, visible role in Toronto’s system, that I was literally making notes about it while they combined to score Toronto’s too-short-lived winner (see the link, like, right above; just really liked Vazquez's contribution). Anyway, watch for this, because, when they’re on, Toronto probably will be too.

In closing, I only wish failure upon Atlanta so long as they play this high-press, high-speed tempo. I get why people like it (no, I don’t, not really, hence the next few words), but I’d argue it’s more fast than beautiful, or even capable. I’m definitely hoping to see more MLS teams break it, and mostly because I believe its primary goal is disruption. And stopping people from doing things is boring.

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