Parity reigns in Major League Soccer at the moment. Being early season and such, all clubs are within striking distance of the premier rank in the league - given a win or two. Still, teams have started to take shape as clubs are playing some of the most effective soccer in the league.
The Vancouver Whitecaps fit this bill perfectly. The Canadian side have, without doubt, been one of the best clubs in the MLS this year - to date. Achieving the highest power ranking in the league back in week five and fielding the league's leading scorer - Octavio Rivero - they have become a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, the back line of the Whitecaps is marshaled by two mountains of men in Kendall Waston and Pa Modou Kah. This team is atop the West and, with a 4-2-1 record, they have the stats to back it up.
As Real Salt Lake take on the Whitecaps this Saturday, they will have to look to trends that they can exploit. And let's just say Vancouver already have some habits that RSL can use to their advantage.
Stifling the Offense of Vancouver
The Whitecaps are known to play "Route 9" soccer - that is, direct counter-attacking soccer. The model for the style that they play is having players available in midfield that are capable and ready to burst forward - usually the number nine (center forward), hence the name - on a second's notice. Things can happen quickly in these style as there is little intricacy.
Squads that excel in Route 9 invite pressure and then steal the ball from the opposition. Resisting the urge of large, crunching tackles that would otherwise send both the ball and player into touch. A counter-attacking team will instead pick the pocket of their opponent and play it towards the creative-mind of the side.
It is here that the speedy striker(s) burst into life. A quality striker will be aware of changing possession and look to get to space behind the back line. Should he spilt the defenders, he has them. But if he finds himself between defenders, they have him. Invariably, the pass to the striker will leave him in a one-on-one situation.
This is the situation that RSL full-backs must be aware of. With the agility of Vancouver's strikers known, both full-backs must be at their defensive best.
In the 4-3-3 that RSL employs, both full-backs have been getting involved in the attack - similar to the overloading tactic that is employed. These means that in the attack, RSL has had not seven, but eight players in the attack which has lead the Claret-and-Cobalt open to counter attacks.
This is what it looks like when the full-backs are caught out of position:
That was quick, right? In that sequence, Alvis Powell received that ball after being stolen from a RSL player. He then plays a long overhead ball to Fanendo Adi. Flicking the ball off his head, Adi plays the ball to an on-rushing Rodney Wallace. With Abdoulie Mansally already behind the play, Tony Beltran is making a recovery run shadowing Adi. Wallace dribbles the ball into the box and cuts Mansally out of the play with a clever dribble and lets a shot rip.
Portland's ball movement pulled RSL apart, forcing both full-backs to scramble across the pitch to cover ensuing runs of their opponents.
Both RSL full-back did the right thing, but once they get there the chance has already been created and taken. The full-backs recognized the danger too late, and the chance is conceded. The Timber's movement and passing was quicker than the Claret-and-Cobalt's defensive recognition
To put it another way: Route 9 can beat a defensive line. Squad creativity beats a defense and it's that kind of quick counter-attacking soccer that RSL has to be aware of.
Playing in the more traditional method of allowing one full-back forward while the other one stays behind with the center-backs might be the best way to handle the agility of Vancouver.
Here is a pictorial representation of that:
It would be foolish to bet against a traditional defense method in the 4-3-3 - especially with a club that is still adapting to it. And if the full-backs stay organized, that may well be all they need.
De-Organizing Vancouver's Defense
Speaking of organization, Vancouver's style of play demands that their defenders must limit the spacing between the defensive lines - the back line and the defensive midfield partnership. This compact defending create a significant problem for attackers, but the defensive partnership of the Whitecaps have been known to chase the ball too deeply into the opponents' half. This leaves gaps between the lines - something RSL exploited against San Jose all too well.
Watch as Columbus finds the space between Matis Laba and the back line:
Notice how Ben Speas gets his head up and finds Ethan Finlay in space with both Laba and Russell Teibert deep into the Columbus half. That is the place that RSL's wingers have to find themselves. The penetration into Vancouver's defense is deadly as the defense is not working as a solid unit. This can cause defenders to become frustrated and impatient and it is those players who make the first step towards making a mistake in judgement which is what the attackers are looking for.
On that note, securing the first goal is vital. A big problem for counter-attacking teams - which, Vancouver is no exception - is their ability to adapt when they are behind. If your game is dependent on the opponents coming at you and they are content in possession - which, RSL is - nothing is going to happen.
In both matches that Vancouver went down a goal this season, they have been win-less.
With no option B in the plan book, RSL could steal the match from under Vancouver's nose by getting the first tally on the score sheet.
Vancouver is known for taking risks. Going to obscure corners of the World to nab players to add to their roster have become the norm, not the exception. This tradition spills over onto the pitch; take for instance their shot production. In their six matches this season, 41.5 percent of their shots have come from outside the 18 yard box. In itself, shots from this area have a low conversion rate, but Vancouver will take the long shots and test the keeper.
Their propensity to take long shots - accompanied with one of the highest shots per game average in the league - Vancouver becomes a danger, shot-hungry opponent. By limiting the space between themselves and their opponents, the RSL defenders pressurize the offensive play without compromising defensive organization. In conjunction with keeping the run of play in from of them, the Claret-and-Cobalt's defenders can frustrate the Whitecaps' forwards into silly mistakes - just outside of shooting range - which will limit their shot production.
Patience is a virtue, as the old mantra goes, and RSL will do good to heed it. Knowing the correct moment to win the ball is an art. If the defender goes too early, he is beat. If he goes too late, he commits a foul. Protecting the goal and controlling the attackers is more important than immediately chasing after the ball.
Just one more thought:
The counter-attacking game will rely on certain situations repeatedly. The attacking rhythm of the Route 9 style comes about through recurrent situations. In other words, it is rather predictable.
When a counter-attacking team regains possession of the play, certain players will run set patterns up the pitch. Mostly, the fast target-man who is good on the ball is the focal point. The caveat of nullifying a team like this is knowing the patterns. So RSL players should be watching game tape of Vancouver before the match.
As always, we would like to know what you think. How do you think RSL will approach the counter-attacking nature of Vancouver? What are some of the best ways to defend and overcome the counter-attack? Will the Claret-and-Cobalt find success in counter-attacking tactics? How will RSL line up against Vancouver on Saturday? Share your opinions in the comments section below.