Plan B: How MLS Clubs Adjust To An Injured Star

Posted In Features - By Kevin McCauley On Thursday, May 19th, 2011 With 4 Comments

This is the first post from a new writer, Jason Anderson. Jason will be posting under his own name as of next week.

MLS would prefer the top story for American soccer’s last few weeks to be LA vs. NY - credit them for a stellar level of play, but a rivalry it’s certainly not. Perhaps they’d point to the crowds in Portland, or even the upcoming announcement of Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup squad. They could even point to the steady flow of national team players returning from Europe to play in MLS (DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson look to be next up, if you’re interested). All big stories, to be sure.

That said, the big news over the last month has undoubtedly been the rash of severe injuries to star attacking players. Everyone that follows the league knows by now that Steve Zakuani (broken tibia/fibula), David Ferreira (broken ankle), Javier Morales (broken/dislocated ankle), and even potential stars like Simon Dawkins (compartment syndrome) and Branko Boskovic (torn ACL/hairline fracture) have all recently been felled by injuries that required significant surgeries to repair. To make a long story short, it has not been a good time to be a special attacking talent on these shores.

We’ll set the injuries to Dawkins and the particularly unlucky Boskovic - whose outstanding play the night he was hurt would have almost certainly sealed a starting role as DC United’s attacking midfielder - aside for the time being. San Jose would have had to make major changes to what was a struggling group with or without Dawkins needing surgery, while DC simply never got the chance to make use of a fully fit Boskovic in their 4-4-2. Instead, let’s take a look at the players that entered 2011 as indispensable members of their respective squads, and what each club has tried to do to overcome the worst case scenario that befell them.

The Allocation Order has already covered the situation at Real Salt Lake, where it appears Jason Kreis will give Collen Warner the first crack at replacing Morales. Warner is the most similar player to Morales that Kreis has, especially in terms of his ability to float around the midfield in search of space. In his rare opportunities to impress - CONCACAF Champions League outings and in the US Open Cup, mostly - Warner has delivered. He does lack the close control and sheer inventiveness of Morales, but then so do most attacking midfielders in MLS. The movement is the important thing for Warner; if he does that well, RSL can still resemble the well-oiled machine they are at their best. Warner’s goal should be to play as a cog in that machine, rather than to be “the man.” Given RSL’s near-religious fervor for their “The Team Is The Star” mantra, this probably won’t be a problem.

Kreis does have other options, though. Andy Williams comes immediately to mind; in fact, he more or less spent the first half of his MLS career playing as a central attacking midfielder on numerous clubs throughout the league. Williams has the best passing range of any of the candidates for the job, and also has the most threatening long-range shot. If Warner struggles - his first outing covering for Morales was lukewarm - Kreis could opt for the more experienced Jamaican.

However, Williams is the least mobile of the potential solutions, and that presents a problem. His usual role on the right of RSL’s midfield allows him to pinch inside; he doesn’t cover much ground there either, but he doesn’t have to if he puts himself in good starting positions defensively (it should also be noted that, if RSL is playing a strong attacking team, Ned Grabavoy is often chosen instead of Williams). The exchange these days for MLS clubs accommodating a true attacking midfielder is that he is required to rove from sideline to sideline, drop deep, and in general ends up running almost as much as your average defensive midfielder or wide player. Williams is by no means lazy, but his relative lack of dynamism could lower the number of options RSL players have going forward, which in turn would make them more predictable.

There are other options, too, though they have fairly long odds. Kreis could turn to Arturo Alvarez, who has always fancied himself an old-school #10 but lacks the transcendent skill (and perhaps more importantly, the consistency) to be trusted full-time in the job. RSL could also play a flatter midfield, with Jean Alexandre playing alongside Kyle Beckerman. Those with long memories will recall that Beckerman was the “No. 10″ for the special USA u17 team that included Donovan, Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey, and several other future pros; while he wouldn’t exactly turn back the clock in this unlikely scenario, he would carry more of the creative load than he does now.

Moving on to the Ferreira-free FC Dallas, Schellas Hyndman may have found better luck with Plan C after B didn’t go all that well. Hyndman’s first attempt at plugging the gap was to maintain the same formation and approach, simply replacing Ferreira with Eric Avila. While the results - a 2-1 win over the Galaxy and a 0-0 road draw against United - were up to standard, the context is important. The game against LA featured a weather-related stoppage and a very fluky cross-cum-goal from Brek Shea; Avila, for his part, was subbed off after 69 minutes for Ricardo Villar. At RFK Stadium, the Dallas offense produced precisely nothing against what was a new-look DC back four, and the only FCD performance worth remembering was that of Kevin Hartman.

The problem for Avila isn’t a lack of skill; there’s a reason he’s capable of being one of MLS’s very best supersubs. The kid can play. The trick is that Avila has a rather limited sense of the big picture. For Avila, every moment of a match is an opportunity to go for the spectacular. If he were a boxer, he’d be the guy throwing haymakers from the opening bell, rather than the guy who uses his jab to set up the KO later on. Ferreira has a tremendous sense of how to move opponents around the field, and is skilled at using a movement or a choice at one stage of the game to open the door for a devastating change of pattern later on.

As a result, Hyndman changed course in his side’s next outing against Toronto FC. Out went the old formation (Hyndman called it a 4141, but it looked a lot more like a 4231 to me, and I’ve seen others call it a 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2, and even 4-3-3) and in came a 4-1-3-2. Eric Alexander replaced Avila in the line up, playing on the right. Rather than having to rely on a player looking to do something audacious on every move forward, Hyndman had come up with a system designed to attack as a group. Since the move, Dallas has won twice at home without conceding a goal.

Sure, those games were against the offensively-challenged Philadelphia Union and an everything-challenged TFC side, but the point is that Dallas got better. Alexander is not a particularly special player, but he doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. As a nominally wide player, he pinches in a bit, which leaves a channel for Jackson (or Zach Loyd, if he moves back there down the road) to get forward from the right back position. Dallas also gets the width that Alexander might not provide from Marvin Chavez, who tends to drift to the right no matter where you put him on the field. The resulting group is less fun to watch than they’d be with Ferreira, but the fact that they’re succeeding without going into a shell is a tribute to the squad Hyndman has assembled.

Finally, we come to Seattle. While Ferreira and Morales can be called irreplaceable players, at least their respective coaches had the option of trying out a similar, less talented version of their fallen star. Sigi Schmid could not turn to his bench and find a mini-Zakuani; there is no other flying, goal-scoring winger on the Sounders roster. Zakuani’s speed was unique for Seattle, and the positions he’d take up - high and wide on the left - were unusual for all of MLS, which is part of the reason teams struggled to defend him.

The good news for Schmid is that he happened to have the versatile Alvaro Fernandez itching to find his way into a starting role somewhere for Seattle. It’s a tribute to the outstanding squad-building done by Schmid and Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer that they could replace their 2010 co-leading scorer with a guy that, at just 25, has already played in a World Cup semifinal.

The job wasn’t as easy as simply telling Fernandez to play left midfield, however. Fernandez’s approach as a “wide” midfielder is markedly different from that of Zakuani. Seattle was forced to play a more narrow version of the 442 they had been trotting out, which also meant a change at left back (Leo Gonzalez’s only start since the Zakuani injury was thanks to Seattle having a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday set of games). Unfortunately for Seattle, this compact new approach has allowed teams to collapse centrally, making the combination play they need to use more difficult than it was before. Fernandez has been in respectable form, but as a team Seattle has been mediocre in the aftermath of Zakuani’s unfortunate absence.

It’s hard to close the book on Seattle without mentioning their other injuries. As if losing Zakuani weren’t enough, Schmid has also missed Mauro Rosales, who would likely start at right midfield and provide the ability to penetrate on the dribble that Seattle lacks without their Congolese winger. Schmid moved Brad Evans out wide, and he responded by scoring three goals…only to then get hurt himself. Erik Friberg has also found himself on the injury list, leaving Schmid with a nearly bare cupboard when it comes to the flanks. Roger Levesque will probably get the nod in the short term, but a midfield featuring him, Osvaldo Alonso, and rookie Servando Carrasco will probably not have the ideas or the ability to create much going forward. In other words, Schmid hasn’t even gotten a chance to use his real Plan B (likely a right-to-left midfield of Rosales, Alonso, Evans, and Fernandez) due to the injury bug.

No MLS club is prepared to lose a Ferreira, a Morales, or a Zakuani. The budgets are just too small. Nonetheless, all three coaches have shown admirable resourcefulness; lesser sides would fall apart having lost these players. Kreis has set up a team that can function as a system even when it has lost its most crucial component. Hyndman has managed to take ten out of a possible twelve points since Ferreira’s injury due to some astute changes and, more crucially, a defense that has tightened up to pick up the slack (FCD has conceded just one goal since Ferreira went down). Seattle has not exactly impressed, but since Zakuani’s injury their only loss came after a cross-country trip on a short rest.

About Kevin McCauley - Kevin McCauley is the Editor in Chief of The Allocation Order. He is also the world football editor at SBNation Soccer.

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  1. Great debut!

    In addition to Seattle’s midfield woes, they also lost Obrien White. White was just starting to understand his role in the team and work well with the other attacking players. So, Seattle is without 5 of their top 7 offensive producers right now, with only Montero and Fernandez providing much of anything on the offensive front.

  2. Jason says:

    Thanks Andrew.

    Seattle is really being put to the sword by injuries. I’d say they’re this year’s New England (the perennial most injured team in MLS), but the Revs are keeping up their standard pace of having about 6 players out at all times. As a DC fan, I know from the past few years what it’s like.

    White also factors into the speed issues that Zakuani’s injury caused. He’s not a track star by any means, but he’s much faster than Jaqua or Levesque. The fact that Seattle can’t stretch teams out as much allows them to collapse the vertical space, which combined with the loss of width is a real problem.

  3. [...] the Sounders are experiencing in a bit of perspective.  The Sounders have done a decent job of adjusting to the loss of Steve Zakuani and O’Brian [...]

  4. [...] the Sounders are experiencing in a bit of perspective.  The Sounders have done a decent job of adjusting to the loss of Steve Zakuani and O’Brian [...]

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