Ties, Ties, Everywhere Ties

Posted In Features - By Jason Anderson On Thursday, May 26th, 2011 With 0 Comments

As much as MLS changes, in many ways it remains the same. We carp on the quality of referees; we trash an aging superstar for his perceived disinterest; we call for more breaks to avoid losing top players to international competition. Santayana says that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but when it comes to MLS, remembering or not doesn’t seem to matter.

One of MLS’s enduring trends is that draws become more common as the temperature goes up. While this season hasn’t hit the bizarre heights of 2009, there has been a clear uptick in recent weeks. Here are the hard numbers, if my statistician friends and former coworkers will forgive the small sample size:

March: 21% (4 of 19)
April: 33% (12 of 36)
May: 46% (16 of 35)

There are a few reasons this happens. Since MLS parity has been beaten to death, I’ll look at the other factors. The weather plays a big factor. The heat (and humidity, depending on where you are) saps that extra energy that a road team would need to overcome the realities of being an MLS road team. It’s hard to aspire for more when you lose your legs around the half-hour mark. An MLS coaching truism is that any road draw is a good result; even your Supporters Shield-chasing sides will invariably say “We’ll take the point” after a listless 0-0 draw, no matter if it’s against their archrival or against a hapless team that will be considering a coaching change by August. As long as you’re not sitting at the bottom of the standings with just 1 or 2 wins, the draw will probably be enough to keep you in the playoff hunt.

There is also the fact that everyone has come to know their opponents. New acquisitions are well-scouted, tactical decisions are dissected, and the early-season surprises have all been sprung. There will be minor tricks played here and there, but the aces up various sleeves have all been played.  No one is surprised to see, for example, David Beckham playing centrally, or that the Portland Timbers will always create chances on set pieces. Once teams have about 10 or so games under their belt, the element of surprise is gone. That leads to a lack of early goals, and it also means that the sub and/ or tactical switch you used to turn an early draw into a win is already mapped out on your opponent’s notepad.

The main question for any MLS club with designs on a playoff spot isn’t how to avoid this. Rather, it’s about being a club that nicks a 1-0 win from a game that lesser clubs would end up drawing. A perfect example happened just last night, as LA beat Houston 1-0 on a Landon Donovan penalty. The game was uneventful, to say the least. MLSsoccer’s piece emphasized the sporadic nature of LA’s attacks, while understandably portraying the Dynamo as rather toothless. For lack of a better way to put it, the game felt like a draw…but it wasn’t. Sure, LA got a big slice of luck - at least one replay pointed to the ball hitting Lovel Palmer’s chest rather than his arm - but that’s not the point. The Galaxy are MLS’s best at squeezing 3 points out of games that, by all rights, should end tied.

Elsewhere, FC Dallas has been proving an exception to the “no surprises” truism. Three MLS clubs recently lost a big-tie, star midfielder, but only Dallas has dealt with the problem in impressive fashion. Real Salt Lake are struggling with both the psychological toll of losing Javier Morales and the fact that Andy Williams and Collen Warner are both only able to replicate some of the qualities Morales brought. Seattle’s narrow, slower approach has not been a disaster, but it has not been a success either, and Sigi Schmid has been cycling players in and out trying to find a way to make things work.

Meanwhile, Schellas Hyndman has overhauled the entire way his team goes about their business. The loss of David Ferreira didn’t just necessitate a formation change; it required changing the mindset of the team. The combination of these two things has caught teams off guard. FCD’s asymmetrical 4132 is rather unusual for MLS as a whole. The forwards are small and speedy, the midfielder that pinches in most of all is on the right (usually it’s the left, because MLS clubs generally have a hard time finding true left midfielders to begin with), and guys like Fabian Castillo and Eric Alexander are still not 100% known quantities.

The bigger factor, though, is the new Dallas approach. Hyndman’s squad with Ferreira were among MLS’s most attractive teams to watch. The league’s craftiest midfielder was partnered with blinding speed on the wings, intelligent assistance behind him in central midfield, and a wide array of choices at striker. It all came together in a high-paced (but not hectic) package, as Ferreira could simultaneously create space and then play the pass for players like Marvin Chavez and Brek Shea. Without Ferreira, however, Dallas is built around their defense.The emphasis is now on how the team defends, and you could even go so far as to call them a counterattacking side these days. The build-ups are shorter, and the attacks tend to start from early, mid-range passes to the flanks when a genuine counter - like the one Dallas sprung on Seattle for Shea’s goal in their 1-0 win last night - isn’t on. The results show that Dallas is the hottest team in MLS at a time that you’d expect them to be among the most willing to settle for a tie.

Going in the opposite direction, there are clubs that are simply not built for this time of year and the “a tie’s OK” mindset. Sporting Kansas City immediately comes to mind. Peter Vermes demands that his team play high-pressure without the ball for 90 minutes, which places a huge demand on the fitness of every player. At this point in his tenure, Vermes has shown no interest in adjusting for the time of year, or dealing with different personnel. While it’s an approach that will ensure that Sporting will play few (if any) boring games, it also appears that they lack the defensive organization to make it work. Throw in the endless road trip that they’ve started the season on, and it will take a remarkable turnaround for the former Wizards, even with 17 home games to look forward to.

In a somewhat similar boat is my club, DC United. Ben Olsen seems more flexible than Vermes, but the United defense is too young to be counted on to grind out these summer games on a regular basis. United will definitely go on the road from time to time and return with a mundane 0-0 or 1-1 (I say that on faith, because to this point DC’s least eventful road games have been a 2-1 loss at New England which involved falling behind 2-0 very early and the 3-0 win at a truly poor Toronto FC), but it’s not going to be common. United’s reliance on young players means that the safe, mistake-free performances that MLS coaches value - the foundation for most “scrape out a draw” teams - are not going to happen often enough. Instead, United will have to go on the road and find goals, which means that DC games will be perhaps more interesting than they need to be. Given how last season was both awful and almost impossibly dour, a summer of wild games is still a step in the right direction.

About Jason Anderson - Jason is an author at Black and Red United and the founder of the Handsome Boys Soccer Club. He would like to make it abundantly clear that he is a Marylander.

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