High Five 4/22

The High Five: Atomic Ant on the rise, a solution in the USMNT midfield & more

1. Talking Sebastian Giovinco and Toronto’s imbalance

As good as Fabian Castillo was in the first half of Dallas’ completely crazy, marathon-match win over Toronto, Sebastian Giovinco’s second half performance was probably more epic. He absolutely took over the match, finding the spaces, making connecting passes in the final third, running at the defense and ultimately scoring two picture-perfect goals.

The “Atomic Ant,” suddenly looking unstoppable, almost single-handedly drove his team to what could have been an inspirational, season-turning result. (Dallas held on for the memorable 3-2 result.)

He has proved there is no doubt that Giovinco, among the league’s highest wage earners, has Best XI stuff. With Michael Bradley behind him and Jozy Altidore (who had a really great, tough series of duels with FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges) ahead of him, the Toronto FC attack has diversity, skill and experience to spare.

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The balance, however, just isn’t there. In fact, the team looks frightfully and fatally imbalanced, without enough of the right choices out wide, along the back line and even in goal, perhaps. Yes, the Toronto FC defense has been missing pieces this year due to injury. Still, everyone’s concerns that TFC overspent on offense at the expense of a higher quality pool of defenders seems to be validated every time out.

Toronto allowed 54 goals last year, 15th among 19 teams. That’s just a tick north of 1.5 a game. This year the bunch from BMO is allowing a staggering 2.2 a game; that is 100 percent unsustainable. In fairness, TFC has played only on the road so far (pending renovations at BMO Field). Still, that’s way too high, so there is much work to be done if TFC is to finally grab that first playoff spot, one that has so far eluded this wandering club.

2. Best bet for U.S. holding midfield spot going forward

Anyone who watches the United States national team under Jurgen Klinsmann knows the team is better with a defensive screener in midfield. Whether Jurgen Klinsmann will continue to do so, well, that’s another question, one subject to the manager’s quirky whims.

But let’s assume for now that a true No. 6 (the holding midfielder in the nerdy, tactical parlance of the game) will occupy a spot in Klinsmann’s starting lineup. The question then becomes: who will occupy the spot in important CONCACAF Gold Cup games to come, and then in World Cup qualifiers going forward?

The answer may not be who you think.

Kyle Beckerman performed quite well in the role last week, which isn’t surprising: he always does fine in there, going about his job without unnecessary complication.

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The issue with Beckerman is that he turns 33 later this week. Central midfielders need range, and that will inevitably diminish as Beckerman gets older. He could still be the guy for July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, but whether he’s the right guy moving into those fall World Cup qualifiers is another matter.

So is it Perry Kitchen, who took over for Beckerman as a sub last week? Is it Michael Bradley, who can certainly man the holding role but always seems more useful as the connector, working the channels between the No. 6 and a more advanced playmaker? Besides, as we know, Klinsmann likes to see Bradley further up the field.

It could be Mix Diskerud, who isn’t 100 percent suited for the holding role but who has tried to add more bite to his midfield game, just as Klinsmann had asked a couple of year ago.

For my money, the answer going forward will be Danny Williams. Those who saw Williams in action last weekend for England’s Reading understand why. Reading gave power-packed Arsenal everything it could handle in a dramatic FA Cup semifinal. Williams’ tireless running, passing and tackling in midfield was a big reason why.

He’s in England’s Championship now (the second division), past some injury struggles, and surely being increasingly steeled by an absolutely brutal pace of matches in that league. (Teams in the Championship play 46 league matches, plus cup competitions.)

Williams topped the U.S. depth chart at holding midfielder in the fall of 2012 before losing his starting spot to a run of injury. He’s 26, now breaking into the prime of his career. Looks like his time may be coming.

3. Ricardo Clark, the … goal machine?

Ricardo Clark has always been the consummate holding midfielder. His forte has always been his considerable range; those long legs don’t just tackle with proficiency, they cover tons of ground, as well.

In his salad days with the Dynamo, Clark was the holding man behind guys like Dwayne De Rosario and Stu Holden, so it was an arrangement that worked beautifully. Clark could get forward as an afterthought because the team didn’t generally need more offensive punch from that position. Of course, that never necessarily meant that he couldn’t provide more push if that’s what the team required.

We’re seeing that now.

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Clark had eight total goals in his first five years in Houston (2005-2009, then 2012 after some time spent in Europe.) That’s less than two goals a season. But he had four goals in 2013 and four more in 2014. This year as he squeezes even further forward under new manager Owen Coyle, Clark already has two goals, including the critical equalizer last week in a 1-1 draw at D.C. United.

What longtime teammate Brad Davis told MLSsoccer.com about Clark roaming further up the field: “We know how honest he is defensively, but you want him to be able to get up the park and get close to the forwards and get those types of chances and that’s what he did.”

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By the way, we hear a lot about Boniek Garcia, who certainly is a skillful man around BBVA Compass Stadium. But for whatever reason, the Honduran attacker’s production has never been what it needs to be. He has 9 goals and 14 assists now in 71 MLS matches. Last year’s numbers were even more concerning; he had two goals and an assist in 26 starts, numbers that can fairly be classified as “just not good enough” for a man who is primarily an attacker.

That’s just to show: Clark’s value around Houston, producing goals and assists at age 32, is about as high as it possibly can be.

4. Getting out of their own way at Portland

Good teams get out of their own way. They understand what they can do well and then, well … they do it!

Importantly, they don’t waste a bunch of time trying to be something they aren’t, attempting to pound, pound, pound away at the proverbial square peg, hoping against hope that it will somehow fit into that confounded round hole!

That useful realization seems to be going on now with Portland, where everyone has generally adored Caleb Porter’s possession style. The problem is, it won’t always be best path to success – at which time it becomes less distinctly less loveable.

The Timbers were once again going direct last week, this time in a 1-0 win over New York City FC.

This probably won’t always be the way forward around Portland, but it makes sense to use the tools you have (rather than the tools you’d like to have). So long as Diego Valeri and Will Johnson are out, Portland simply will not be as adept at moving the ball through the midfield.

Plus, there are times in MLS when field conditions or weather conditions or perhaps just a tactical mismatch will require something more direct, otherwise known as “soccer less lovely.” Prudence says that matches at Yankee Stadium in New York, where the field is tiny, bumpy and highly imperfect – it is officially listed at 70 by 110, but suspicions remain that those dimensions may be stretching the truth a bit – is certainly not the place to tiki-taka your way around the field. 

No, it’s probably not best to make “long-ball” your all-time preferred approach. But diversity is OK. Going direct when it makes sense isn’t a sin. Look at Dallas last year; without playmaker Mauro Diaz, FCD made the playoffs on a doctrine of defend-and-counter. It’s not the way Oscar Pareja ideally wants to play, but sometimes pragmatism must take hold.

Having two ways to attack – and doing both of those well – creates a better team. Portland won’t forget how to boss possession and work patiently through the midfield; If they do things right, they’ll have two useful ways to bother the opposition back line.

They just have to weather the naysayers and critics along the way, the idealists who believe that only the points earned through lovely soccer are worth having.

5. The Little Five

5a. One costly bobble notwithstanding, Bill Hamid has been quite good again this year. But if we’re picking Goalkeeper of the Year right now (we aren’t, of course … lots of soccer to play) is there another choice other than Houston’s Tyler Deric? Yes, he gave up a bad goal to Orlando earlier this year. But he has also saved Dynamo bacon time and again in 2015. He did it again last week with six saves in a road draw with Orlando. The important thing is this: if we had scratched out a list of the Top Five ‘keepers in MLS to begin the season, can anybody honestly say Deric would have been on their list?

5b. Does it seem to anyone else that Seattle’s Obafemi Martins scores  more “golazos” than anyone in league history. I don’t think Opta tracks such things, but surely he’s among the gold standard in ration of goals that garner Goal of the Week nominations. Here’s his absolute jaw-dropper from Saturday against Colorado.

5c. For whatever reason, London Woodberry’s time at FCD was finished as Oscar Pareja arrived into the manager’s seat at Toyota Stadium 16 months ago. But it is a shame that the league’s best developer of young talent (Pareja) didn’t get more time to groom the Dallas-born-and-raised defender. If you saw Woodberry’s bright performance Sunday as New England’s right back, you understand why.

5d. Maddeningly inconsistent and prone to say the wrong things, Vancouver’s Darren Mattocks, blessed with all the natural ability in the world, was wandering dangerously close to “wasted talent” territory. But his recent work with the Whitecaps, including a wonderfully athletic game-winning header later Saturday at Real Salt Lake (watch the video here), suggests that maybe the streaky Jamaican forward has figured things out. He has two goals in three starts for Carl Robinson’s conference leaders.

5e. Speaking of which: Vancouver has quietly assembled one of the deepest roster of frontrunners in MLS. It starts with 23-year-old revelation Octavio Rivero, the league’s Player of the Month for March, but also the experienced Mauro Rosales and Robert Earnshaw, along with youngsters like Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh, all fed by talented Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales. 

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