Talking Tactics: Why Alain Rochat's goal may be gem of the season in MLS
Two weeks ago, Vancouver Whitecaps FC graced us with one of best individual goals you’ll ever see, an absolute gem off Eric Hassli’s right foot.
Over the weekend, the same Whitecaps FC showed us how a team can combine to concoct something special. Seven ‘Caps touched the ball on a swell sequence against Philadelphia Union, one that’s gorgeous in its synchronization, teamwork, and attention to positional detail - all punctuated by sublime technique, as Alain Rochat curled a ball wonderfully just inside the Union’s far post.
If all you see is Rochat’s pinpoint strike, it’s still worth a watch. But you’d really be missing something to not appreciate the entire body of work.
About the only thing that goes wrong is Jay DeMerit’s hurried long ball out of the back. It gets intercepted, but midfielder Jeb Brovsky claims the loose ball and gets the party started. Brovsky’s first touch is perfect. He has three Union pursuers around him applying high pressure in the Whitecaps FC end. He really has only one area to safely direct his first touch - which is just where he puts it. When you hear about players creating space, this is one way they do it, with a first touch that directs them away from pressure.
Brovsky knows he’s got to get rid of the ball quickly; lollygagging in that area is a recipe for disaster. So he wisely plays two-touch soccer, handing off possession to Rochat behind him.
Three men along Vancouver’s backline will handle the ball; the key is moving it quickly. Coaches preach all the time to “keep the ball moving.” When balls go still and players get static, defences get organized. But when balls keep rolling, defenders are left with a shifting, evolving landscape to study and evaluate.
Rochat passes to Michael Boxall in the middle, who quickly moves the ball to Jonathan Leathers on the right. Leathers recovers from a bit of a heavy touch to move the ball quickly forward to midfielder Shea Salinas. Meanwhile, Rochat immediately improves his position on the left, scooting forward as soon as the ball leaves his foot. That becomes critical later.
Salinas’ work off the ball is important. He’s wide right. Really wide. It’s easy for players to get lazy and sloppy about their support roles. In this case, Salinas is right where he’s supposed to be, heels on the touchline, facing Leathers and drifting away from his marker to present a proper target.
The offensive spacing is important here, too. Salinas falls into a position about 15 to 20 yards from Leathers. About the same time, ‘Caps midfield creator Davide Chiumiento moves into a position about 15 yards from Salinas. Generally speaking, this 15 to 20-yard distance is optimum for support. Anything closer and things get too congested. Anything further and passing becomes more problematic, with completion chances shrinking.
So Chiumiento completes the triangle that so important in the passing game. Then he shows where a little individual work can help break down a defense, dribbling out of trouble and maintaining possession with clever footwork and timely changes of speed. Even then, Salinas is assisting with a big overlapping run that briefly occupies Union left back Jordan Harvey, pulling him out of the pack hunting Chiumiento.
What happens next might be subtle, but it’s critical to the succession of actions. It’s more movement off the ball as, again, static play is the enemy of any successful attack.
Target man Hassli pops out aggressively toward Chiumiento. They execute a textbook give-and-go, the simplest of soccer combinations, but one that’s stunningly effective in releasing attackers. And things happening in Philadelphia’s defence related to the movement of Hassli and others are about to become complicit in the goal.
Union center back Danny Califf has chased Hassli all the way out to where the Vancouver striker is combining with Chiumiento, about 35 yards from goal. And he’s not communicating with fellow center back Carlos Valdés. So both Union center backs end up next to each other rather than communicating about who picks up Hassli and who remains in place to protect the integrity of the backline.
So, things are breaking down. While Philadelphia’s fullbacks recognize the moment to step back (because Chiumiento has his head up, moving forward at speed), Valdés and Califf are in a pickle, the backline stretched dangerously out of shape. That leaves everyone else to scramble and make plan-B choices on whom to cover.
Of course, defenders and midfielders make hundreds of these decisions every day at the park. They typically sort things out pretty quickly - but it’s tougher when the attack remains fluid.
Chiumiento gets the ball back from Hassli and continues to drive forward with speed. Union defensive midfielder Brian Carroll is in pursuit, but Valdés recognizes some danger and steps toward the Swiss attacker. Now Chiumiento has them. His job is done, because he’s got Carroll and Valdés about to run into each other.
So he slips the ball over to Rochat, who has continued to move forward with the play. Rochat’s accurate strike with the outside of his left boot deserves applause, of course, as he curls the game’s only goal sweetly around goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón. But the fact is, he had time to line up the shot, get his body positioning and his feet just so thanks to everything happening around him.
If you watch carefully, there are five Whitecaps FC teammates still moving when he strikes his highlight-maker. Some of that is Soccer 101, of course. But it’s the volume of movement that’s critical; having so much ongoing action keeps defenders guessing, hesitating and, ultimately, occupied.
Chiumiento keeps moving, now near the top of the “D.” Salinas makes a late run from the right. Hassli is sliding laterally across the penalty area, creating traffic and keeping the center backs on alert. Central midfielder Terry Dunfield is making his contribution with a late run into the penalty area, the kind that is so hard to track.
Meanwhile, Union right fullback Sheanon Williams can’t step out toward Rochat because Vancouver forward Camilo peels backward on the left, occupying Williams. Valdés, in a bad starting position to start with and then having to worry about the space behind him (because the defence is stretched) isn’t in a good spot to move toward Rochat.
Carroll and fellow central midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi didn’t sort out their central midfield area, so they are both too far to the left side of the Union defence, leaving the midfield out of balance. Justin Mapp, who has a little bit of a free role in the Union midfield, should probably recognize the imbalance and hurry back to provide cover on the defensive right side. Rather, he’s just a passenger on this one, watching as Rochat spanks the ball.
It’s 1-0 and that’s the game-decider. Including Dunfield’s run and Camilo’s subtle movement, nine of 10 Whitecaps FC field players were involved in the goal. What a goal it was.