A week after Didier Drogba made an emphatic statement to the rest of the MLS with his three-goal performance, the Ivorian was kept off the scoresheet in a 0-0 draw with the L.A. Galaxy this past Saturday. After a chaotic, 4-3 victory over the Chicago Fire the previous week, defense was the story on this occasion, with both teams excelling in that regard.
There was a lot to be proud of from an IMFC standpoint in this game. As many have pointed out, the Galaxy have walked all over their opponents at home of late, with the team averaging a ridiculous 4.5 goals per game in six straight wins.
Few then would have predicted the Impact managing to keep a clean sheet versus the Galaxy, especially without their best defender (Ciman) and their starting RB (Oyongo).
Collectively, the unit made up of Cabrera, Lefèvre, Toia and Reo-Coker played with the kind of poise that mostly belied their years. Even Reo-Coker, who’s no spring chicken, seemed to be at the top of his game on Saturday, muscling Galaxy’s winger Lletget off the ball on several occasions, and conceding just one foul around the box.
If you recall earlier in the season, playing the Englishman at RB was every fan’s worst nightmare, with opposing team’s treating him like a pylon. In the last few games though, or more specifically since Biello took over, Reo-Coker has looked much more focused on the pitch, treating every touch with the utmost importance.
Victor Cabrera was named to the MLS Team of the Week, and it was much deserved. Though his wildness can sometimes get him into trouble, his anticipation and overall defensive awareness was excellent on the night, as he made numerous key tackles and interceptions.
Toia and Lefèvre were not too far behind the Argentinian in terms of effectiveness, each making a large number of clearances and recoveries in the defensive third.
What I was most impressed by though was how calm and focused the entire team was in the defensive third, especially in the box. Even without Ciman holding down the fort, the Impact players, irrespective of their position, showed little sign of panic in threatening situations.
No, the Impact didn’t score. So what made their offence intelligent? Well, if you’ve read my articles over the season, you’d note that I constantly talk about how mismanaged offensive movements can lead to counterattacking opportunities for the opponent. In their scoreless draw with L.A. they made very few costly offensive errors, and it showed on the stat sheet.
The Galaxy had precious few scoring chances in the match, and only one of them came on an Impact blunder. That was when Romero overplayed the ball on the break, creating a counterattack for L.A. that only an incredible game-saving tackle by Cabrera kept out of the net.
Besides that moment of carelessness and fatigue (Romero was subbed out moments later) the Impact were incredibly diligent in their attacking buildup, rarely making a mistake that put their defence in a tight spot.
This didn’t mean they sat back, though. To the contrary, the Impact out-chanced and outshot their opponent, creating offence when the moment called for it. Sure, there were more than a few moments where the Impact struggled to hold onto the ball, and were consequently stuck playing defense for long periods of possession. Still, they displayed quality and most importantly, poise, when they did retain possession, things that the team needed to do in a tough road game.
If anything, it was the more highly touted home team that were guilty of careless offence, as the Impact easily could have won the game on one of their numerous counterattacks.
Looking forward to San Jose
Wednesday’s match against the Earthquakes will feature an undermanned Impact squad, and I’m hoping it will mean the first start of the year for Jackson-Hamel at striker. As we saw on Saturday, Dominic Oduro seems more relaxed and plays smarter at wing. Oduro is the type of player whose feet move faster than his brain. Getting out into empty space and feeding the box is probably easier for him than finding space in the box, where it’s normally highly congested.
I’d rather have a player like Jackson-Hamel there, because he keeps his game simple and under control. On top of that, he gives the Impact a physical presence in the area that you don’t get with Oduro, as well as a great deal more heading potential.
In midfield, Reo-Coker is probably a lock in Donadel’s spot simply because he’s clearly in form. Next to him I’d replace Mallace with Alexander, mostly just to give the American some playing time and a chance to help the team.
Oyongo comes in for Reo-Coker at RB, forming what should be a more complete backline. I’m tempted to give Miller or Camara a run out in Toia’s stead, but it’s probably too risky a proposition to take out such a solid performer for players who’ve played so little this year.
In attacking midfield, I’d like to see Venegas in the middle with Oduro and Duka or Tissot out wide. With the playoffs approaching, Biello should get as many players involved as possible, especially since there is little difference in quality among many of them. There’s not much for me between players like Romero, Duka, Tissot, Venegas, Oduro, (even Bekker, remember him?) etc., so overplaying some of them, and underplaying others seems counterproductive.