12312_gonzalezomar_isi_mlstq120112024 Tony Quinn/isiphotos.com
Talking Tactics

At MLS Cup, Individual Effort Triumphs Tactics

This is Omar Gonzalez's world, and the rest of us are just living in it. ASN tactics maestro Liviu Bird takes a look at how the defender dominated both ends of the field on Saturday afternoon.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
December 03, 2012
5:41 AM
MLS Cup 2012 ended in a deserved and expected 3-1 win for the Los Angeles Galaxy over the Houston Dynamo. The game turned on an injury to Houston’s best player and the attacking and defending prowess of LA's best man.

The match featured competing 4-4-2 systems, rendering the tactical battles simple and straightforward. The game was won on an individual level rather than by instructions from the bench.

Contrasting Forward Pairings
Dynamo forward Calen Carr was his team’s best player, and his injury in the second half turned the game in the Galaxy’s favor. His replacement, Mac Kandji, was nowhere near as effective at holding up the ball and keeping pressure off the Houston midfield and defensive lines.

On the other end of the field, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane weren’t as effective on Saturday as they have been during the playoffs. Their partnership is based on being two active players combining through the defense. Their combination against Houston was sporadic, although they narrowly missed on several occasions.

Carr and Will Bruin played a more staggered style, with Bruin acting as the target and Carr as the shadow striker. Target strikers do what Bruin did, which is try to find the ball in advanced positions; shadow strikers make runs off the target and find wide channels, as Carr did. Houston’s goal came as the result of one of these wide runs, with Carr splitting defenders and making the second-man run in behind Bruin, who was checking to the ball. Adam Moffat did well to pick his head up and look beyond Bruin to the streaking Carr.

Heady Play on Both Ends
A defender never won the MLS Cup MVP award until Omar Gonzalez did so on Saturday. From the first minute, he was into the game and carried his inexperienced center back partner, rookie Tommy Meyer, through the tough moments. In the first 10 minutes, Gonzalez was six for six in the air on the defensive end of the field. As Houston pressed early, he played a vital role in breaking up any attacking play the Dynamo had.

As Los Angeles won a few set pieces in its own attacking half, Gonzalez found opportunities to get forward into dangerous areas on the other end as well. It was his header that tied the game, and it was his aerial challenge that set up the play that resulted in Landon Donovan’s penalty kick.

Rumblings of inclusion in the January camp and a possible contract in Europe are plentiful and deserved for Gonzalez after such a key performance. His only mistake was leaving Carr onside for the Houston goal.

Unimpressive Goalkeeping
After the top three, the depth chart at the goalkeeper position on the national team drops off dramatically. It was never more apparent than during the MLS Cup Final, especially with regard to the Galaxy’s Josh Saunders.

Saunders was shaky in the air and on the ground. Within the first five minutes, he failed to win a ball cleanly that was well inside his range, panicked on an easy clearance with his feet that gave away possession, and punched a no-pressure cross that was right at him when he could have caught it. It wouldn’t get any better for him, as he flailed hopelessly at Carr’s finish at the end of the first half. In that situation, goalkeepers are expected to stand up and make the near-post save. If Carr beats him to the far post, then he’s at least earned the goal.

Down a goal late in the game, Houston might have found success lumping the ball toward the top of the six-yard box and seeing if Saunders would make a mess of something else. Instead, he enjoyed a relatively quiet second half.

Houston’s Tally Hall couldn’t be faulted for any of the three goals, although he did give away the second penalty kick with a desperate reach back after he was beaten on the dribble. Gonzalez’s header was out of reach, and conceding two penalties is anything but shameful.

Liviu Bird is an assistant editor at Prost Amerika and a contributor to the New York Times Goal Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @LiviuBird.

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