The Great Intangible Tangible: Identity

Sporting KC didn’t play particularly well Saturday against the Los Angeles Galaxy, but it was a good enough.

The victors came away with an earned 1-0 scoreline to keep perfection on the line.

Out west, San Jose played uninspired soccer for the first 45 minutes of their match against Vancouver. This despite being playing at home and despite the name of Tottenham Hotspurs’ loanee Simon Dawkins–sometimes wizardly in possession–finally scribbled in the starting eleven.

Up in Salt Lake, Colorado succumbed to Kyle Beckerman & Co.

Two strikers made their presence felt for the home side against Oscar Pareja’s second-rate center defense combination. (Drew Moor was moved to midfield for the neighborly battle.)

Two weeks ago, the United States U-23 team failed to qualify for the Olympics, deploying in  4-3-3 formation while the strength of the team appeared it could be crossing and finishing and true wing play.

Conversations, debates and arguments can be made about little moments or events within any match that determine the outcome. Maybe Fabian Espindola doesn’t score this weekend if there is better communication between Marvell Wynne and Matt Pickens on Espindola’s vector in the box.

Maybe the US punches a London ticket if Mix Diskerud and Michael Stephens don’t get split by an El Salvadorian attacker or Amobi Okugo takes an appropriate foul.

And those observations and debates are all fair.

But, over the course of a few games or a season, isolated events does not success or failure make. Teams are never just plain lucky or unlucky.

While tactical manipulation during the match is key and yes, sometimes paramount, it’s the selection of players (preceded of course by their acquisition) on the pitch and how well they execute that is key. New players on new teams can’t be expected to hit the ground running and player’s must also have an understanding of whether they are primary, secondary in their offensive and defensive roles and buy in to whatever that answer is.

All of this is compiled into the most important team characteristic, a team’s identity.

It’s what teams come to be known by. In MLS, Houston is known for their defense; the Seattle Sounders for their fast-paced attack. Teams get known for that identity and they reinforce it or vice versa actually.

The Bad Boy Pistons. (Is that moniker going to be bestowed on Montreal Impact maybe by next year, by the way?)

This past weekend was an apex of how identity translates to wins.

Sporting KC didn’t play their best game, but their players knew what to do and kept executing.

They didn’t give up a shot on goal and they continually threatened.

Despite missed chances, there was never any real sense of frustration on the field for Peter Vermes team.

LA's lost identity without Omar.

Not so with the Los Angeles Galaxy who have been befuddled on their identity since Omar Gonzalez went down and saw it further exacerbated on Saturday with a deplorable 62% passing accuracy in the absence of David Beckham. Minus Beckham, the Galaxy had no plan and spent the last 20 minutes of the match hucking the ball up to Robbie Keane and  praying to St. Patrick to lead them out of Kansas City with at least a point.

In San Jose, the loss of Steven Lenhart threw the entire attack and–frankly–the defense in relieving pressure out of whack. With the insertion of Alan Gordon up top, allowing Chris Wondolowski to move off the ball, you could see San Jose’s team lightbulb go a glow with, “Now I know/remember what I have to do.”

Similarly up in Salt Lake, the removal of Drew Moor from center of defense was most likely directly responsible for both of Salt Lakes’ goals, certainly the second.

It’s no secret or surprise, that teams doing well in MLS to start the season are the ones that know their identity. Real Salt Lake always seems to know theirs, but needs to fit new and old part in.

Sporting KC across the board–Kamara, Sapong, Espinoza–has more firmly grasped theirs.

San Jose should be commended because they’ve latched on to theirs quite early this season with the re-introduction of Stephen Lenhart and backline maintenance of Victor Bernardez.

Identity makes individual player decision easier on the pitch. It keeps the game simple for players working with a team framework.

Take Kei Kamara in Sporting KC. Kamara is playing his best soccer and it’s because he knows his role. “Play off CJ Sapong, overlap and make runs into the box, provide an outlet on the wing the other team is attacking from.” Kamara’s not told merely to “be a forward or be a striker” because the next question is “Okay, how do I do that precisely?”

It’s been a fascinating start to this MLS campaign along the identity front and it’s making for great storylines:

“Can Hans Backe actually make Kenny Cooper a hold-up play in Luke Rodgers absence? (Without Rodgers or a Rodgers-like player, the New York Red Bulls were offensively lost in first two matches of the season.)

How long will it take Pareja in Colorado to implement his 4-3-3 from a depth of squad perspective? Colorado has looked mediocre when Mastroeni or Larentowicz aren’t on the pitch.

Is Chivas USA on the verge of something big now that their defensive disposition earned them three points  in one of MLS’s hardest stadiums?

All about identity. And how ironic, or it poetic, that MLS’s most traveled player–Alan Gordon–re-established San Jose–a team devoid of identity for some time–and their identity this weekend?

7 responses to this post.

  1. A) You stole this post idea from me. I’ve been thinking about penning an MLS identity piece for weeks. Damn you!

    B) Marvell Wynne and Matt Reis?

    C) Nicely done. SKC has been a team on a mission to refine their identity since 2010, and I’m loving what they’re doing right now.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/09 at 6:20 PM

      B) Matt Reis, I have no idea what you are talking about. :> (thanks.)

      You should do the follow-up.

      Up there in New England I like what they’re doing. My concern is that Shalrie is either slowing down for the role they want them to play.


      • Posted by dth on 2012/04/09 at 6:28 PM

        I’ve been surprised how well Jay Heaps has done. There’s some talent there to work with. Who knows whether he’ll be able to move on with that front office anchor, but their prospects are much brighter than most imagined.

        With Chivas and Revolution looking unexpectedly frisky, who are our predictions for bottom three in MLS?


      • I’ve been thinking about it. The thing with Shalrie slowing down is that his age is now mitigated with the presence of Simms. The problem at Dallas was that Lechner was getting eaten alive by Castillo and Shea (when they switched), so Clyde and Shalrie both had to do more lateral defensive cover, which is something Shalrie doesn’t do as well anymore. But, especially after his performance against Portland, I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that his future, maybe a season or two down the road, lies at center back.


  2. Posted by Crow on 2012/04/09 at 6:32 PM

    What is the Union’s identity? I was asking that last year. Nowak’s schizophrenic game plans and lineup changes dont allow for one. The only thing the Union are known for is horrific set piece defending.


    • Posted by dth on 2012/04/09 at 6:48 PM

      Speaking of “what’s the Union’s identity,” I looked at the box score for your reserve game with New England today and was surprised to see Hernandez playing LB. I thought, well that must be some kind of error, and read the recap. Nay, he was playing LB.

      Now why are you going to take a guy who’s an attacking midfielder–reminds me a bit of Nagbe–and put him at LB? What’s the thought process here?

      Can only really conclude that no one in that organization really knows what he’s doing.


  3. Posted by Crow on 2012/04/09 at 6:33 PM

    Sorry this is off topic but this has really been bugging me and I forgot to ask when I asked about Gooch and Davies. What is George John’s status with West Ham? I haven’t heard anything about him. AND what are Bocanegra and Bedoya doing? I thought I heard that Rangers was going to release them.


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