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The Big Pitcher: So Strange a Style


Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Here’s a question for people who have been following the league a lot longer than I have: Is this the most varied that the MLS has had on the pitch in its history? Don’t listen to El Chelís: There may never have been as many styles working in the league at one time as there are right now.

In a broad sense, Chelís isn’t wrong: many MLS teams do play a lone striker up front with a deep-lying forward or advanced playmaker underneath him and two wide-men somewhere in front of two fullbacks. Chivas decidedly don’t, and their 3-5-2 is probably going to have to get its own column one of these weeks.

But it’s also a gross oversimplification. There are a lot of ways a team can play that way, but to characterize the league as such does miss the on-field diversification MLS has gone through as a result of its rapid expansion and the introduction of new talent with different skill sets and new coaches with ideas to take advantage of them. It doesn’t feel like we’re so far removed from the days when you could have your 4-4-2 in any color you like, so long as it was black. The games don’t bleed into one another; instead, three weeks in, some styles are as indicative of their particular teams as their shirts.

Take the darlings of the early season, the Montreal Impact and their cover version (parody? loving homage? bastardization?) of Roma’s old 4-1-4-Totti formation: a lone front man dropping deep – or in Marco Di Vaio’s case, deep and toward the flanks – allowing the next line of four midfielders to surge into open space onto passes from that forward or their talented midfield pivot. No one else in the league plays quite this way. Di Vaio’s chalkboards in particular make for a fascinating study, and I’m continually amazed by his ability to step back into midfield right past the boundary of a defender’s attention then surge by him as soon as that defender turns off (This example against Portland shows he doesn’t always have far to go).

Can they keep it up? Can their elderly legs do it on a hot, muggy Saturday in Houston? We’ll never know. They somehow get Houston in Houston on a Friday night in October, by which point half their creaky starting XI might be dead from natural causes.

Vancouver too escapes the worst of the Texas heat, getting the Dynamo this Saturday when the high in Houston is just 78 degrees. Their hot start comes with the use of a not-uncommon 4-2-3-1 formation, but the way they can mix and match their athletes and their playmakers in that formation gives them a variety of ways to attack opposing defenses. They haven’t even had to break out what might end up being the league’s best non-Goonies Plan B offense: give the ball to Daigo and have their squadron of speedsters run Hail Mary’s to open up space.

Porter’s Timbers adhered to Claudio Reyna’s Platonic ideal even as the side shifted into something more defensive in Seattle. (I like when Valeri moves into tiny pockets of space and thinks he’s open while his teammates look at him squatting in the same space and conclude he’s well-covered. You imagine with time they’ll figure it out.) RSL 2.0’s changes are more like a 1.5 patch than a new edition as long as the Rimando-Beckerman-Saborio core is intact, but they’ve been one of the league’s leading examples of a team-specific style for years now. Sporting KC may be grinding their gears as they shift from a philosophy that revolved around position to one of possession, but 69% against Toronto and 73% against Chicago suggest that the only thing they have left to figure out is the goal-scoring.

New York’s pressing means the team occasionally slips into a horseshoes and hand grenades approach to defensive positioning, but their team defense through three games is better than expected, relying less than nearly everyone expected on Dax McCarty as their own frantic Brain, scrambling to keep the various bolted-on components of their Inspector Gadget-squad from handcuffing themselves to a lit bomb or helicoptering while upside-down.

This variety is a boon for MLS. A match’s quality isn’t derived only from the quality of the players on the field. Stylistic clashes turn otherwise unspectacular teams into intriguing opponents for one another no matter what game you’re playing and are a big part of the appeal of a sporting event you may have heard a little about this month: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (Quick: Count the number of times they say “tempo”).

When teams see as many varying paths to victory as they do right now, the real winners are going to be the fans who can appreciate the idiosyncrasies they’re going to be watching. No matter what El Chelís sees.

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for “The Other 87 Minutes”, their brilliance featured every Tuesday on the Free Beer Movement in the form of “the Tuesday 10” or the “Tuesday XI”. While attending the Emory University he won “College Jeopardy”

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts, Major League Soccer

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