The weekend just completed in Major League Soccer brought high heat and humidity and low scores – and a few matches a bit light on offensive oomph.
One way teams spice up the attack is with fullbacks who aggressively get forward, overlapping their midfield partners and adding pressure on defenses through additional numbers.
The trick, of course, is doing it strategically, so as not to get caught short on the other end. And the other issue to consider is what players do upon arrival in the attacking third. It doesn’t make sense to motor forward and potentially expose your defense if a player can’t deliver a purposeful cross or break down defenses by regularly skinning defenders one-on-one.
Colorado’s Marvell Wynne, formerly of Toronto and New York, is a great example of this. In the past, Wynne’s speed and desire to get forward saw him regularly strafing the opposition; however, his inability to deliver precision balls upon arrival severely limited his effectiveness.
Now Wynne is a center back – and not doing too badly in his new role at DSG Park. To the point, his days as an overlapping fullback in MLS may be numbered.
So, who is getting forward effectively in MLS at the moment?
He may be a one-game flash in the pan, but this list has to start with Steven Kinney. Yes, that Steven Kinney.
The unheralded Chicago Fire rookie was an unexpected blur Thursday night at Toyota Park. Just having to deal with the league champs’ talented forwards, Alvaro Saborio and US World Cup starter Robbie Findley, would have seemed like plenty to keep a debuting rookie defender occupied.
But Kinney made the absolute most of his opportunity, getting forward along the right at every opportunity. His bold burst through the defense and incisive ball from the byline nearly led to a goal for the home team after the break.
Later, he cut inside to supply a left-footed cross that flashed dangerously in front of RSL’s goal. Meanwhile, he was a menace on restarts, banging two corner kicks off the posts.
On the other side, RSL fullbacks Chris Wingert and Robbie Russell weren’t getting forward as much as usual – and certainly not like they do at Rio Tinto. RSL play with the wide guys in their diamond-shaped midfield slanted heavily inside. So manager Jason Kreis depends on Wingert (left) and Russell (right) to provide the all-important width in the attack.
Once RSL took a first-half lead, the visitors’ outside backs seemed far less interested in venturing forward. Time and circumstance means a lot as fullbacks select their runs forward.
Similarly, in Toronto, Dan Gargan and Maxim Usanov were making a few runs forward for the first hour for the home team. Once Toronto took a 1-0 lead, neither player seemed to care for making his way past midfield. It gets problematic in a cagey match like this one, where safety rules from the outset for whatever reason. The slow-going match finished 1-0 for Toronto; neither team had much pep or pop in the attack.
From Toronto’s side, it’s more difficult to get the fullbacks forward when solid possession can’t be established. Julian de Guzman’s absence due to disciplinary suspension (he picked up a red card last week) meant Toronto struggled to keep the ball long enough for the outside backs to overlap.
Then again, not every player needs possession established to feel good about getting forward. FC Dallas left fullback Jair Benitez truly seems to spend more time in the opposition end than in his own. He is probably the most aggressive player in the league at the moment at advancing into spaces to cross or to cut inside.
It works for Dallas because holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez sits so deep in front of the back four. If Benitez gets caught out, Hernandez is there to provide extra cover as a center back swings into the gap.
Even on the road, Dallas throw their fullbacks forward relentlessly. Exhausted from an evening of overlapping in Seattle on Sunday, Benitez came off at 80 minutes. Heath Pearce moved over from the right and picked up right where Benitez left off, pressing against 10-man Seattle. Sure enough, it was Pearce who worked a give-and-go with David Ferreira for the FCD man’s world-class equalizer.
Along those lines, fullbacks who can combine with the man in front of them can double the trouble for defenses. New England right back Kevin Alston and midfielder Sainey Nyassi helped make life hard on Los Angeles in a big win Saturday for the Revs.
Nyassi had one of his better matches in a Revolution jersey, industrious all night on the right, working to find Shalrie Joseph’s distribution. That made Alston’s runs even more effective. Runs from the Revs’ energetic right back tend to play out a little differently than most, as he frequently angles to the inside rather than outside in the classic overlapping pose.
It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can lead to good things – perhaps even to a victory over the league’s best team.