COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Kosuke Kimura knew exactly what he wanted to do when he started his run. Navigate around the static yellow defender in the right corner, position his body for a cross and serve the perfect ball into the penalty area for one of his waiting forwards to finish.
The first few steps went according to plan. Kimura feinted the defender, tucked the ball around him and unleashed a cross that he thought would set the table for one of his waiting strikers. Instead, the ball hit the mini-goal on the edge of the penalty area and Kimura yelled out in frustration.
“If you're playing right wing, you have to create something,” Kimura explained after he and left back Jordan Harvey repeated that drill time and again and lashed cross after cross into the penalty area to end a lengthy training session on Thursday. “You have to give the team width, settle the ball down and look for a one-two. There's more cultured movement as a right wing. That's the difference.”
Quite the difference indeed for Harvey and Kimura, who have spent most of the season and most of their careers playing as fullbacks but now face the additional pressure of being the only remaining wide players on Colorado's roster. It wasn't supposed to be this way after the team released Terry Cooke during the summer, but knee injuries felled Colin Clark, Jacob Peterson and Jamie Smith and left Colorado shorthanded. For a Rapids side that lives and breathes on service from the flanks, the concentrated injury bug couldn't have come in a worse spot unless Conor Casey or Omar Cummings suffered a knock.
“We have injuries, just like everybody else in this league right now,” Harvey said. “It just so happens that all of our injuries are in one particular spot.”
Those injuries require Harvey and Kimura to replace some of that lost width. Harvey and Kimura worked diligently with Rapids assistant and former Leicester and Celtic winger Steve Guppy even before the onslaught of injured joints to improve their service from the wide areas. In Guppy, they couldn't have asked for a teacher more suited to the task. Guppy thrived on the left wing during a lengthy and successful career that included stops in D.C. and Rochester during its denouement, so the once-capped England midfielder had a few ideas about how the Colorado fullbacks could improve their service when he started as an assistant prior to the season.
“The problem with Jordan and Kosuke was the place they put the ball before they approached it,” Guppy said. “It's all about setting the ball up in a certain position, which enables the technique and the science of it to come into play. They both have really embraced it and done very well.”
In order to hone Harvey and Kimura's technique and ensure they correctly place the ball, Guppy and the Rapids use a drill designed to avoid one of his so-called “pet peeves.” During his club career, Guppy said he always used to get frustrated during crossing drills because wide players would serve knee-high balls into the penalty area and forwards would convert crosses they'd never see in games. The assembled throng would always laud the service, but Guppy said the plaudits missed the point entirely.
“The reality on match day is that there is going to have to be a defender that they're going to have to get (the ball) over,” Guppy said. “You have to beat the first defender. We try and recreate that by putting mini-goals where the first defender would be. So if we clear the goal and we score, the chances are that it's a good cross.”
On that Thursday morning in the Rocky Mountains, good crosses were the norm rather than the exception as the fullbacks maneuvered around the defender-shaped metal pylon. The mini-goals collected the occasional cross, but both fullbacks consistently delivered the type of dangerous ball required and the Rapids' reserve forwards had plenty of ammunition to fire on frame.
Considering the game plan assembled by Rapids coach Gary Smith for Saturday night's 1-1 draw against New England, Harvey and Kimura needed to have that type of training session to prepare for the Revolution's visit. Smith, a devotee of the 4-4-2 formation, switched to a 3-5-2 for the Rapids' 0-0 draw in Kansas City a week earlier to restrict the space allowed to the Wizards in the narrow confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark and stuck with it from the start on Saturday night.
New England opted for speedy Gambian wingers Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi in the wide areas and they exploited the acreage behind Harvey and Kimura in the first half. With New England grabbing an early goal through Kheli Dube's header, Smith returned to his preferred 4-4-2 at halftime to limit the Gambian duo's influence and asked his fullback duo to push forward to provide more service in the second half.
All of that work nearly paid off for Kimura in the 66th minute. Mehdi Ballouchy held the ball on the right sideline and Kimura stormed up the right flank on the overlap. Ballouchy clipped the ball into Kimura's path to start what looked suspiciously like the drill the Rapids' right fullback went through time and again on Thursday.
Kimura made a deft move to send Mansally careening past him and then hit his cross to the far post. Unlike the drill, the cross sailed a bit farther past the back post than Kimura would have liked and Casey could only square it in front of goal rather than direct it past New England goalkeeper Matt Reis.
The cross posed significant danger, but that probably won't be enough for Kimura and Harvey to escape more quality time with those metallic defenders as the Rapids chase a playoff spot.
“We constantly try and test the guys to make sure their technique is right, so hopefully once or twice in a season, it will pay off,” Guppy said.
Week 29 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Landon Donovan, FW, Los Angeles
In a weak crop of candidates this week, Donovan earns the gong more for his defensive workrate (see note two below) than for his delightful chip to decide Friday night's 1-0 victory over Chicago. The victory, combined with D.C. United's 2-0 loss to Chivas USA, ensured the Galaxy's first playoff berth since 2005.
1. Shalrie Joseph, New England midfielder – Few players would have lifted themselves off the ground after the knock he took on the stroke of halftime. More on that later.
2. Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder – See above and below.
3. Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC midfielder – The Canadian international must have watched in delight as D.C. United crumbled this weekend and bolstered TFC's playoff hopes in the process.
Next in Line: Omar Cummings, Colorado forward; Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus midfielder; Chad Marshall, Columbus defender; Conor Casey, Colorado forward.
The Starting XI
Chris Klein | Veteran L.A. winger put in a determined shift against Chicago after a rare week off
1. Maybe Chris Klein just needed a break prior to Friday's 1-0 victory over Chicago. Klein, soccer's considerably more modest version of Brett Favre, concluded a MLS-record streak of 141 consecutive appearances in Columbus last weekend when Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena tagged the frequent substitute with a DNP-CD. Arena made up for Klein's first day off in nearly five seasons by handing the veteran his first start since Aug. 15 and Klein made Arena look like a genius. The veteran right winger tested Chicago goalkeeper Jon Busch on a couple of occasions early in the first half and played Donovan in for the winner with a looping ball over the top.
2. Speaking of Donovan, the MVP candidate showed his genuine commitment to the Galaxy cause with his defensive work rate in the waning stages against the Fire. His most notable defensive contribution came after 79 minutes. Donovan, deployed as a forward against the Fire, tracked the speedy Mike Banner all the way back inside his own penalty box. Banner ran around him once, but Donovan stuck with the play, cut inside the Fire's makeshift left back to block his run and shepherded the ball out of play. If the American international (and his English international counterpart, who also enjoyed another fine all-around performance against the Fire) continues to show that sort of industry, the Galaxy will be difficult to stop in their first playoff appearance since 2005.
3. The machinations surrounding Chicago's wasted indirect free kick on 86 minutes would have elicited laughter if the situation wasn't so tragic for the visitors. In the first place, Chris Birchall's stumbling “back pass” didn't look like anything of the sort unless he meant to hit it off his shin or his knee or whatever body part clumsily directed it backwards, though Donovan Ricketts should have put his foot through it anyways to avoid handing referee Alex Prus the opportunity to whistle for a foul. After an extended period when Prus couldn't decide where to spot the ball, three Fire players eventually stood over the free kick located just inside the penalty area. Brian McBride decided to touch the ball without moving it (thinking Prus would reset the wall) and an alert Mike Magee swooped in to carry the ball away. Does Prus deserve some criticism for not making sure the ball moved before he allowed play to continue? Yes. Should Chicago have stopped messing about with the free kick and taken it more promptly? Absolutely, but it was rather symptomatic of the visiting team's efforts on the evening.
4. There are more than a few problems in D.C. right now after Chivas USA handed United its first three-match home losing streak since 2000 with a 2-0 win at R.F.K. Stadium on Saturday night, but the biggest one is surely at the back. United simply can't afford to give away the quality of goals it conceded on Saturday night – Maicon Santos' too-easy turn and near-post carom shot off Milos Kocic's back for the opener and Jesus Padilla's tidy finish after Marc Burch failed to clear a Jonathan Bornstein long ball for the second – and expect to play in the postseason. Better get rid of those pre-halftime substitutions while you're fixing that defense, Mr. Soehn.
5. It's fairly easy to see why Preki has stuck with Justin Braun and Michael Lahoud even with Maykel Galindo and Jesse Marsch now available. Braun certainly isn't the finished article, but he provides Galindo's over the top speed while adding considerably more in the linkup and buildup play. Braun tormented United's back line for most of Saturday evening and would have had a couple of goals but for some profligate bits of finishing. As for Lahoud, the former W.T. Woodson star from nearby Fairfax kept his engine purring all night long as he played in front of a handful of his family and friends. When Lahoud combines with Paulo Nagamura in the center of midfield, the two of them cover acres of space. Marsch brings different and important qualities (experience and tidiness, to name two) that are particularly useful late in games, but Lahoud represents a nice option to have now and in the future.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto | Columbus playmaker's penalty miss condemned the Crew to its first loss at Crew Stadium in 22 MLS matches
6. How did Seattle mastermind Columbus' first loss at Crew Stadium in 22 MLS matches? That's a bit of a mystery. Columbus looked likely and bright in the attacking third and created a host of chances. The best of those moves – a series of passes that ended with Eddie Gaven's post-ringer in the first half – showed Columbus' considerable ability to combine on the evening. The final touch simply wasn't there, as evidenced by Guillermo Barros Schelotto's first penalty miss in nine tries with the Crew after Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's needless foul on Eddie Gaven. Seattle also deserves credit for keeping a determined shape and defending resolutely. Tyrone Marshall's goal line clearance on Steven Lenhart's header after 70 minutes just about summed up Sounders FC's defensive fortitude on the evening. Moral of the story? To win at Crew Stadium, the visiting team needs a bit of luck, a bit of help from the home side and a whole lot of defensive resolve.
7. After scoring the winner in Columbus, Seattle forward Roger Levesque, who has scored just three goals in all competitions this season, may have now have the two most important goals in Sounders FC history to his name. Levesque scored the winner in the U.S. Open Cup final over D.C. United and tallied the goal required to end the Crew's lengthy unbeaten streak at Crew Stadium (in Sigi Schmid's return to boot) and all but seal a playoff berth for the expansion side.
8. “I was certainly worried,” New England coach Steve Nicol said after he watched Joseph crumple to the ground and remain there prostrate for several minutes after a collision with Cummings on the stroke of halftime in Saturday night's 1-1 draw with Colorado. “He's not a guy that lies on the ground unless there's something wrong with him. Shalrie, being the Shalrie that he is, has a bad neck and battled through it.” Joseph sprained his neck on the play and said he had a headache after the game, but he returned to the field in time for the second half anyways.
9. Colorado looks like a shell of the team that looked like a potential playoff sleeper just a couple of months ago. The Rapids are so heavily reliant on their wingers that they can't figure out how to create quality opportunities without them. They'll make the playoffs, but Smith has some hard work to do to make his team a viable threat before the second season starts.
10. Two of the very few bright spots for the Earthquakes joined forces to decide San Jose's 1-0 win over New York. Arturo Alvarez drew the penalty kick with a nice run inside and a tidy little dive (perhaps even better than Cummings' flop to earn Colorado its penalty on Saturday night) and Ryan Johnson converted from the spot for his tenth goal of the season after 24 minutes. Johnson's ten goals are the most for an Earthquake since Brian Ching potted 12 in 2004.
Claudio Lopez | Wizards winger provided the service for Zoltan's first MLS goal
11. Kansas City president Robb Heineman started a Twitter feed last week and it's definitely worth following. Heineman tweeted throughout his trip to Houston and the Wizards' 1-1 draw at Robertson Stadium. Heineman's best tweet came as interim coach Peter Vermes prepared to send on Zoltan: “i dont know what pete said to him in hungarian but it sounded good.” Whatever Vermes uttered must have worked as Zoltan sidefooted home Claudio Lopez's clever ball on 73 minutes to hold the ten-man Dynamo to a draw after Luis Angel Landin's first MLS goal staked the home side to an early lead. Follow Heineman @RobbHeineman for more Wizards-related witticisms and, while you're at it, follow me @kylejmccarthy.
BONUS: English-based pundit and former Irish international Tony Cascarino gave David Beckham's England claims the thumbs up in a column for the Times (U.K.) after watching him play in the Galaxy's 1-0 win over the Fire on Friday night. It's hard to argue with Cascarino's blessing; Beckham looks fit, sharp and influential these days. If Beckham can seal a loan deal to floundering A.C. Milan during the close season, Fabio Capello should take him to the World Cup.
The Playoff Picture
(X - clinched a playoff berth)
1. Columbus (12-5-10, 46 pts., 3 games remaining) - X
2. Chicago (10-7-11, 41 pts., 2 games remaining)
1. Houston (12-8-8, 44 pts., 2 games remaining) - X
2. Los Angeles (11-6-11, 44 pts., 2 games remaining) - X
T1. Chivas USA (12-9-5, 41 pts., 4 games remaining)
T1. Seattle (10-7-11, 41 pts., 2 games remaining)
3. Colorado (10-8-10, 40 pts., 2 games remaining)
4. New England (10-9-8, 38 pts., 3 games remaining)
D.C. United (8-8-12, 36 pts., 2 games remaining)
Toronto FC (9-10-8, 35 pts., 3 games remaining)
Real Salt Lake (9-11-7, 34 pts., 3 games remaining)
FC Dallas (9-12-6, 33 pts., 3 games remaining)
Kansas City (8-11-8, 32 pts., 3 games remaining)
San Jose (7-12-7, 28 pts., 4 games remaining)
New York (4-18-6, 18 pts., 2 games remaining)
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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