Nobody really covered themselves in glory, but the nexus of the problems was obvious to all. The midfield simply didn’t function. Here are three ways of looking at that problem.
One of the big storylines heading into the game was the dilemma that Adrian Heath faced at center back with Francisco Calvo on international duty. That actually turned out to not be a major deal. Jermaine Taylor was good enough, and Joe Greenspan is back from over a month of stellar performances on loan with Pittsburgh to provide even more cover.
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The real depth issue turned out to be in defensive midfield, where Sam Cronin was absent due to a retroactive suspension from a tough tackle in the game against Orlando. In his place, Heath started Collen Warner, who had begun the season in that position. The move didn’t pay off. Cronin’s easy chemistry with Ibson has been a key to the Loons’ success in recent weeks. On Saturday, Warner’s relationship with the Brazilian was like an awkward first dance, they kept stepping on each other’s toes. Often there was nobody around to shield the back-line, which forced the centerbacks backward and the fullbacks inward, leaving massive space on the wings for SKC’s Gerso Fernandes.
The problem is that Cronin and Warner simply do not play the same position. Cronin is a cautious defensive midfielder (No. 6) who is diligent about his positioning and rarely ambitious with the ball. His careful movement in midfield opens up space for Ibson, a box-to-box central midfielder (No. 8), to buzz around. But Warner evidently wants to play as a No. 8 as well, and that means that too often SKC could get the ball in behind both central midfielders with a single pass.
When Miguel Ibarra had to leave the match early due to injury, the problems of the Warner-Ibson pairing were compounded by the entry of Rasmus Schüller. The Finnish international has been dreadful for the Loons, but part of the problem is that he has rarely been put in a position to succeed.
There was no clear hierarchy. There was no central midfielder whose job it was to play higher up, no central midfielder whose job it was to defend the back four, no central midfielder whose job it was to harry and harass.
That was again the case on Saturday. With an injury on the right wing, Adrian Heath decided not to insert Bashkim Kadrii, a true winger, but instead switch to a three man midfield with Schüller, while pushing Kevin Molino to the right.
But Schüller is also a No. 8, and the Loons now had three players all trying to do roughly the same thing. There was no clear hierarchy. There was no central midfielder whose job it was to play higher up, no central midfielder whose job it was to defend the back four, no central midfielder whose job it was to harry and harass. The players were simply left to figure it out on their own, and they were eaten alive by a Sporting midfield who are suited to their roles (Sanchez, the shielder, Espinoza, the harrier, Feilhaber, the creator) and have the movements down pat.
A lot of attention from folks, including myself, has focused on the role of Vadim Demidov in the early season disasters. But as this most recent match showed, we shouldn’t forget the role of bad tactics as well. The Loons began the year in the Portland, Atlanta, and New England matches trying to play the 4-3-3. They failed, for much the same reasons that they failed in Kansas City.
The team is loaded with No. 8s. Ibson has locked down the starting role. Schüller and Warner are behind him, and poor Colin Martin might be at the back. But there is only one No. 6 on the roster (Cronin) and arguably only one No. 10 on the roster as well (Molino, but I’ve yet to see him play better as the No. 10 than he does on the wing).
In this summer transfer window, the club absolutely has to go out and get some depth in these positions. Last week, I argued for NASL talent like Dylan Mares, Nazmi Albadawi, and Dustin Correa in that No. 10 spot. This past week, our own Jeff Rueter, writing in FourFourTwo, identified more NASL rising stars, including a young defensive midfielder name Bolu Akinyode with North Carolina FC (née RailHawks). I’ll leave it to Manny Lagos, Amos Magee, Adrian Heath, and the rest of the staff to make the real calls, but if they’re not looking at cheap domestic depth for these positions, I think they’re setting up the team for more games like this past one.
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