Route Two Soccer: Bridging the Gap

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Organizing a defense is hard, and the job gets even more difficult when you remember that preventing the other team from scoring is only half of the game. Today, I want to focus on the Washington Spirit, who got ripped apart by the North Carolina Courage last weekend. The problem for Washington is: there was no single actor at fault, no single point of contact to be addressed. Instead, their problems reflect a larger tactical dilemma.

Ultimately, the story is pretty simple. Having brought in a wealth of attacking talent, the team is overloaded up top without equivalent quality in the back. You can see from the back four against NC: Taylor Smith, Whitney Church, Estelle Johnson, and Caprice Dydasco. All quality players, but all players with severe limitations. In combination, this is a backline that can do a job but is never going to dominate the game. In particular, it’s a centerback pairing that is sorely lacking in pace.

Under those conditions, many teams will sit back, using their midfield as a secondary shield. The classic principle here is to establish ‘two banks of four’ spread across the field, with relatively little space in between the lines. The problem for Washington is: they don’t want to play a compact defensive game. Do so and you lose out on the value of those great attackers.

Unfortunately for them, there isn’t really a way to square this circle. Play your midfield further up, and you generate acres of space between the lines. That’s prime ground for the other team to attack. Observe:

Here, Sullivan is tracking a runner into that gap, but O’Sullivan, Dunn, and Mathias are all moving freely in open space. All it takes is one ball into that territory and the Spirit backline is put into an impossible decision. If a centerback steps forward to mark the ball carrier, she generates a gap behind her. If she drops back and tries to soak up the pressure, suddenly the whole team is trying to move backward at pace while holding their lines tight. That’s a tough job for anyone.

A few minutes later, we see another example of the problem. In this case, Washington is pushing high and its midfield has scattered. That’s fine if you have the ball, but once they lose possession, there’s no hope of resetting the defensive line. Therefore, in an effort to compress that open territory, the backline has also come high. The problem is: they are Not Fast—especially not the centerbacks. Meanwhile, the Carolina attackers have pace to burn. You can very much guess what happens next.

North Carolina breaks. A simple ball behind the defense, and everyone is off to the races. With most of the Spirit midfield effectively out of the equation, it’s now four Courage attackers against four defenders, with Sullivan hoping to catch up in time. NC is into the box within a few seconds, and attacking a defense that has not had time to set.

A nice touch from Williams takes Smith out of the equation. A slicing run from McDonald drags the centerbacks forward. Williams shoots, and the ball ricochets off Church (possibly a handball) right into the six-yard box. Sullivan has done her best to catch up to the play but is in no position to make a real clearance. Result: the ball falls to Dunn who buries her finish.

And this isn’t a one-time thing. Washington consistently faced this problem: big gaps that allowed Carolina to turn quickly and race into space—creating regular 4-on-4 breaks that were never going to end well.

Again, there’s no perfect solution to this problem. Washington doesn’t have the pace in back to sustain a high line, particularly not against a team like North Carolina. But if they sit back, they’ll concede possession and control, likely their best chance of turning the tables.

Ultimately, Washington is simply going to have to decide how they want to approach this topic. If they are committed to playing an expansive attacking game, they simply don’t have the personnel to fully cover their bases. That might be a sacrifice worth making, in which case the focus should be on developing techniques for limiting the damage.  One simple but necessary element: drilling the midfield to hold their lines more cleanly. That won’t resolve the problem, but could mitigate the effects.

At a deeper level, they should also seriously look into their team selection. Given the limitations of the backline, they would be best off using two true holding midfielders, whose job is to patrol that gap. In this game, they ostensibly played as a 4-3-3, which in reality was usually a 4-1-4-1. Committing more fully to the principle of a midfield shield and using a 4-2-3-1 would help a lot. That probably means using Tori Huster – who is a wizard at occupying space – but Rebecca Quinn could be another long-term solution, while Morgan Proffitt or Meggie Dougherty Howard might also fit the bill. Clearly, though, Joanna Lohman is not the answer. She is a national treasure, but was not well suited to this setup, and it showed on the night. Further back, Jim Gabarra has made very clear over the last several years that he trusts Church a great deal, and there are good reasons for that. Church is a smart player who extracts every possible measure of value out of her ability. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, her lack of pace is going to keep getting exposed unless they can find her a partner with the speed to cover those runs.

The Spirit have plenty of talent, but their naiveté showed against North Carolina. There’s no shame in losing to the Courage, of course, but they would do well to consider what went wrong, and to think seriously about how to organize this collection of excellent individual players into a sturdier defensive unit.