Flying with Tim Cahill: The art of winning key headers, making runs & countering zonal marking.

Cahill celebrates

A dressing room after a successful football match can be a loud place for a winning team but last Saturday in Toronto the New York Red Bulls were all business after securing a dramatic late 2-1 victory.

There was no loud music blaring out but there was a tune being sung by one of their players.

“I believe he can fly,” he sung, “oh yeah you are flying Timmy, lets get you an Air Jordan sponsorship.”

Tim Cahill remained unmoved. After scoring the game winner in the 89th minute with his head he acted like he had done it before. And he had.

Listed at a generous 5ft 10 inches, the 33-year-old has made a living executing late runs into the box and scoring with his head. In his eight seasons at Everton in the Premier League he scored a remarkable 31 headed goals, averaging one every 7.3 matches, a better ratio than some of the finest headers the league has seen such as Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson, Les Ferdinand and Gus Poyet.

After the match I chatted with Cahill about some of the key moments in the game, which had highlighted all the key areas the Australian excels at.

On making key runs into the box

“Firstly, I thought we played some beautiful passing, especially in the first half, the organisation and consistency has to be there first. Its about making sure we fill in the holes and not concede. If we don’t concede we will score and make things happen, lets get more solid and then I will break more. I’ll be honest with you I said today we need to be disciplined, control the team from the middle and let the play come to us and if we get a chance then we break, and all my career I have done that but we had to pick and choose when we broke,” said Cahill, who only had one goal in 22 matches for New York prior to Saturday.

Break he did. Twice into the box to score, once with his foot to open the scoring and the second with his head to end it.

The first goal came via a broken play that meant the midfielder was still in an advanced role but just showed his ability to firstly find space and secondly hit the back of the net with an instinctive, one-touch finish. This is the build up to the move where Lloyd Sam’s cross comes into the box with Cahill perfectly positioned in space, unmarked and ready to pounce.

Cahill 16

Thierry Henry then brilliantly dummies the ball, knowing full well where his team-mate is, allowing Cahill to smash home with his left foot.

Cahill 17

Cahill’s first goal of the season…..

Cahill 18

New York’s opening goal brought them calmness and a confidence that allowed them to play the disciplined style Cahill preached. After a key goalkeeping error allowed Toronto to equalize, the game appeared to be heading for a 1-1 draw until ‘Henry to Cahill’ won them the game. Much focus in Toronto was rightfully on Ashtone Morgan’s poor clearance but watch Cahill’s brilliant run into space and his fantastic ability to not only get high but then put the ball into the ground to beat Joe Bednik in Toronto’s goal.

Cahill reflected on the winner afterwards: “If we were up 1-0 I don’t think I would have went but Thierry didn’t even look at me, I screamed and he heard and being the footballer he is he knew exactly where I was, put the ball in the air and from there, if they are not going to follow me and follow the runners, then there was only going to be one winner on that cross and that’s what I have been looking for all season. Thierry’s class (showed) on that ball and like I said he didn’t even look at me, that’s football, instincts.”

On sitting deeper and helping out his defence

In a cagey first half Cahill sat intelligently in the middle of the visitors midfield with Eric Alexander, concentrating more on being a key outlet for the defenders behind him than connecting with the four in front of them.

“If you watch Toronto’s videos they are a second ball team, they pump it in the box, pick up the second ball, back into the box, third ball, but if you have the players set in the right positions then you can break and find the players like Thierry (Henry) and Lloyd (Sam).”

On two occasions during the match a key header needed to be won deep in New York’s own half and it was done so by the Aussie who has a clear, supreme understanding of the ball when it leaves an opponents foot for a cross, knowing more than most where it is going to fall. “I pride myself on defending just as much as attacking, Toronto are a dead ball team who lump the balls in the box, I am not scared to win a challenge when I am defending and if it starts with me then it will only influence on the others in this team.”

On executing their plan at corners

You do not score 31 Premier League headed goals without knowing how to find your way around a crowded penalty area on corners. On Saturday, following the game, Toronto FC boss Ryan Nelsen admitted that he had warned his team about Cahill’s strengths at corners and although his side did a decent job at just the three corners New York won, the set pieces provided all with a fascinating look at why Cahill is so successful.

Before we take a look at New York’s process on attacking at a corner it is important to see Toronto FC sets up in a full zonal marking shape with all 10 players labelled, all doing a specific job.

tfc Zonal Marking 2

1 – is the man on the near post.

5 – this man monitors the near post but also blocks the angle of the ball coming across the goal.

2, 3, 4 – three players across the six yard box. 2 and 4 usually are the length of a goal between each other with number 3 in the middle, thus blocking off the zones.

6, 7, 8 – three players are then put in front of them and the job of these six players is to mark their zones and stay focused on going forward and side-to-side not back.

9 – This player’s position can be flexible depending on the set up of the opposition. He is usually deeper but here the player in question Ashtone Morgan is attracted to the large group of players and as you will see will go back with his marker as the play develops. He is effectively marking man-to-man unlike the rest of the team.

10 – This is the most advanced player whose job is primary to track any late runners and find crucial space to be a key outlet if his team wins the ball back.

Cahill is the team’s leader in executing what his coaching staff work on through the week. He immediately sets himself up on the edge of the area, running through the positions of the players in his mind.

Cahill 3

Then it is time for a quick meeting between Cahill and his team-mates to go through their runs, so they do not copy one another and pick the right areas to attack and then create holes.

Cahill 5

Cahill 7

After reviewing their assignments it is time to begin early movements to keep defenders on their toes. Cahill, fully aware the attention of many is on him, drifts into space. At this stage you will see Fabian Espindola walking towards Cahill…..

Cahill 8

Espindola then moves into the six yard box to occupy the attention of those in that area and stop them coming out. Now it is time to put the plan into action as Cahill explained to me post match: ‘It’s all about trying to move the defence out of holes, and try and make areas where I can get in, if we dont make the right runs you wont get the goals and in these MLS games you need two or three goals to win games. I am constantly talking on the pitch and organising them to make sure people are in the position and if you get set early it makes it easier.”

Cahill 10

In this case the players are set early. As Henry prepares to take the corner it is time to make the aggressive moves. The two players to Cahill’s right (above) are going to rush in while Cahill spins around into space.

Cahill 11

The importance of everyone doing what they are told with intelligent movement is now evident as Cahill finds himself with some space in front of him ready for the ball…..

Cahill 12

As expected the ball finds Cahill in the space he helped create but is quickly closed down by the zonal markers….

Cahill 13

Cahill is not one to be denied easily though and now the importance of getting the second ball is vital. Cahill explained this afterwards when he referred to its importance from both set pieces and open play against a direct team like Toronto, saying: “The lads are probably sick of me screaming the entire game  ‘second ball’ because if you win that then you start to play, regardless of the circumstances.”

Cahill 14

Cahill fights for the second ball and wins it getting a shot off saved by the onrushing Bendik.

Cahill 15All-in-all it was a complete performance from Cahill who at 33 is starting to become a coach on the field as his head coach Mike Petke explained: “The two goals today were just the cherry on the cake to be honest with you because he does exactly what we ask him to do.  He leads in the midfield, he plays very stingy defence and he’s a work horse.  He’s an example for our young midfielders to be honest with you.”

On the maturation of defender Omar Gonzalez & LA Galaxy’s desire to pass out from the back.


His face lit up when he was asked about it. It was clear it is a game he will enjoy talking about for the rest of his career, not just in the week it had happened.

And what a week it was. Omar Gonzalez was in his third country in the last four days when he gave me some time on Saturday following his side’s 2-2 draw in Toronto. All players of any level have those games that take you to the next level, that give them the confidence in their ability to grow as a player, and for the 24-year-old Gonzalez his had come in Mexico, birthplace of his parents, playing for the United States.

“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career, representing my country playing against, you know, being Mexican, me, but I am extremely happy playing for the US, I grew up here and this is what I have wanted to do since I was a young player and the night was a great effort and showing for me. I was really happy to get a point for the US.”

For Gonzalez, who was named MVP in last season’s MLS Cup final, the World Cup qualifier was just another high-level showcase for him to show his talents and as his team-mate Landon Donovan explained to me postmatch that adds pressure on him when he returns for his club.

“I watched the US games while I was away and I thought he was terrific in the last two (international) games but today was a big test for him too, because anywhere you play as you go higher and higher in levels, your team expects you to come back and perform where you are, at that level, and it was good to see him come back and help us get a point here.”

Anyone who saw the highlights of the game, and not the 90 minutes in its entirety, would question Donovan’s analysis regarding his defender helping his team, after all he was involved in a defensive mix-up on the first goal conceded and was dragged wide by Luis Silva on the second. However, neither goal was directly his fault and throughout the match the US international showed just how he has developed into one of the league’s best defenders. The game was actually a perfect example of how Gonzalez and his team have matured into a team that treasures the ball from front to back.

Team Shape

OG-Shape 1

The Galaxy played a 4-4-2 hybrid again on Saturday with their back four pushing high up the field. Gonzalez, who plays as the right sided centre-back, likes to spread wide and play closer to his full back than his counterpart in the middle of the defence, Leonardo. This allows the centre-back a chance to be an outlet for his full back and midfielders, to create triangles in possession:


While also closing the gaps between centre back and full back, an area strikers feast in…..

OG-channel cutting

When the opponent attacks as a unit the defensive line drops deeper and they get narrower.

OG-deeper shape

Transitioning back to a high line

And immediately when they deal with the attack, Gonzalez, despite having more senior players around him, is the unquestionable vocal leader in the line to ensure the unit doesn’t get too deep, regularly raising his arms and reminding his team-mates to get forward….

OG-high line

Keeping possession

As the technical report following Euro 2012 explained, the most successful teams are now creating a trend towards a possession-oriented passing game.

OG-possession 3

LA Galaxy, winners of the past two MLS Cups, are no different as Gonzalez explained to me:  “I think as a team we have started to play like that only the past few years, my first year in the league (2009) it was more lets not mess around back here, lets just put it up the field and worry about losing it there and now everyone has been playing together for five years, we are a lot more comfortable with each other and now we do play more out of the back and possess more.”

OG-possession 1

No more was this evident than with the distribution of the goalkeepers. Toronto FC ‘keeper Joe Bednik only played the ball in his own half three times from 35 attempts (9%). The Galaxy, who are where Toronto FC want to be, of course, regularly played it between themselves at the back in moves started by their goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.

OG-possession 2

The Italian distributed the ball 33 times in the game and 20 of them were in his own half (60%). As Gonzalez rightly said, teams must work on their technical ability to employ such a strategy but it is clear, no matter the standard, no team would want a goalkeeper kicking the ball over the halfway line 91% of the time. In this case, of Bednik’s 32 clearances, 20 went directly to a Galaxy player while, in contrast, Bruce Arena’s team were able to keep possession a lot more because they trusted their defenders on the ball.


LA’s desire to play from the back was the key contributing factor in the game’s first two goals. This photo, showing Gonzalez starting an attack, was taken 17 seconds before LA opened the scoring.

OG-LA goal

Seven LA Galaxy passes later, without TFC touching the ball, the visitors took the lead:

Gonzalez said post match: “We’ve been working on getting the ball from the backline and getting forward as quickly as possible and that led to a very good goal by us. Linking with the midfielders and forwards is something we want to keep getting better at, pushing up the field. It’s getting better but it’s a slow process because you don’t want to make mistakes and sometimes you have to choose to get the ball forward quicker.”

He didn’t have to say it but it was clear he was thinking about the equaliser when Leonardo attempted to play a short pass to Gonzalez in the build up to the first goal they conceded.

Cudicini’s rash moment left his goal exposed and gave him a harsh reminder to trust his defenders next time.  As you watch the goal develop you can see the pass was clearly not hit hard enough and wouldn’t have got to Gonzalez…

OG - goal 1

At this stage (above) you can see Gonzalez go towards the ball as he backs himself to defend against Earnshaw going in on goal, but his thought process is forced to change…

0G-goal 2

Instead of running down Earnshaw in a 1×1 battle with the goalkeeper he now has to stop and head towards the goal to cover for the onrushing Cudicini.

Picture 4834

By now Cudicini has effectively taken him out of the game and he is powerless to the decision-making of Earnshaw who produces a terrific finish…

Picture 4835

“That will not make us go backwards at all, we will still continue to possess the ball at the back and link up between each other. I was happy with our positioning, the ball wasn’t hit hard enough and the pitch was playing really slow, the grass was really high, and that’s something we talked about before the game, be aware of back passes. We just made a mistake, ” Gonzalez reflected afterwards.

Lesson learned.

Getting defenders to be comfortable on the ball and trust each other technically may have cost Galaxy a goal against Toronto but it is sure to help them score many more this season. At the heart of their improvement is the form and technical progression shown by Gonzalez who at this rate may be playing his final season in MLS before getting a big move to Europe.

Toronto FC 2-1 Sporting KC – Organised TFC cut the strings from puppet master Zusi.

Starting XI’s

Ryan Nelsen made one change from last week’s loss in Vancouver with John Bostock coming in for Kyle Bekker, who spent the week in between suffering from the flu. Hogan Ephraim took Bekker’s spot behind Robbie Earnshaw with Bostock coming in on the right, shifting Reggie Lambe to the left.

football formations

Kansas City boss Peter Vermes kept the same XI that came from behind to win 3-1 in Philadelphia on the opening weekend.

football formations

Toronto FC stay organised and compact

It is one thing for a coach to talk about the need for his team to be organised and defensively solid, it is something else for the players to go out and do it. On Saturday Toronto FC, against one of the league’s best teams, did exactly that.

How? The move to a four band system has been essential to their improvement at the start of the season. Toronto are effectively playing a 4-4-1-1 at the moment with their wide players playing very deep. The fact it rarely turns into a 4-2-3-1 with the ball may be an indictment on the overall quality of the players but is also a sign that the players are coach-able and willing to stick to what they are asked of.


Playing with two deep banks of four has many disadvantages and can lead to an onslaught by the opposition if they pass the ball well and find gaps in the channels between them. However, despite their second half dominance, the visitors struggled to find space for their playmakers thanks to a combination of a poor final ball and good solid defending.

Toronto FC press intelligently

Playing on a difficult surface this early in the season means it was always tough to press as a unit throughout, but crucially Toronto FC put the plan in place to ensure the four band system was flexible. KC’s back four took the first four spots in overall pass attempts but Ephraim and Earnshaw still intelligently pressed the back four, which led to the first goal, while Jeremy Hall and Terry Dunfield worked well as a unit pressing and covering space at the same time in central midfield.

tfc press

TFC cut the strings from puppet master Zusi

Graham Zusi is a fine player and finds space better than most in this league. Zusi,  usually deployed on the right, loves to work overlaps with his full-back, Chance Myers, but more than anything he loves to come centrally to pull centre-backs out of position. On Saturday he had a difficult time doing any of that.

Vermes started Zusi in his usual spot on the right as he and Myers went up against Reggie Lambe and Ashtone Morgan in an interesting battle on the flanks. Lambe, who was very good defensively in Vancouver, was impressive again in this area despite a move to the left. Myers and Zusi’s attacking tendencies will always put their opponents on the back foot but Lambe stuck to the plan well, playing narrow to show his opponents the line and often shielding Morgan from Zusi’s movement.

Earlier in the first half here is a good example as to why it was important for Morgan and Lambe to work well as Zusi and Myers break by them….

Zusi good 14

You will notice at the bottom of that image that this move got Nelsen up off the bench. Thankfully, for him, it ended with a wayward pass, something too familiar for the visitors. In total Zusi and Myers lost possession 42 times in the game, with a combined pass completion ratio of only 70% (76 of 108).

Lambe wouldn’t make the same mistake twice….

Zusi 54

In total, Lambe finished with four successful tackles and six key recoveries but the best news for him came seven minutes before the interval when Zusi was moved over to the left, mainly to try and get away from excellent work by Lambe and Morgan like this:

Zusi 8

Full backs vs Zusi

Zusi played the first 38 minutes on the right, the next seven on the left until half-time, the first eight minutes of the second half back on the right and then the rest of the game on the left. He finished with 11 successful crosses from 14 attempts and although that number is too high it is a sign that he was unable to influence the game deeper. Zusi only attempted five crosses against Philadelphia the week earlier yet had much more of an impact in the game.

Toronto’s full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan both kept their concentration levels high up against Zusi closing him down and forcing Sporting KC to look elsewhere for intervention.

Morgan steps up again to prevent Zusi from receiving ball in space…

Zusi 11

In the second half, with the American international now on the left, he comes from a deep position and Eckersley follows him rather than the onrushing full back Seth Sinovic who he knows won’t receive the ball…..

Zusi 13

Eckersley is proven right as Zusi comes centrally still tracked by the right back….

Zusi 12

The move would break down again. Although Sporting KC were the best team by far in the second half, scoring a goal on the break to cut the deficit. However, by taking away Zusi’s vision and intelligent running, Toronto forced the visitors to play a more direct style that suited them. Nelsen’s team are no where close to what he wants them to be personnel wise but such a performance tactically so early into his rookie year as coach is very positive.

What next?

Toronto travel to Montreal this Saturday to play a team who are the talk of MLS right now after impressive wins in Seattle and Portland. I will be sure to have a post later this month on the Impact. Sporting KC host Chicago in their home opener. Expect Zusi to be back pulling strings.

Exclusive: Toronto FC close in on Argentine forward Maximiliano Urruti to be their next DP

Max Urruti

Multiple sources have told me the unnamed forward from Argentina that Toronto FC are targeting is Maximiliano Urruti of Newell’s Old Boys.

The 22-year-old, who has been linked with many European clubs in the past six months including Palermo, Levante, Valencia and Helsingborgs, was watched closely by the club’s chief scout, Pat Onstad, recently and the club are trying to finalize details with the player’s representatives to bring him to Major League Soccer in the next few weeks.

Urruti, in his second full year at Old Boys, made his club debut during the Clausera season of 2011 and has seen his stock rise ever since thanks to some outstanding goals for La Lepra.

This is an excellent video, showing many of his skills in front of goal, that is sure to get Toronto FC fans excited at the prospect of number 37 applying his trade in the MLS for the Reds.

However, as South American Football expert Tim Vickery, of the BBC, tells me things haven’t gone as smoothly this season for Urruti: “He is an interesting striker who has lost his place in the first team as a result of the successful repatriation of Ignacio Scocco, but remains an interesting prospect – stocky and strong, able to play up front on his own or combine.”

ESPN South American columnist Sam Kelly, who hosts the excellent Hand Of Pod, issued similar sentiments, saying: “Urruti’s decent enough, but at 22 he’s only played about 30-odd first team games for Newell’s so far – which doesn’t seem like many for Argentina – and hasn’t exactly been tearing up trees as far as his scoring record is concerned. Good movement and link play, though, and he could do well playing as a second forward. His main problem has been having Scocco ahead of him at Newell’s so far this season, who’s been one of the best forwards in the league since returning.”

Urutti and Scocco both got on the score sheet for Gerardo Martino’s team in their last match on Friday against Belgrano, a game that saw Newell’s win 2-0 and help the 22-year-old get some much needed positive headlines, as Vickery explains.

He said: “Unfortunately, he has a racism cloud over him at the moment, after recently he was accused of abusing a Paraguayan.”

This took place last month when Olimpia defender Salustiano Candia issued a racist and discrimination complaint against Urruti after a Copa Libertadores match on the 14th of February.

Although the investigation is still pending it is unlikely to prevent him from missing games for Toronto FC if he signs. It appears the club will know by the end of this month if that will happen after Onstad this week returned from South America hopeful he can get his man.

Toronto FC President and General Manager Kevin Payne, who last week confirmed the club were looking at a young Argentine forward, declined to comment on Tuesday when asked about the club’s pursuit of Urruti.

Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 Toronto FC – Change of shape & tempo at half time gets Rennie’s team three points.

Starting XI’s

Head Coach Martin Rennie, whose Vancouver team played 4-3-3 most of last season, started with the 4-2-3-1 formation they trialed in pre-season and there were no major surprises in their starting XI after it was announced captain Jay DeMerit was fit to play. Turned out he was far from fully fit and left after seven minutes, replaced by Brad Rusin.

football formations

Debut boss Ryan Nelsen opted for a tight and compact version of a 4-4-1-1 with his wide players in deep positions ensuring it wasn’t quite a 4-2-3-1, although that was the plan when they had the ball. Third overall pick Kyle Bekker played just off Robert Earnshaw in attack but made up a midfield three when not in possession.

football formations

Lambe vs Rochat

The first half was uninspiring with both teams creating little which meant Toronto FC gained far more positives than Vancouver. The overall speed of the game suited the visitors who did a good job recognizing Vancouver’s threat down the left. Left back Alain Rochat stepped up a couple of times inside the first 15 minutes and played two excellent balls into a wide area behind the advancing Richard Eckersley for the speedy Kekutah Manneh and Darren Mattocks to run into. However, TFC reacted well by having Reggie Lambe come tighter on Rochat and that, with the combination of Rochat committing two needless fouls, pinned the left back deeper and by the end of the half the Rochat-Manneh combination on the left had been nullified with Manneh switching sides with the lively Daigo Kobayashi.

Rennie changes it up

During his half-time interview Rennie said he was disappointed with the amount of balls his team gave away in Toronto’s half and when he got to the dressing room to meet his players he informed rookie Manneh he would be removed for Nigel Reo-Coker. Manneh, who lost the ball 13 times in the first half, hadn’t had a terrible half but was too often in the positions Mattocks needed to be. The decision to bring on Reo-Coker and the change in tempo that Vancouver brought out in the second half turned the game in their favor. Reo-Coker played in the middle next to Gershon Koffie while Jun Marques Davidson sat deeper to stop Toronto FC playing in between the lines (more on that later). With the fluidity of Kobayashi’s movement it was effectively a 4-3-3 although the front three rotated so often it was effectively a 4-1-2-anywhere.

football formations

The goal

Having kept pace with the home side for the first 45 minutes, Toronto struggled to get in the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half and it was no surprise to see Vancouver get rewarded for their dominance with a goal shortly before the hour mark. Reo-Coker’s inclusion ensured they kept the ball more in the opponent’s half but he also immediately struck up a good relationship with YP Lee on the right side. With Reo-Coker shielding him, and Marques deeper, Lee had more licence to get forward in the second half and it proved to be key in the goal. When defender Andy O’Brien hit a long, hopeful ball down the right it appeared Toronto had it covered as they initially won the header but Lee, advanced in a forward position, won the key second ball. As you can see below, when he picks up the ball Toronto FC are still in a very good position with four players marking the key space in front of him.

van tfc 1

The next two seconds develop and the off the ball runs by Kobayashi and Mattocks are key as they pull two defenders there way, allowing Miller and Lee to play a simple one-two between themselves that then opens up the space for Lee to run into (that was previously protected by the four defenders).

van tfc 2

Lee times his run perfectly and is now into the danger zone, vacated by Toronto, drawing four defenders all towards him just a split second before he makes a key pass to Kobayashi who is bright, alert and ready for the ball despite being closely marked by Eckersley. At this point Koffie has already made the run from deep, untracked.

tfc van 3

Kobayashi sees Koffie’s run and by the time the midfielder touches the ball for the first time in the buildup he is in a wonderful position vacated by Toronto all because of the excellent play of his teammates. Koffie takes one touch and a nice finish to score the game’s only goal as you can see here.

It was a goal that is sure to have delighted Rennie, as his full back got forward and won a key second ball, his star pupil Mattocks showed the importance of off-the-ball running and Koffie, fresh off a new contract extension, had the ability and desire to get forward and support the attack.

From Toronto FC’s point of view it was a goal that was always going to be difficult to come back from. In the first half they excelled when Vancouver’s confidence was shaken, pressing them high and stopping goalkeeper Joe Cannon from throwing the ball out to defenders, but as the game wore on a now confident Whitecaps just had enough quality to see the game out. They were certainly helped by the inclusion of Reo-Coker, who completed 38 of 46 pass attempts, as well as Davidson sitting deeper to stop the impressive Bekker getting into space.

Toronto FC will be disappointed, not surprised, by the loss and will be able to take some positives away from the game and top of that list will be Bekker. Rarely does an MLS rookie require an opponent to monitor him from the get-go and the need for Davidson to sit deeper and closer to his centre-backs was designed to stop the 22-year-old from finding space. In the first half there were a few examples of the young Canadian making runs in between the lines.

Picks up the ball and comes deep….


Plays it off and makes the run past the referee towards the space….

bekker 2

Finds the room in between the lines (see Vancouver’s two banks of four) ready to receive the pass….

bekker 3

In the second half those banks of four were gone and Bekker didn’t see quite as much space although his superb deliveries from set pieces made him a constant threat throughout.

What next?

Vancouver stay home and welcome Columbus to BC Place next weekend hoping t gain some momentum off this victory. It is clear they have a very technical player in Kobayashi who can make a difference at this level no matter the formation, which is now up in the air after the much-improved second half showing.

Toronto FC head home and welcome one of the league’s best teams in Sporting Kansas City to Rogers Centre next Saturday. The nature of the opponent and the quality of players available to them will once again make them huge underdogs but with expectations low they have things to build from after this opener, particularly with all of their new players not disappointing in this game.

MLS Cup – LA Galaxy 3-1 Houston Dynamo – 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 but set pieces help Beckham go out a champion.

All it took was five minutes. The home crowd were restless down 1-0 and 300 seconds later a party had started. As the clock moved to 58:58 the game seemed to almost freeze in time as Omar Gonzalez rose high at the far post unmarked and headed his side a vital equalizer. This was now Houston’s acid test. We’d heard all week about how great it was for MLS to give the highest seed home advantage and now it was time to see why it was called home advantage. The energy inside the Home Depot Center changed, the confetti flew everywhere and on the pitch Houston couldn’t keep the ball. For the next five minutes they failed to put together three successive passes, allowed Robbie Keane to put the ball in the back of the net (disallowed for a foul in the box) and crucially committed three fouls, including one on Keane by defender Bobby Boswell that led to a David Beckham free kick. While everyone watching expected the Englishman to swing it on target he went short, over the wall, and on to the familiar head of Gonzalez. As the defender won the crucial header in the box, the time showed 63:58, and a second later Mike Magee’s overhead effort hit Boswell’s hand in the box and LA had a penalty. Landon Donovan would step up and make it 2-1. Game over. Five minutes is all it took for LA to find top gear and undo all of Houston’s good work for the previous 59.

Coming back from 1-0 down, scoring an equalizer that triggered a barrage on their opponent that led to a penalty to make it 2-1 five minutes later is exactly how LA had started their playoffs against Vancouver on November 1st and it proved the potion for success precisely one month later.

Until those five wild minutes, the MLS Cup final had been an excellent tactical battle between two very different versions of 4-4-2. Bruce Arena again went with Donovan playing just off Keane with Mike Magee and Christian Wilhelmsson playing as true natural wingers.

football formations

Dominic Kinnear’s Houston also went with two up top but had two wide players, Oscar Boniek Garcia and skipper Brad Davis, who were very comfortable cutting in and playing in behind the strikers. It proved to be a vital tactical difference that made a significant impact on how Houston played and why LA struggled to.

football formations

Davis and Garcia keep Juninho & Beckham occupied

The first half of the match was not played at such a high tempo that the second half was and that suited Houston and allowed their wide players to take hold of the game. Captain Davis, who missed last year’s final through injury, was, not surprisingly, their most influential player when they attacked and it was his overall intelligent movement that turned the tide towards his side early on. A look at his successful passes on MLS Chalkboards shows just how much room he covered. Only one other player in the match completed more passes than Davis and that was left back Corey Ashe who benefited from his team-mate’s movement down the left flank.

When Houston would break, one of Davis or Garcia would always come inside making up a three in midfield, which meant neither Ricardo Clark or Adam Moffat felt the pressure to get forward and out of their defensive shape. This also pushed Juninho and David Beckham, LA’s two best passers by some margin, deeper, limiting the amount of danger they could cause. In fact, LA’s best two chances of the first half came through Beckham, one at a free kick which Magee headed wide and the other when the 37-year-old picked up the ball in front of his own box and sent Keane loose on the left side. With Donovan sprinting alongside him and then being fed the ball, it was an attack that should have put LA ahead, but instead the American shot wide.

Moffat & Clark’s gameplan

It appeared to some – including ESPN’s panel at half time – that Houston’s midfield duo were too deep and needed to get higher on Beckham to stop such great long-range deliveries. To me, they were exactly where they needed to be. Clark and Moffat were doing an exceptional job sitting deep and being outlets for a backline, and goalkeeper, who like to play out from the back. With Davis and/or Garcia cutting in there was always someone for them to be able to find and with Beckham and Juninho being pinned deep, Moffat, in particular, had licence to often pick the ball up and stroll 30 yards without being pressed, which is precisely what happened in the 43rd minute when Houston scored. The play was started by Hall who rolled it out to the Scotsman who then played an easy 1-2 with Garcia, before strolling into space untouched. The lively Calen Carr then made a great run in between both centre-backs, stayed onside, and was picked out by Moffat and sent in clear on goal. Carr then took his time, waited for the poor Josh Saunders to go down,  and slotted home at the near post.

Donovan & Keane – 2 men doing 4 people’s jobs.

You can always tell which players are tactically intelligent by watching trends develop in the first half and seeing which players react to it without waiting for instructions from their manager at half-time. Seeing what Moffat & Clark were doing, both LA’s front men started coming deeper and pressing them. In fact, at one stage late in the first half, Donovan won the ball that way and the transition led to another chance but the pair couldn’t do it regularly because they needed to occupy Boswell and Jermaine Taylor up top. Galaxy’s wide men in Mike Magee and, in particular, Christian Wilhelmsson did very little work in this area. They may well have been instructed to stay close to the line and stretch the side’s shape but LA suffered because of it. At half-time I wondered if Arena would bring Donovan back to right wing for the Swede and ask Edson Buddle to play alongside Keane. This would put his captain in a place where he could defend the position better when Houston attacked and occasionally cut in and create triangles inside when he had the ball, something he has done exceptionally for the USA in recent years. It was a move Arena made later in the match but not until his team had scored twice.

Set pieces set LA on their way

Houston’s shape and tactical awareness always meant LA would always struggle to score from open play. It seemed like they were at their most dangerous on a fast break or via a set piece and it was the latter that would lead to their two goals. A minute before they conceded the first they crucially lost Carr to injury and he would be prove to be a big loss in the air when it would come to marking opponents in the box. Davis, now back defending his left flank, was the first culprit when he defended a cross with his arm and gave away a free kick on the right side. Swung in by Beckham, it was knocked out for a corner and although that was partially cleared, Gonzalez and company were still in the box when Juninho swung a ball in that the central defender headed home. After that the game changed, five minutes of madness for the Dynamo and a quicker tempo from the Galaxy culminated in the penalty that put them ahead for good. By the time Robbie Keane won another spot kick it was injury time and Houston were over committing knowing the game was practically over. The Irishman made it 3-1, Beckham was taken off to get his final moment and seconds later he was back on the pitch celebrating his second successive Major League Soccer Championship. He was not the game’s best player – that vote would rightfully go to Gonzalez – and for a stretch of the game he got outplayed by his direct opponents in midfield but it was fitting that in his final game he was the architect of Houston’s downfall. Beckham has always been at his best behind a set piece and it was those that made the difference in his final match in MLS.