Talking Tactics: How MLS teams employ their wing men

Cutting in or staying wide, flank play can make a big difference

Steve Zakuani, Seattle Sounders

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The day of the classic
winger is over, kind of like New Coke. No longer can a tricky dribbling
specialist be content to hug the touchline waiting for chances to beat his man and
swerve pretty crosses.

They still do that at
times, sure, but the modern game of organized defenses demands so much more. So
the men who attack from wide areas must be complete players—or something close
to it.

Take Seattle’s Steve
Zakuani. Last year, the overall number one draft pick was a blur of pace who ran
at defenders from his spot on the left at Qwest, although his game sometimes lacked
nuance. In just a year he has added significantly to his stores of wile. With
added physical presence, an ability to win the ball in midfield and knowledge
on when to maneuver inside, he has become even more dangerous.

He was having a
relatively quite night against Dallas last week (as FCD wide midfielder Atiba
Harris focused less on offense and more on helping defend Zakuani). But one
well-timed burst down the left side brought the important equalizer. Would last
year’s Zakuani have recognized and exploited the moment when FCD fullback Zach
Loyd got caught too far forward without cover?

Houston veteran Brad
Davis is another premier MLS left-sider, ever comfortable coming inside. He is doing
even more of it this year. Houston are missing a couple of its signature big
strikers, so banging balls willy-nilly into the penalty area just won’t
do.  Instead, Davis drifts inside regularly
to assist Geoff Cameron, who was just learning to work the top of Houston’s diamond-shaped
midfield when his knee betrayed him so sadly.

Davis is a good
example of today’s two-way flank midfielder, a worker bee able to slant inside on
offense and willing to share the defensive load. They don’t have to specialize
in blue-collar defensive work, a la Houston’s Brian Mullan or Real Salt Lake’s
Will Johnson, but they certainly must help.

Speedy New England
attacker Sainey Nyassi was on a short list of Revs who had a good night against
Colorado. Nyassi whipped in several dangerous balls from the right toward
forwards Zack Schilawski and Kheli Dube. While he looks to get the most of his
speed, he knows when to hit early balls, too, serving before the second man
arrived on defense.

His more comprehensive
body of work helped create the Revs’ only goal. Nyassi dribbled at top speed
into the offensive third, serving a useful ball to the back post before the
defense could fully organize. Colorado managed a scrambling clearance, but
Nyassi moved quickly inside to recover the ball.

After he did, Pablo
Mastroeni chose to foul rather than chase Nyassi’s next run off the ball. Then,
Marko Perovic made the free kick count.

Speed isn’t
necessarily essential, though. In second-half relief duty, L.A. reservist Chris
Klein reminded us how some guys find room to serve through shrewd timing and an
ability to read the game. Meanwhile others do it with technical craft. Columbus
Crew winger Eddie Gaven isn’t particularly quick, but he knows his angles that
he needs just a smidge of space to deliver a cross.

The wide midfielder
who can’t threaten to cut inside is too predictable and, therefore, too easily neutralized.
San Jose’s Arturo Alvarez frequently plays on the right, and despite everybody
knowing he wants to cut inside and use his left foot, he still pulls it off. Only
an organized defense with lots of inside help and communication can deal with it.
Young Philadelphia man Roger Torres has a lot of that in him, too. So does
Chicago’s Marco Pappa (although he’s playing centrally right now in Carlos de
los Cobos’ 4-5-1).

MLS does have a few
men who look something like the classic wingers of bygone day. Robbie Rogers works
the left at Crew Stadium with a destabilizing speed. Sigi Schmid previously and
current Crew manager Robert Warzycha have attempted to work with Rogers,
tutoring him on making the best choices: when to run at defenders, when to take
one touch past them into space and when to patiently hold possession and look
to combine with Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Rogers is also a good
example of where MLS remains a work in progress quality-wise. He has the foot
speed to reach great spots but can’t always deliver crosses with intent and
authority. In MLS, there’s a lot of that going around. (FYI: Rogers’ run from a
wide spot in the penalty area created the critical PK in the weekend win over
Real Salt Lake.)

Wing play in modern
soccer doesn’t just mean forwards and midfielders, of course. Teams depend on
fullbacks to push ahead and supply width in attack. No team does this better than
RSL, where the wide midfielders squeeze in liberally and depend on fullbacks to
work the wide channels.

We know less about a
couple of new wide guys in MLS. Kansas City’s Ryan Smith certainly has
something to offer the left side of CommunityAmerica Ballpark. And K.C.’s 4-3-3
will provide opportunities to be isolated one-on-one, especially when they
travel and get on the bigger fields.

Lastly, we got our
first peak Saturday at Brian Nielsen, Red Bull’s new Danish winger. He didn’t
see much of the ball against Philadelphia and he was coming off an illness. But
he appears to have some power and pace. If he can prove a danger, Red Bull will
really stretch defenses horizontally, with Nielsen on the left and Dane
Richards working the right. That wide push is important to the way Red Bull
want to play, with two centrally stationed midfielders but no true playmaker.

So far, it seems to be