Plenty of matches feature contrasts in styles. Nothing new there, although it’s a little like seeing a handsome or beautiful runway model: We’ve seen them before, but who can resist a good, long look?
Now we have something a little different this week in the Colorado-San Jose matchup, the one that will decide the, um, Eastern Conference champion.
Here we have a pretty fascinating contrast in scoring modus operandi. One team bends a net the old-fashioned way, through its strikers; the other generates just enough goals in a far less conventional manner—one that’s more difficult to defend in some ways.
We’ll start with Colorado. What a pair of heartbreakers and goal-makers they have. Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, the Rapids’ high-revving duo, combined for 27 goals and 9 assists this year.
Casey and Cummings possess a formidable balance of power and speed, all tightly bundled into a brilliant package of skill and desire. But it’s not just the physical tools; they know just how to put all those elements to best use in wonderful balance by acting as a classic front-running duo.
Casey remains more central, the consummate target presence. Cummings, meanwhile, likes to start centrally and then launch himself into the corners to gather balls from midfield. The Jamaican international did so to devastating effect in the opening leg against Columbus; the Crew seemed unable to adjust as Cummings time and again wheeled out to his preferred right side, timing his run to get behind young left back Shaun Francis. Communication between Francis and his center backs seemed frayed, at best, as Cummings’ runs created confusion about who would track.
Columbus adjusted for the return leg, sorting out the responsibilities a little better. But Cummings still caused havoc. Watch the telling goal on Saturday. Yes, Casey was brilliant in beating Crew center back Eric Brunner to the spot and converting Cummings’ cross at the near post. But watch a few seconds earlier as Cummings smartly occupies a spot directly between Francis and center back Chad Marshall. As Mac Kandji wins a ball, Cummings propels himself at the perfect moment to the outside.
Francis picks him up quickly but he has no help. Left-sided midfielder Eddie Gaven is too far up the field—with a one-goal lead in a series in the balance?—and Guillermo Barros Schelotto (who lost the battle for the ball with Kandji) just doesn’t have the wheels to go help Francis with Cummings. So, the failure of Columbus to emphasize the need to go double Cummings in the corner on these signature runs proved ruinous.
Again, that’s nothing new from Colorado. It’s classic striker play—and it has succeeded again and again and again.
San Jose do some of the same as Colorado with their frontrunners, just not as often. Ryan Johnson is Casey’s mirror, the powerful target man for a team that likes to play direct. Geovanni plays the Cummings role, floating around in withdrawn areas, sometimes more as a fifth midfielder focused on possession in the middle third, sometimes as another striker looking for second balls off Johnson.
However, unlike Colorado, San Jose’s success is not about the strikers. Chris Wondolowski earned the Golden Boot lined up as a right-sided midfielder in the Earthquakes’ 4-4-2 alignment. He’s a lot harder to track from that spot and frequently marked by men who defend as an afterthought.
Meanwhile, the man who scored twice in Thursday’s surprising triumph at Red Bull Arena came bounding from areas less familiar as well. Bobby Convey was a left-sided midfielder (and later a fullback) when he scored on either side of the half.
Consider this startling sum: San Jose scored 34 goals in the 2010 regular season. A full 32 of those came from players who weren’t primarily strikers. That’s right. Just two goals came from Johnson or Geovanni. Others who played primarily as strikers never scored at all.
So, tracking the runners (mostly Convey and Wondolowski from their outside midfield spots) will be the key for Colorado this weekend.
In this regard, it may be “advantage Rapids.” Jamie Smith will probably line up at left midfield for the Rapids, facing off against Wondolowski. The former Scottish international, who made his bones at Celtic, is unlikely to fall asleep and lose track of Wondolowski, a la New York’s Roy Miller. (Rapids left back Anthony Wallace, on the other hand, must be extra alert; Wallace’s starting position on Robbie Rogers’ big goal for Columbus last week was terrible.)
Across the field, digger, grinder and mucker extraordinaire Brian Mullan will be charged with tracking Convey.
They’ll get plenty of help from the middle, where Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz dominate, cover, and offer assistance. That’s a contrast to the diamond-shaped midfield San Jose has deployed lately, with Sam Cronin sitting deep and Scott Sealy (or someone else) in advanced places to apply early pressure in the defensive transition.
So it comes down to two questions: Will the Rapids’ many defensive parts be enough to stop San Jose’s dynamic, come-from-all-sides attack? And on the flip side, do the Quakes have the discipline to do what few teams did this year, that is, actually keep the Casey-Cummings combination in check?