It is probably too soon to make any pronouncements, but to this point in the season there has been exactly one game that I would say I really enjoyed. That game was FCD’s trip to PPL Park last week. The game featured technical skill, good passing, smart combination play, and individual moments of brilliance.
So, it is fitting that, in their three games since, our Boys in Blue have taken a giant dump on the field. It has been the most discouraging stretch of play that I can remember since I started following FCD. I, for one, am tired of every match being a slog through a one-dimensional, unimaginative, achingly slow, and altogether boring brand of soccer.
In Friday’s agonizing 1-0 loss to Vancouver, FCD battled hard, applied pressure, had a cohesive shape, and played some attacking football at times, but it didn’t seem to matter as the Whitecaps had clearly expected us to make a more sustained effort on defense, as they had a bunch of room to receive and turn or play simple balls out to their wingers. Let me just say that I am no fan of Robbo, but that match was a testament to his coaching job as he managed to get his players to a) put a good show of effort on defense and b) play a counter attacking style of attack off of nearly everything FCD tried to do. Robbo knew the ‘Caps wouldn’t have an answer for Barrios, Diaz, and Castillo so he had his defense let those guys have a free run onto the ball. In the meantime, he instructed his players to stay central, cut off the passing lanes to the rest of the team, and count on his own midfield and forwards to stay wide and try and turn and beat their markers. It was a sound strategy and it worked like a charm, as the ‘Caps looked like they could beat FCD by two goals and lucked into a goal on a counter attack. All this, working off the premise that steady pressure and thorough communication were sufficient to stifle an FCD side without Diaz and their primary ball winner in the middle of the park, as well as a way to neutralize Castillo and Barrios effectively as they’ve been such a consistent threat to just about any team we play.
Historically, we have had the team we were playing know what we do and try and rip our legs out from under us with a variety of different counter attacking styles that we haven’t had the personnel or the ability to attack through effectively. With an attacker and a consistent ball winner out of his squad, there wasn’t much we could do to stop this from happening with Vancouver, so we really only had one option: try and attack them through the middle, and hope to Jesus that they don’t put 10 players on the line and wait for us to try and cross the ball every time. I thought it was strange that whole first half Benavidez was not even on the bench, but Parkhurst was. Gruezo stepped out of shape once or twice, but he also closed down quickly and closed space. I guess Pareja is worried Parkhurst’s team won’t come out of the locker room if he doesn’t give him 90 minutes?
I truly do not think Pareja is to blame. I think that the players are simply deciding that they are simply not going tackle, or run for 90 minutes, or play instinctually. If the rotation of consistent players are not doing these things, then there is no coaching mantra to correct it. Our best chance may actually be to change Pareja. The same style, the same players who have been performing so terribly over the past two months.
I have the utmost respect for the way Pareja plays this team. His style of counter attacking football is consistent, flowing, fluid, and has given us success for the most part. However, that style of play is difficult to sustain for 90 minutes week after week, especially with the consistent mix he has had to throw together over the past two months. Pareja’s greatest strengths have never been about being an innovative tactician or finding new ways to put his players in advantageous situations. He has made consistent statements about the importance of “working hard” (possibly the most overused coach-speak quote in MLS) and stressing how he teaches his players to read the game better. If the team is not following this style of play, it seems like Pareja has to take responsibility for it.
What is more likely is that the players are to blame for the state of the team. The consistent level at which they are playing is simply unacceptable. Nobody worked hard enough or read the game well enough to stop Vancouver’s tactics. Every single player, save the Barrios-Diaz-Castillo trio, played at a sub-par level, and I can’t even blame their poor performance on lack of fitness or injury. That is unacceptable. If Pareja wants to write this team off, then so be it, but if one of these players try to come out and claim they were doing their best, I will go to the mattresses for Pareja.
I know, I know, it is pretty dramatic, but I am just at my wits end with the amount of effort the players are putting into this match. I don’t see any drive or grit or personality on the field. I see panic and shock and the inability to attack the ball and win tackles. I see hesitation and awkward passing and taking too many touches on the ball. I see lack of effort and lack of cohesion and lack of ability. I’m done.
For about a month, it has been very difficult, but I have chosen to maintain a belief that the team will eventually get on a run and play up to their capabilities and that we would start to see the team we have been waiting months to see. However, we have seen FCD look simply awful in three games and we cannot be certain that run will happen. I am also not confident at all in seeing Pareja be able to pull this team up by the bootstraps and make it happen. This loss on Friday was another gut punch, another chapter in a long chapter of depressing news. Managing the effects of this season without Diaz and with an injured Mauro is like trying to piece together a stained glass window with a bunch of brown and beige and white and yellow and purple and pink and blue and red and green and black and white and yellow . It is impossible and it means we will be more likely to go out and get a new glass portrait that we will be sure to appreciate even with the same color blocking.
No two ways about it. Diaz has been a huge part of why we have been able to execute our style of play the way we have been able to over the past two years. The team has been able to roll out a consistent level of assertive, assertive but at times calculated pressure that is difficult to break down. We have also been able to attack with a free flowing and consistent attack that can keep a defense on their toes at all times. Replace Diaz with a player with his mentality and effect and you would have a hard time trying to stop most attacks. Also, just about any time Diaz or Gruezo or Acosta or anyone else is unfortunate enough to win a foul in the middle of the park they would consistently win the ball back from the ref, from the opposing player, from anyone, and start a counter attack. That is a considerable advantage.
Benavidez has been a solid contributor when he is fit, but he has never adapted to our style in a way that makes him a good fit. When Diaz is not in the match you can see Benavidez struggle with playing a true defensive midfielder instead of a box-to-box midfielder.
Basically, Benavidez’s strengths are Diaz’s strengths. The difference is that Diaz has better vision, touch, and passing skills, while also being able to win back the ball more consistently. At this point, I believe that Benavidez is another sign that Pareja has made some poor personnel decisions in the past that continue to come up in unfortunate ways. I would wager that Benavidez would have been an MLS-caliber player had he gone to UC-Davis to be coached by Simon Tobin, or Pitt to be coached by Eagle-eye Thompson, or Clemson to be coached by Mike Noonan. At any of these places, I am sure Benavidez would be an important playmaker to the tune of at least 10th in minutes played. Pareja saw Benavidez play well for our academy team one summer, called in the kid, played him, and here we are.
Again, Benavidez is not bad player, but he’s not good either; he’s average to above average, and contrary to popular belief, average is not good enough for this team.
As much as people would like to point out the good soccer Benavidez played against TFC or the Galaxy or Sporting or any other game he has ever started or played extensively in, never forget that Benavidez was the player who gave the ball away to Real Salt Lake that led to the goal that scored in the final minutes of the match that lead to Real Salt Lake winning the cup in 2015, the only trophy in Real Salt Lake history.