Saturday’s game against the Houston Dynamo finally felt like the Quakes had figured things out, the offense flowed spectacularly and the midfield was creating quality chances. However, as it has been the case under Almeyda, the defense was so atrocious that it ruined any of the progress seen. As the only winless team in the MLS, the Quakes’ defense continues to be their achilles heel.
It’s embarrassing when both Inter Miami and Cincinnati FC have more wins and look better than the Quakes, as those two teams have been the face of failure in the MLS. Now, with a defense that reflects the messy state of the club, the Quakes should now be seen as the worst team in the MLS.
Nathan’s injury should not have sunk the club the way it has, as any competent club will cover their bases and have back ups who are ready to play at the MLS level. It’s not just Nathan’s injury, as the team’s defensive record under Almeyda has been truly awful. Fundamentally the issue is Almeyda’s man marking, as it has been proven to be useless in the MLS.
There are some glaring holes in the Quake’s team, but one of the most pressing is the need for a quality right back, as both Paul Marie and Tommy Thompson don’t fit that role. Calvo has been a better addition than expected, but the point has been reached where he is more of a negative player. With Nathan out, it would have made sense to give Oskar Ågren a chance to play, but he still has yet to make an appearance.
As the Quakes circle the drain in yet another opening month or so of league play, it has once again been the defense that has made them so astonishingly bad. With the transfer window closed until July, Almeyda and the front office will be forced to make do with what they have.
Almeyda’s defensive scheme has clearly not worked, as every season of his tenure has produced worse and even worse results. A majority of the blame can be placed on the man marking system implemented by Almeyda, as the league has clearly figured it out and it just needs to be replaced.
Since his first year in 2019, the Quakes have always hovered towards the bottom of the league in terms of goals allowed. Across his three completed seasons, including the shortened one in 2020, the team has conceded more than 50 goals which is only beaten by the dumpster fire that is Cincinnati FC. Even this season, the team is expected to allow 51 goals, continuing the terrible record under Almeyda.
What’s interesting is that the team has ranked high over the past few years on the defensive team stats, especially in successful pressures and interceptions, but rank high on individual errors. This makes sense, as man marking systems require that pressure which in turn causes interceptions. Also, this means that there is room for errors, as players have to deal with one player leaving them with little cover.
This brings the focus to Almeyda’s man marking, which is heavily influenced by tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa. From Chile to Marseille, Bielsa has implemented a similar scheme where he demands an intensive marking system forcing every player to deal with one opponent.
If players are good one-on-one defenders and physically capable of playing this grueling press for a full game, much less a full season, then the system works. There is also an element of surprise as most teams have shifted towards zonal marking, so being so aggressive defensively makes them less comfortable. However once a team is able to properly scout out the side, they realize the best way to beat it is to draw defenders out of shape to open up space for attackers since there is no coverage.
Its weaknesses are perfectly seen in the second and fourth goals that the Quakes conceded, as Houston perfectly drew Calvo out of place to leave Tanner Beason stranded. On the second goal, Calvo’s terrible control leaves the ball to Houston, as no Quakes defender is able to provide cover. Again on the third goal, Calvo is drawn to the midfield and leaves an open man up the middle for Beason to chase.
Long term, this scheme never works, as the league just learns to adapt which takes away the element of surprise which the whole scheme depends on. For that reason, amongst others, Bielsa has never found true long term success at a club which doesn’t bode well for Almeyda.
With a defensive scheme that clearly isn’t working anymore and a truly awful defensive record, the team is in desperate need of a change. The man marking system isn’t working anymore and can’t be fixed at this point which would force most coaches to adapt, but Almeyda won’t.
This past offseason saw the club add some impressive pieces to the attack and midfield who were proven in the MLS and could provide upgrades to the team. The same can’t be said for the defense, as it has largely been neglected due to both the coaching staff and front office.
The Quakes haven’t had a top right back since Steven Beitashour in 2012 and seemingly needed one going into the past offseason. Marie and Thompson have both been great makeshift right backs, but in order to push this team to the next level, they needed to add a proven MLS right back. Both players are great in the attack with their styles making them more at home on the wing than true defenders.
It doesn’t mean that the Quakes should have broken the bank to bring in a right back, as historically using a DP spot on a fullback isn’t great, but there were good options on the market. Another former Almeyda player in José van Rankin could have been available on loan from Chivas after his breakout season with Portland last year and would have given the team a quality right back. Harrison Afful and Kelvin Leerdam are two other MLS veterans who were available for free who could have given the team desperately needed veteran leadership.
After Nathan went out with his injury, the team was left to field Jackson Yueill as a makeshift center back and, to no one’s surprise, it was an unmitigated failure. Almeyda has moved Beason back to the backline, but it leaves the defense with two left footed centerbacks. It’s not entirely Almeyda’s fault that they are left in this situation, as he has made it clear that the window wasn’t enough to address all the issues.
During the MLS SuperDraft, the Quakes made a deal with the Revolution to select Ågren, a highly touted center back prospect who was seen as the best defender in the draft. Even with the centerback crisis at the club, Ågren has yet to see a single minute of game time. This is a bit of a shock and given how bad the defense has been, he deserves a chance to play just to see how ready for the league he is.
Despite a more positive offseason, the team still finds themselves in a crisis where they are lacking quality players in key positions. The right back position has been neglected since 2012 and there is clearly a need for more depth in terms of centerback options.
With another season starting off terribly, the focus has yet again been on the sad excuse of a defense the team is trodding out. From a defensive scheme that has been figured out to the lack of options in key positions, it’s safe to say the team is in desperate need of a change. Will that change come too late, only time will tell.
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