|The Jak is Back? (image courtesy mlssoccer.com)|
So the opposition was solid defensively but not up to much on the attack. So Montreal were missing some of their key cogs to injury and suspension. So the first half wasn’t United’s finest effort. At the end of the night, United still ran out 3–0 winners, posted an emphatic response to last week’s disappointing loss, and seized sole possession of first place in the East as their rivals for the top spot stumbled elsewhere.
Let’s begin with three key talking points…
Level of urgency. In the first half, United didn’t look like a team that were hungry to take the game by the scruff of the neck, to punish a team that had played in mid-week, was missing key starters, and was starting to stumble after a decent start to their expansion season. But after the break, the fire returned. I’d imagine that Benny had some choice words at half-time, and the results were evident on the field. A poignant example? As the game pushed on towards 90 minutes, with United up 2–0, they were still the team creating more chances, pushing for a third despite the toll taken by the heat. Montreal, down by a pair, were reduced to the odd counter-attacking opportunity. Given United’s Soehn-esque legacy to shut up shop too quickly, continuing to force the attack until the final whistle was refreshing. A stoppage time third was fitting reward.
Boskovic vs. Neal. You’d have been forgiven for thinking Boskovic was the gung-ho English chap and Neal the crafty Balkan wizard based on last night’s evidence. Boskovic’s array of long bombs and Hollywood through-ball attempts seemed more in the direct Brit-ball (or perhaps contract-justifying) vein than Neal’s more patient, deep-lying distribution, touching the ball multiple times in every move, accurately spreading play to the flanks, seeking out possession with constant movement rather than short, heroic bursts. Of course, Neal came on with fresh legs against guys who’d been toiling in the heat for an hour and had a less congested midfield to deal with (Montreal had shifted from five to four in midfield as they pushed up a second forward to chase goals). I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight that Boskovic still brought his superior dead-ball delivery to the table, but still, given that I’m sure we were all assuming that Neal’s arrival would mean Pontius going up top and De Rosario dropping into midfield, it’s just another sign of the depth and versatility of the current roster that Neal was able to slot so well into the central playmaking role, actually improving possession in the bargain.
The Jak is back? Is it time to come full circle on Jakovic? The evidence is here on these pages to see just how much I was excited by Jakovic’s early appearances for United. Sure he made a stunning array of youthful defender mistakes, but his calm on the ball, the ability to step out from defense and penetrate the opposition with pass or dribble, the seeming ease with which he would rob attackers of the ball, those things had me hugely excited because I assumed the naiveté would fade with experience. Then came the years of injury and frustration as he just didn’t seem to progress as a player, even to the point where I was beginning to question whether he might have more value in trade to one of MLS’s Canuck contingent. But he was excellent last night. True, there wasn’t much evidence of the libero-style defender, but his positioning and tackling were consistent and his anticipation impressive. Maybe all that time off injured and watching will pay off in a more rounded and tactically astute player?
Remember the whistlemen in this match when things inevitably go against us later. On a different day, the opener never happens as Jakovic gets called for a PK, the lineman keeps his flag down on Mapp’s breakaway, and the handful of handball shouts by Montreal are given.
Chances were created in both halves by the high forward (Santos or Salihi) tracking back to win the ball off advancing Montreal midfielders. That’s Benny-ball.
Definitely prefer Pontius on the flank and De Rosario as a floating forward. Though the latter wasn’t at his most influential, he did feed Pontius for the only real bit of quality in the first half. The defender in me died a little when two defenders bit on Pontius’s feint inside, but then again, I suppose his constant shifting of the ball onto his right throughout his professional career set up the move back to his left perfectly.
Does a goal, a few decent crosses/through-balls, and not getting severely burned by Mapp (save the time that the linesman incorrectly raised the flag) justify Russell’s acquisition and spot in the starting XI (if not on the roster as a whole)?
While I still think Santos’s hold-up play makes him a better fit for the team in general, the build-up to the third goal, with Salihi as the fulcrum of a flowing move and the garbage-man waiting to clean up the scaps, was the type of pass-and-move stuff I crave.
Again we come to a gap in the schedule, where United will have to watch their rivals for the Eastern Conference crown try to cash in their games in hand in a bid to overtake the Black-and-Red. Both Sporting KC and the Red Bulls failed at the last hurdle, but both are still playing reasonably well. With Chicago making a strong push to be in the mix at the top, the run-in should prove interesting. Too bad MLS rewards post-season glory rather than the long, regular-season slog. You’ll forgive me if I choose to honor the latter.