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Long Balls Falling Short for Republic in Preseason

The long ball can be incredibly effective. But is it right for the Republic?

Indomitable City Soccer/Alex Leguizamo

There are many ways for a team to progress up the pitch towards the opponents goal. Choosing the right one depends on a variety of factors, including the skill of your own players, the set-up of the opposing team, injuries, pitch conditions, and more. For Republic’s Coach Buckle, the preferred method over the past few games (and many times in his previous 1.5 seasons) has been the “long ball.”

This type of build-up is based around making long passes from the goalkeeper or defenders, usually bypassing the midfield, directly to the forwards. This strategy is often maligned for being a clunky, inelegant way to attack.

Repeatedly hoofing the ball, often towards a large target striker, can frequently result in losing possession rather than a chance at goal. Strikers can get isolated and stuck in a 1v2 against opposing CBs. Long passes are not always accurate and can roll out of bounds. Fast keepers can come off their line and sweep up an attack before it becomes dangerous.

However, this type of attack can also be very effective. If your forwards can get on the end of a long pass, they have fewer lines of defense to work through. Speedy forwards can blast past lumbering center backs for 1v1 chances against opposing goaltenders, while powerful forwards can muscle their way through for the same 1v1 opportunity.

In this preseason, Buckle has used Sammy Ochoa as a target striker. Ochoa is a big, powerful forward whose goal scoring abilities are not in doubt. However, Ochoa seems far from being match fit. His limited mobility means if passes are not accurate, possession is likely to be lost. The linkup play between him and his strike partner has not been great, but there has been some good passing between Ochoa and the midfield. With the key position of target striker seemingly not at 100%, is this approach really best?

Compounding this issue are Republic’s center-back woes. The center backs in Buckle’s system play a very important role in starting the attack. They need to be confident on the ball and have the ability to distribute passes far and wide even under pressure.

Last season, Chris Christian was often tasked with sending out long, searching passes for Cameron Iwasa to chase down. This year, who can fill that role? Putting Jeremy Hall at center back might solve that issue, although I am not sure that is a good long-term fix.

I think the fix is positional. Danny Barrera should take a central role and play next to a more holding midfield player. His position out left could be filled with a more traditional wide midfielder/winger.

Barrera has shown over the years that his vision and passing range are fantastic. He has the ability to switch play with 60 yard passes cross-field, but can also put laser-accurate passes on the ground through opposing lines.

During phases without the ball, Barrera also has great defensive qualities, often times overlooked. He is a fantastic tackler in 1v1 situations, and he clogs up passing lanes well. He is also adept at the dark art of the “tactical foul,” much in the mold of former fan favorite, Ivan Mirkovic.

I still have visions of Barrera tearing through S2’s defensive lines in a 4-3-3 that Buckle deployed very early, and perhaps only once or twice, in his first season here. This is more the approach I think Republic should be taking. There is a lot of passing ability and technical quality in this side that is perhaps going under-utilized. Faster, shorter passes could be the key to unlocking opponent’s often compact, deep defenses. With his combination of passing ability, vision, and defensive skills, Barrera has what it takes to excel as a deep lying play-maker in the 4-4-1-1 system that Buckle likes to deploy.

With all that being said, I want to note again that it is still preseason. Systems and personnel still have time to change and adjust before the season starts. Also, the ability to actually watch games has been limited, due to cancellations, poor streams, and technical difficulties, so this evaluation could be flawed. That’s what makes this so fun, though, the constant flow of the game.

Should Barrera move inside to a CM position? Who should take the wide left spot if he does? Do I have it wrong and the long-ball passes are effective? Let me know what you think in the comments below.