The Houston Dynamo played badly for 93 minutes against LAFC. Adama Diomande and Latif Blessing were dominant, and while the Dynamo had occasional good passing sequences, they were mostly sloppy and disconnected. The central midfield, still hurting from the loss of Juan David Cabezas, was dreadful.
But Mauro Manotas, whose straight-ahead drives into the heart of LAFC’s backline were the Dynamo’s only source of attacking creativity, slipped past Laurent Ciman and pulled a goal back in the 94th-minute, making the score 2-1 waking up a sleepy, post-delay crowd. Two minutes later, center back Philippe Senderos scored on a deflection on a last-ditch corner-kick to equalize.
An improbable result. Let’s take a look at that last goal, another example of set pieces saving the Dynamo:
Romell Quioto takes the corner, an inswinger from the far side of the field:
This is pretty much the Dynamo’s last chance to equalize. I’m surprised they didn’t have more players in the box; only six players are taking up positions to get on the end of Quioto’s service, not many more than a usual set piece. Some teams would have sent their goalkeeper forward.
LAFC have nine field players back, including Shaft Brewer (#28), who stands at the edge to prevent a low, front-post ball. Quioto’s intentions with his cross are always to send a ball to the near-post, hoping for a flick-on.
Alberth Elis, often a set piece target, appears to be jostling with Callum Mallace in the above screenshot. Once the ball enters the air, however, Mallace jumps to the front-post, where the ball originally appears to be headed. Ciman then leaps alongside Elis, with Diomande (99) standing underneath them:
Darwin Ceren (24) charged to the front-post on a run that originated from outside the box. No one chased him or paid attention to him until front-post markers Benny Feilhaber (33), Tristan Blackmon (27), and Mallace (16) jumped to him and Manotas as Quioto’s cross sailed over their heads. Ceren’s run is the most definitive indication that LAFC are using a zonal marking system.
Ciman, Walker Zimmerman and Diomande are understandably the three players Bob Bradley chose to hold the center of the six-yard box. That set-up is somewhat consistent with earlier Dynamo set pieces, in which Mark-Anthony Kaye took Diomande’s place, the striker holding a spot closer to the front post. Joao Moutinho (44) became a straight swap with Blessing as smaller players at the top of the six-yard box.
As Quioto’s service reached the front part of the box, clearly targeting Elis, Ciman stepped to the Honduran. Elis likely had an eye on Senderos and Luis Gil at the back-post, who were not specifically marked; rather, it was Jordan Harvey and Kaye who combined to cover that space.
Elis and Ciman go up for it. I guess Elis won, although neither got great contact on it. Elis was given an assist on the goal, so he must have had some effect on the ball’s trajectory.
A number of LA players gravitate toward the ball. Zimmerman (25) is in no-man’s land, deserting his given zone to stand closer to the ball. Kaye, although it’s not completely clear in the above shot, also starts moving to the point of confrontation, which ultimately is the costliest decision.
That, the harmful gravitation to the ball, is the biggest downside to using a zonal marking system. Without clearly outlined roles, players often leave their zones to try and crowd out the opposing player most likely to receive the ball. Disjointedness can result, and unless you win the initial header, that can kill you defending set pieces.
Kaye (circled in red) can be seen turning back to his original zone as Elis’s flick-on makes its way to a wide-open Senderos. Harvey, who had looked like he was man-marking Senderos originally, is left out to dry due to his duties at the back-post. When Elis went up for the header, Harvey had jumped to the goal-line, so he nervously turns around to stand in front of Senderos as the wide-open Swiss defender prepares to hit a volley.
If you’re LAFC, you can’t give a player this much space to shoot. This probably wouldn’t have happened in a man-marking system:
Senderos’s volley deflected off of a lunging Kaye and into the roof of the net. Tyler Miller could do nothing about it.
Houston didn’t do anything revolutionary here. They loaded the six-yard box, sent a ball to their best attacker at the front post and hoped for the best. It was effective, if a bit lucky on the deflection and flick (it may have hit Elis’s shoulder), and it’s no coincidence that the Dynamo are one of the league’s best set piece teams. Wilmer Cabrera makes an effort in that area.
For LAFC, it’s probably about time to add some man-marking to their set piece defense scheme.