Backpass: Loki's Toboggan
We dive deep into one beautiful set piece. We also talk about how Watke is awesome and freak out a little that maybe Fraser will leave us.
Every so often, someone pops on the scene and just completely reinvents the genre for the rest of us. Snoop Dogg’s lazy, meandering delivery of rap lyrics that seemed to stay in-time to the music, but just barely. The Matrix’s innovative use of cameras to create a ‘frozen-in-time’ moment as Neo dodges bullets in 360 degree motion. Roy Choi’s decision to put Korean BBQ, in a taco, and sell it from a truck.
Chris Russell (@watke_) is that guy right now in American soccer nerd writing. At a time when most writers desperately want to demonstrate they ‘understand the game at a really high level’, Watke is like ‘nah, dogg.’ His delivery style, in his short twitter videos, is as dry as a Stephen Wright standup delivery. Rather than demonstrate a brilliant, complex tactical idea, Watke does it simply. Here he is, showing how Daryl Dike makes an attacking run; except he’s actually subtly pointing out that San Jose’s defending is garbage. (Click to play in a new window.)
Here’s brilliant analysis of midfield creation and movement by utilizing triangles. Only, Watke’s actually making fun of it by pointing out that any three players anywhere near each other is almost inevitably a triangle.
Watke’s whole schtick is 1) deadpan delivery, 2) simplicity, and 3) the subtle implication that really, soccer’s not actually this really complex tactical ballet that should be dissected under a microscope. It’s just 11 people with a ball.
The reason I bring this all up is that while watching soccer the questions often occurs to me: is that thing there worthy of writing about? Sometimes, the answer I give is ‘no.’ But Watke has done multiple videos (some subsequently, and mysteriously, deleted) of the art of shithousery - the Concacafy art of baiting opponents into red cards, flopping, simulating, or gaining advantage in ways that aren’t exactly legal and yet you are likely to get away with them anyway. If that can be worthy of deep analysis, then really anything can.
The Rapids scored their first goal Wednesday on a set piece. It was a set piece that Rapids fans have seen for years - definitely from the beginning of the Robin Fraser era, but also I think occasionally in the Pablo Mastroeni days. As a middle school and high school basketball coach, we used to call it stack, but in Ted Lasso, the formation is referred to in Season 1, Episode 10, as '“Loki’s Toboggan.”
The power of Loki’s Toboggan is that it completely befuddles a man-marking defense in the box. If you stand to a players left, and in the stack, they go to the right, you cannot squeeze past the other players to get to defend him. It confuses a zone defense because it requires a quick reaction of a player to pick up the first guy coming into their zone - any additional players that break that way and you hope somebody else gets them.1
Here’s the Rapids version, in which Lalas Abubakar waltzes into position totally uncontested for a perfect headed goal.
Here’s how that play looks, frame by frame, with green arrows. Mostly to make it really look like Tom Hiddleston’s helmet from the Marvel films.
This frame is just a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ test to see if you can figure our how many Rapids are in this picture.
In the stack there are, shockingly, six. From top to bottom, they are (I think) Danny Wilson, Abubakar, Diego Rubio, Andre Shinyashiki, Austin Trusty, and Cole Bassett.
Rubio breaks left. Trusty breaks right. The rest is still a mess. But the arrows! It’s like the Horns on Loki’s helmet.
Trusty sprints away to our right/front post. Bassett breaks right towards the front post in the direction of Trusty. Shinyashiki is there - I originally mislabeled him as low, moving right but realized that I literally was diagramming nothing; in fact he’s holding up two defenders in the middle of the screen. It’s hard to see. You can just make out the side of a jersey if you look hard enough. The three of them are set to make a play on a near post cross, but have also dragged the defense with them to give other players space at the back post - those three players are occupying six defenders.
Rubio moves more towards the back post and tussles with his guy to get a position in which he can elevate to the ball should it come to him. Danny Wilson is at war with Ryan Hollingshead - pushing and shoving in a manner that I suppose is technically legal for soccer, although it’s definitely more akin to the work a right tackle for the Broncos might do. Meanwhile, Abubakar slips into the channel, unmarked, pounds home a perfect header, and wheels away in celebration. If the Rapids are Loki’s Toboggan, the meaty forehead of Lalas Abubakar is Mjölnir, mythical hammer of Thor.
This game was really dull to this point - the entire first half was the Rapids playing solidly in two-thirds of the park, only to have few effective ideas when they arrived in the final third. But once they got on top with a set piece, the pressure was off and the pressure they applied in the final third became less urgent, and thus they found yet another goal a few minutes later when Barrios pounded home a wide shot to wrap up a 2-0 win.
This team isn’t perfect, but with a strong, balanced midfield, speed on the wings, a backline that is deep to five or even six players, and a top 10 goalkeeper, they really do seem to be having one of their best seasons in a long time.
Now’s a good time to ask yourself - do I have enough t-shirts? The answer, of course, is no.
T-shirts wear out. The color fades. The edges fray. The neck gets misshapen. You really need a new one. Why not get a t-shirt that expresses your values - you love of socccer, love of the Rapids, love of this substack, and love of helping kids play soccer? Oh, would that there were a cool looking t-shirt that did all this.
There is. Order the HTHL ‘In Mike We Trust’ t-shirt now, and you get a cool comfy Hanes t-shirt that helps our podcast and also supports youth education and soccer in Uganda.
Spirited Away? Fraser seeks Extension, TFC and ATL UTD seek Fraser
The Athletic reported Thursday that the Rapids are in talks with Robin Fraser on a contract extension. And Atlanta and Toronto might be interested to prying him away for their clubs.
Toronto FC and Atlanta United, two of MLS’ most successful teams this decade, both had catastrophic coaching hires this year - Chris Armas was relieved of his duties after a number of terrible outings, and Gabriel Heinze apparently created an atmosphere one player reportedly described as “hell everyday for six months.” Meanwhile, with a mid-level budgeted team at a club with little pizzazz, Robin Fraser has crafted a contender. And now he’s entering contract negotiations. We now cut live to footage of the staff at Robin Fraser’s agency:
Holding on to Fraser is going to be expensive. And to be honest (brace yourself for bad news), we might actually lose him, no matter what.
Ask yourself: if you could earn $1.5 million coaching in front of 11,000 fans with a team that has zero big-time Designated Players2, or for $1.5 million in front of 70,000 fans with three DPs and a guarantee that your team will always have access to the best players that come to MLS, which would you choose?
Now, there are reasons that a coach might prefer to stay in Colorado rather than go to Atlanta or Toronto, even if the prospects for fame, fortune, and success were better. First of all, a coach with a family might prefer not to move around every two years. As we all know, the Front Range is pretty darn nice, and it’s awfully hard to leave. Second, it takes time to build a winner, and sometimes trying to replicate success in a new place is really hard. Look at Oscar Pareja in Orlando - he’s doing well, but it’s not like he experienced immediate success last year, or this year for that matter. He built a phenomenal FC Dallas team in 2016 - they won the double - but getting back to that level of success takes time. He also spent a year with Tijuana, and that didn’t go so well. Bruce Arena seems to like bouncing around and succeeding; he’s been at DC United, Red Bull, LA Galaxy, and New England, in addition to the USMNT. He’s had a lot of success, but again, it wasn’t instantaneous.
I wouldn’t cry if Fraser left. I mean, I would, but I wouldn’t be mad at him - I’d understand. Until the Rapids want to demonstrate otherwise, we’re a middle-market team, and so when the big boys come calling, we’re going to lose guys, including coaches. The team has experienced great stability under Fraser, and I think that ought to be rewarded. But I also want to remind all my readers - this team was thrilled with Pablo Mastroeni’s work in 2016, and rewarded him with a three year deal in December of that year. Seven months later, the team was in dead last, playing dull, lifeless bunker-ball, and Pablo was fired. So let’s try and remember “He’s great! We can’t lose him!” is only true until it isn’t.
Thanks to our Highliner of the Month of July-August
Thanks to our HTHL Supporter of the month, David Ellenberger! Each of our paid supporters helps defray the costs of hosting the pod and puts a little tip in our jar to thank us for our content. This month, Backpass is sponsored by David Ellenberger. We appreciate you, my friend.
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On an inbound play in basketball, my favorite thing about ‘stack’ was: if three players break
the fourth player can just run towards the baseline - into the space vacated by the other players - for an easy bucket.
< Baseline > X(throws)
You are now likely screaming ‘WHAT ABOUT YOUNES NAMLI?!?’ Listen, I like Younes. He’s talented and has a bit of flair. But I think we are all learning that Namli turns out to be less ‘Zelerayan/Ruidiaz playmaking goal machine’ and more ‘off-brand Danish Darlington Nagbe’ - he’s a wonderful dribbler and reliable in possession. But in his entire professional career of eight seasons, he has just 12 goals and 16 assists, or just slightly more than Miguel Almirón had in 2018 with Atlanta United. When his contract/loan deal comes up with FC Krasnodar, if they ask for a transfer fee, the answer ought to be ‘no.’ If he asks for anything more than a TAM-level contract ($600-900k), the answer will be ‘no.’ So yes, technically, for the next five months, Namli is a DP.