Backpass: There's Center Back. There's Right Back. And then there's Vines Back.
Yes, Sam Vines is great. He's also playing his position in a unique way the likes of which are almost never seen. And it's coming to define what the Rapids are this year.
It seems presumptuous, or maybe even naive, to say that a player is ‘redefining the position’, whatever position a person is talking about. Soccer has been around for around 160 years. Just out of pure dumb chance, everything has been tried before, right? There is, as a book I read a lot says, nothing new under the sun. Every type of player has already existed, and certainly there is a like-for-like comparison among the thousands of players at each position, right?
That said as a momentary disclaimer, I don’t know anybody right now who plays left back like Sam Vines.
He did this last week. It was surprising, and epic. And perhaps even a bit magisterial:
One might be tempted to say that a late central run into the box by a Left Back is just a thing that happened - an aberration that will occasionally occur when you encourage your players to experiment and have a little freedom on the pitch. A blind squirrel finding a nut, if you will. Play enough soccer, and eventually, the defenders will get goals. Heck, sometimes even a goalkeeper scores a goal.
Except that’s not it. Sam Vines regularly finds himself, on and off the ball, sallying forth into positions that no mortal left back would ever be allowed to be found in under a sane football manager.
Here’s a gif of Sam Vines, on the ball, dribbling into the attack against Minnesota:
He prances like a gazelle, unloads a one-two-pass to Michael Barrios1 and races into the box, but the ball is cleared by Michael Boxall. This is not that unusual for a left back to do on occasion. But you see Vines doing something like this every game, multiple times. That *is* unusual.
Here’s Vines, bottom of your screen, eventually drifting forward and centrally, into a spot usually reserved for strikers:
This is also an unusual place to find a left back.
And finally, here’s an off-ball still-pic of Sam Vines against Minnesota that I titled when I screen-grabbed it ‘Vines_Sohighhhh_5-8-21’:
Working bottom-left to top-left, thats Barrios, Kellyn Acosta, Diego Rubio, Andre Shinyashiki, and (slightly behind) Younes Namli. Vines, in the pink circle, is positioned roughly where you would expect an attacking midfielder would be. Jack Price is on the ball; Keegan Rosenberry is back in defense on the top-right of your screen. Offscreen in defense to the right are defenders Austin Trusty and Danny Wilson.
This isn’t that crazy if you think to yourself ‘right; the Rapids are in an attack phase, and Sam Vines is positioned to overlap with Barrios on the left side or to facilitate the ball moving up into the final third.’ But if you look back at that first video from this week - Vines, ostensibly a defender, arriving fourth in the box, *in the middle of the box* - you see that there’s virtually no predicting where Sam Vines will be next. Sam’s appearance in a spot normally reserved for number 10 might result in him next attacking - anywhere. Even in the box to score a goal. In the Marvel Universe, Sam Vines is Kurt Wagner, the incredible Nightcrawler2.
Sam disappears and reappears when he wants, where he wants.
Many left backs overlap in attack - the Rapids had a very-forward playing left back in Edgar Castillo just a few years ago. And many fullbacks run into ‘the channel’, a magical gap that exists five yards either side of the extended arms of the 18 yard box. Jose Moutinho, formerly of LAFC and now with Orlando City, is absolutely wonderful on the ball or off shooting that gap. And very occasionally a left back will fill and rotate over in order to pop into the box on a late run - but it usually seems to be an accident.
Vines was meant to score that goal last week against Houston. Barrios cut it back knowing that Sammy was going to be there. This was a training ground play, just the way Robin Fraser drew it up.
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It is refreshing (and not a little bit insane) to have a free-roaming player that’s doing it as a fullback. Tactically, it is coming to define the Colorado Rapids. Because every time Vines goes off into what would be considered an ‘unexpected’ location, somebody else has to shift to compensate. Consider the Rapids ‘average positions’ from a few weeks ago, according to Opta and via the MLSsoccer.com website:
Rosenberry often has to compensate as if he were a right center back. And this chart doesn’t illustrate it, but the other guy that has to rotate over regularly is Jack Price, who is pulled in to covering for Sam at left back so often, it’s as if the man is actually playing two positions for this team. Send him another paycheck, whydoncha.3
What that all means is: Sam Vines has freedom to do crazy shit. And the rest of the team is on the same page - ‘Sam’s goin’ off; I better rotate,’ you can imagine them saying. All eleven players are (often) reorienting the nature of play because Sam Vines is doing the unexpected.
Slowly we’re coming to see what the vision is for the Colorado Rapids under Robin Fraser. This week we honed in how the team utilizes creativity and freedom; and a few weeks ago we talked about the way they use opponents own tactics against them. The personnel seem to be in line with the plan, and the plan is making good use of some of the personnel. Seems good right now. But LAFC is a much tougher test than Houston, so lets see how it goes this week.
Angels in America
I did a nice interview this week on the podcast with Alicia Rodriguez of SBNation website Angels on Parade4, in which she broke down what LAFC’s strength’s and weaknesses are. I’ll be a bit more simplistic and brief in a short preview of our foes this coming week (Saturday, May 22, 8:30 MST, Altitude and ESPN+).
LAFC’s 4-3-3 is really dangerous. Their midfield three of Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing, and Mark Anthony-Kaye is perhaps the best midfield in all MLS - and then they’ve got Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela in attack. It’s almost not fair. And yet - they’re currently in dead-last in the Western Conference, with a 1-2-2 (WLT) record on the year. I think that’s a hiccup - this team will be a playoff contender, and perhaps the MLS Cup favorites.
Because they have such a talented midfield, they like to possess centrally in building the attack, and move the ball around through the middle and side to side - probing on the dribble and recycling. They sometimes force teams to confront that midfield by shifted additional resources there - Blessing can’t be stopped with one guy, so you rotate over some help, and maybe pull a guy out of the backline to fill a gap. This will happen over and over, and then suddenly, LAFC will skip the middle altogether - pinging a deep ball from Atuesta or the backline past everyone for Vela or Rossi or even an overlapping fullback. They sucked you into locking down the midfield, and then they punish you for it.
Expect the Rapids, who have been swashbuckling with Vines in the past three weeks in the first half only to close ranks and be far more conservative and defensive in the second half, to be conservative all around. One does not simply walk into Exposition Park5, dictating play to Bob Bradley’s vaunted minions. It’ll have to be cautious and tight if Colorado wants points.
After I said all the things about Sam Vines, I expect LAFC head coach Bob Bradley has showed his team a lot of tape of him, doing that Vines Back thing I discussed. They will be prepared and have a plan. But how exactly will Bradley counter Vines? And in turn, will Robin Fraser be more ‘Vinesy’ or less ‘Vinesy’ this week as a result - using Vines as a ruse to spring some other trap on the black and gold? Watch the chess moves carefully, kids. These are two smart coaches.
That all said, I tend to be very wrong on LAFC matches6. I think Colorado likely loses this match, which is a decent reason for you, my friends, to maybe put $10 on the ‘Pids with your bookie right now.
The reason I like using gifs is two-fold. One: I can sample them and embed them neatly and cleanly without too much complexity, unlike a video. And two: I can rewatch a certain moment over and over again and pick out nuances or look at a different player. Here it’s fun to watch Romain Métanaire, MNUFC’s right back, get ole’ed. He doesn’t do anything wrong here - a defender who requires two attackers in order to be bypassed is doing a decent job. But still, he has this sense of ‘whelp I’m beat’ as he turns around and I just love it.
I am very glad that Disney is slowly repatriating the rights (through expiration of an exclusive contract, I think) of Sony’s ownership of the X-men brand, because it means I can introduce my kids to the X-Men movie franchise on Disney+. Not every film is a gem. But X-Men has an origin moment for Magneto - him bending the iron gate of Aushwitz - that made me sympathize with a villain more than any other moment in any movie. X-Men:First Class is wonderful - I love that they introduce a few mutants early and you’re like ‘huh I don’t remember that guy at all’ and then they off him in the opening 30 minutes and you’re like ‘riiiiiiiiight.’ X2 is perhaps the best Marvel film of them all. Come at me, bro.
That’s a joke. Pricey is earning $655,000 this year. He’s fine.
The site was once called ‘Goat Parade’, when it covered Chivas USA (chiva is goat in Spanish). I don’t entirely understand what a goat parade is anymore than I understand what an angel parade would be.
Footnoted gif? Footnoted gif.
The Rapids won this match, 1-0. I was fired from the Denver Post about a month later. (TBH, those things are probably not related. You might know that the Rapids are not yet a marketing force among the Denver Post’s largest demographic of 65 year old + suburban curmudgeons. No offense to you DP readers; if you can, you ought to support local journalism.)