Hey Nerds! Zonal Marking geeked out on your MLS Cup!

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Just imagine Liz Lemon saying that headline …

… and please, don’t take offensive to it.. Anybody who reads the site regularly (a) is a saint!, and (b) knows I’m not above digging deep into the tactical side of things (as you’ll see in about 300 words).

Of course, if the virtual mecca for that kind of stuff is Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking, which once a year casts its eye west for Major League Soccer’s final.

The first time I remember Cox doing this was for the Colorado-Dallas final in Toronto (2010). Hopefully he didn’t make too many judgments based on that game, because that was rough 120 minutes (albeit with a decent payoff).

The last two seasons have given ZM some better soccer to write about, with Saturday’s match turning into an exhibition of what MLS 2.0 has to offer.

Click here to get all of Zonal Marking’s thoughts, but the general points:

  • 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2 made for a straight forward battle;
  • Kofie Sarkodie overlapping a pinched-in Boniek Garcia made Houston’s right the first half’s key battle zone;
  • Unusual for today’s style of soccer, a working the channels approach dominated the game on both sides;
  • Calen Carr’s departure hurt Houston’s ability to utilize that approach in the second half;
  • LA’s dominance on set pieces defined the second half, Houston lacking somebody to counter Omar Gonzalez’s aerial dominance.

A couple of things that help round out the picture, things that are difficult to pick up without watching the teams throughout the season:

  • Part of LA’s success on set pieces was due to Tally Hall’s tendency to stay on his line. On the second goal, Gonzalez was able to cut him off, winning Beckham’s chip;
  • Houston was playing a higher line than usual, perhaps a consequence of Kinnear asking Clark to venture forward more to try and contain Beckham (and moving his defense up to keep from being stretched). At one point in the first half, LA was called for offside within five yards of the center line;
  • I would say the freedom Beckham had was less to do with Clark playing deep than LA’s adjusting to Clark staying at the same level as his wide midfielders (if not higher). Beckham ended up dropping deep and to the right, at times drawing Calen Carr’s attention because of how far he’d drifted;
  • Landon Donovan was pulling Houston’s center backs all over the place. The 12th minute long ball from Beckham to Robbie Keane (which ended in Donovan missing a sitter) was created by Donovan pulling Bobby Boswell out of position. Jermaine Taylor also had trouble deciding when to release and when to track Donovan.
  • Aside from Adam Moffat’s assist on Calen Carr’s goal, Houston’s central midfield really struggled in the offensive phase. Ricardo Clark continually let himself get lost between Beckham and Juninho, while neither he nor Moffat where getting the ball to Garcia and Brad Davis quick enough.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez injured on international duty

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Atlanta United is sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings three weeks into its inaugural Major League Soccer season, and the bite appears to be every bit as fearsome as the bark for the newcomers.

Now, the club must contend with its first bit of truly scary news.

In-form striker Josef Martinez was injured on international duty with Venezuela and is heading back to the United States for evaluation. The report says he tweaked his left thigh, and after the match head coach Rafael Dudamel said he would release Martinez back to Atlanta, saying, “I do not think it’s good for Josef to travel. This muscle tightness can take 10 days of recovery.”

Martinez was subbed off of Venezuela’s match with Peru in the 59th minute, replaced by Yangel Herrera and walking off under his own power. Venezuela drew the match 2-2, blowing a 2-goal halftime lead and leaving them bottom of the table, 14 points back of the intercontinental playoff spot.

Obviously that 10-day recovery is more ideal than any other long-term prognosis, but it would still see him miss a road visit to Seattle next Friday. The 23-year-old has a whopping five games in his first three MLS games with Atlanta and has been a force. Brandon Vazquez and Bryan Rochez are the two options currently on Atlanta’s roster to replace the Venezuelan in the lineup.

Martinez was signed on loan from Serie A side Torino, but the move was made permanent last week.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.

Landon Donovan retires again, this time for good

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After coming out of retirement last fall to join the LA Galaxy for one more shot at an MLS Cup, Landon Donovan has once again called time on his career, saying he’s certain he will not play again.

With a number of other ventures on his plate, the USMNT all-time leading scorer is looking forward to spending his time elsewhere.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Donovan said. “I’m done. No more playing for me. I have not [gone public with it yet]. But that is definitely the case.”

Donovan scored one goal in nine games for the LA Galaxy in his comeback bid, with the club ravaged by injuries and still gunning for the Cup. However, after the season was over with a loss to Colorado in the Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy confirmed it was nothing more than a short-term stopgap.

“With Landon, when he came back, it was always going to be a short-term thing,”team president Chris Klein said to the L.A. Times in December. “He’s enjoying what he’s doing and we see we’re comfortable in the direction that we’re headed.”

In January, reports claimed Real Salt Lake had offered Donovan a Designated Player contract, but it appears he’s turned it down, and will now have time to concentrate on his other ventures. Off the field, Donovan is an analyst on Fox’s soccer coverage, is on the advisory committee for the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid, and has joined the ownership group attempting to bring an expansion MLS team to San Diego.

Former Spurs midfielder Paulinho scores thunderbolt for Brazil

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Brazil topped Uruguay 4-1 to move on the verge of World Cup qualification, but there was much more to the first half of this match than meets the eye.

Uruguay went ahead 1-0 on a 9th-minute penalty won and scored by Edinson Cavani, and for a moment it seemed like the home side might find its way to pull within a point of Brazil at the top of the CONMEBOL standings. That would not last very long.

[ MORE: Full roundup of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying action ]

Just 10 minutes later, a bad giveaway near the midfield stripe saw Neymar casually feed Paulinho a good 50 yards from goal. The former Spurs man took matters into his own hands, charging forward and unleashing a vicious strike that continued to rise until it ripped the chords in the top-right corner.

 

Not only was the goal a sight to behold, it was an important moment in the match. Brazil was back level at 1-1, and Paulinho would be on his way to an eventual hat-trick with a pair in the second half. Neymar scored once as well to complete the 4-1 final scoreline, and the three points for Brazil saw them remain perfect in the World Cup qualifying round as they march seven clear of Uruguay at the top of the standings.

For Paulinho, the hat-trick brings him to four goals in the World Cup qualifying round, adding to his score in the 3-0 win over Argentina. They also mark an important moment for the Chinese Super League, where Paulinho now plays, having moved from Spurs in July of 2015. Some national team coaches have left players on the outside of the squad for moving to leagues such as the Chinese League or Major League Soccer, but Paulinho has clearly been an asset to Brazil despite his club situation. In fact, in China, Paulinho has scored four goals in his four league matches for Guangzhou Evergrande this season plus another in the Asian Champions League, leaving him in top goalscoring form coming into this international break, something which has clearly translated directly to international play.

The 28-year-old had lost his place in the national team squad in 2014, going over two years without a single international appearance, but has been a mainstay in the Brazilian side during this World Cup qualification cycle.