September 23, 2016

Likes, Dislikes and Pressing Breakdowns

By Ryan Harmanis

Five Things I Like and Dislike

Zach Lowe, my favorite NBA writer, keeps a list of likes and dislikes. As we head into conference play, I decided to do the same:

Like: Tough Out-of-Conference Games. I want to watch Calvin-OWU, Haverford-Brandeis, Wheaton-Chicago, and Rowan-F&M. The conference season is a grind with familiar matchups, but the non-conference is a chance to watch potential Elite Eight and Final Four teams square off. These games are low-risk and high reward, and I wish more teams went for them.

Dislike: Cupcake Schedules. On the flip side, I cannot stand teams that expect to have good seasons schedule a slate of cupcakes in September. A weak schedule means your team won’t be ready for the inevitable step up in competition and your strength-of-schedule will cripple your NCAA at-large chances if you slip up in conference play.

Like: Free Kick Set Plays. Goals are a rare commodity in soccer. Most teams average fewer than two per game. Fouls and corner kicks, on the other hand, are a common occurrence, yet most teams spend little time working on them.

Dislike: Short Corners. I view every short corner as a wasted opportunity. Corners are dangerous because goalkeepers and teams are not good at defending them, especially at the collegiate level. They’re also better than a normal crossing situation (when you only have two or three targets) because teams can put six or seven attacking players in the box.

Like: Goal Celebrations. Scoring is difficult, and most of us rarely put the ball in the net. So players, when you score, celebrate. Run around like a nut, do a swan dive, dance, box with the corner flag, whatever. Just do something. It’s a game, and a goal is the most exciting thing that can happen. Enjoy it.

Dislike: Yellow Cards for Taking Your Shirt Off. Why do players get carded for this? It can’t be timewasting, because the clock stops after a goal. It can’t be to keep the game “appropriate,” because college players swear regularly without punishment. It’s a pointless rule that makes the game less fun. I rarely scored, but I celebrated my biggest goals by breaking this rule. Your coach won’t appreciate it, but if you score an overtime winner (and the game is over) go for it.

Like: Overtime. Regular-season overtime is not soccer in its purest form, but it’s hard to beat the intensity, tension, and excitement. Everyone is exhausted. There are gaps all over the field. The game devolves into one counterattack after another. But heavy legs and desperation lead to scoring opportunities, and overtime rewards teams, coaches, and players willing to take chances to win the game.

Dislike: Playing for a Draw. I get it. Sometimes you’re outmatched, or tired, or down a man. But, unless you need a tie to win your conference or you’re in the playoffs, I don’t understand holding out for a draw. Few things infuriate fans and spectators more than a team that refuses to attack. That’s not to say that teams must attack all-out, all the time. But even if you defend for the majority of the game, have a plan to at least try to score a goal. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Like: Big Crowds and Student Sections. Nothing beats a night game in front of a crowd. You don’t get that atmosphere in high school or club soccer, and it’s rare even in college. But man, does it make a game more fun when you have a big crowd in the stands chanting, singing, and heckling the other team. Kudos to programs like Messiah, who regularly draw hundreds of students and over a thousand fans, for creating the best atmospheres in DIII soccer.**

Dislike: Quiet Benches. Most teams don’t draw massive crowds, and even top teams don’t always have them. The best alternative is a loud bench. I find it odd when one team’s players sit on the bench quietly while the other team has 20 guys standing and cheering throughout the game. Standing together sends a message to the other team that you’re all ready to go, it gets you ready to come on as a sub, and it helps your teammates keep going when they get tired. Sitting signals that you aren’t into the game and don’t care much about the outcome.

Tactics Board: Pressing, Volume 2—Breakdowns

Last week, I explained the concept of “pressing,” or pressuring the other team to force a turnover high up the field and create a scoring opportunity. Today, I’m going to look at the downside. To begin, let’s revisit a high press.

In these figures, the Os move together to cut off passing lanes and limit the centerback’s options. But pressing only works if every player is on the same page. That’s rarely the case. Here are the four main reasons pressing breaks down.

Breakdown #1: The One-Man Press

It happens every game: one team passes the ball backward, and one opposing player chases the ball. If his teammates move with him to press (as above) it works. If they don’t, you see lone blue O chasing the ball with no hope of success. I’ve watched, time and again, as isolated center forwards run themselves into the ground with no defensive support.

Breakdown #2: Miscommunication

In this scenario, the Os try to press, but they make a mistake. The central midfielders don’t talk to each other and cover the same player. The consequence? The centerback makes a simple pass to the other central midfielder and the Xs now have a five-on-four attack with acres of open space.

Breakdown #3: Gaps Between the Lines

Pressing teams must stay connected and leave little space between lines. But, as a game wears on, players get tired and gaps appear. In Figure 6, the Os press in a 4-3-3, while the Xs have the ball in a 4-4-2. When gaps appear between the forward and midfield lines, the Xs break the press easily.

Gaps between the forward and midfield lines render pressing ineffective, but gaps between the midfield and defensive lines are worse. In this case, the forwards and midfielders press, but the defense leaves a gap:

The midfielders prevent a pass to a center mid, but the gap between midfield and defense leaves an easy opening for the centerback to pass to a forward. This pass not only beats the press, it bypasses the entire O midfield, allowing the Xs to mount a numbers-up attack on the O goal.

I saw these breakdowns time and again in last week’s game between No. 7 Ohio Northern (the Os), and No. 10 Ohio Wesleyan (the Xs). ONU pressed OWU in the first half to great effect, forcing numerous turnovers and creating several great scoring chances. OWU only stayed in the game due to poor finishing and good goalkeeping. But ONU wore down and gaps began to appear. In the second half and overtime, OWU was able to easily bypass ONU’s press and took complete control of the game. Even though ONU could have been up two or three goals by halftime, they were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw.

Breakdown #4: The Direct Ball

As we just saw, a pressing team’s defensive line must be high to support the midfielders, but that leaves a lot of space behind the defense. Teams can exploit that space by making runs in behind and playing direct balls over the defenders. In Figure 8, the ball-side X forward checks into the middle, drawing the centerback with him. The weak-side X forward makes a run into the open space, and, as seen in Figure 9, one accurate ball over the top can bust a press wide open.

If a centerback knows the other team is looking to play the ball over his head to a forward running in behind, he won’t be as aggressive in pressing. By forcing the centerback to lay off a bit, the attacking team can create gaps between the pressing team’s defense and midfield (Breakdown #3) and break down the press.

So there you have it. Pressing is a high-risk, high-reward tactic. When it works, it can be devastating. But when it breaks down—and it can break down in a number of ways—good teams will take advantage.

Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10

1. Rowan (8-0-0, No. 1) – The Profs earn the top spot after Amherst’s tie by handing NJCU and No. 8 Franklin and Marshall their first losses.

2. Chicago (8-0-0, No. 5) – Three more dominant wins for the Maroons, who remain the best team I’ve watched in 2016.

3. Kenyon (7-0-0, No. 2) – Kenyon parlayed a dominant opening half into a 1-0 win over No. 17 Centre. The Lords’ defense remains dominant, but they have yet to show a killer instinct.

4. St. Lawrence (7-0-0, No. 6) – St. Lawrence edged Cortland State and No. 24 Plattsburgh State by identical 2-1 scorelines, although Plattsburgh had the Saints on the ropes at times.

5. Trinity (Texas) (7-0-0, No. 4) – The Tigers made an early statement in the SCAC by beating nemesis Colorado College last weekend. A tricky return trip to Colorado Springs is only two weeks away.

6. Amherst (4-0-1, No. 3) – No shame in a draw at No. 20 Middlebury, and the defending champs survived five straight away games to start the season. Still, everyone above Amherst is perfect.

7. Washington and Lee (5-1-1, No. 9) – W&L’s only setback is a 2-0 loss to top-ranked Rowan on opening weekend, and since then the Generals took out Oneonta State and won at Ohio Wesleyan.

8. Ohio Northern (8-0-1, No. 7) – The Polar Bears looked the part last week, slugging it out with No. 10 Ohio Wesleyan before picking up a nice win against Case Western and shelling Defiance 9-0.

9. Calvin (6-1-0, No. 11) – Despite an opening-weekend loss to OWU, the Knights show no signs of slipping in the MIAA. They’ve rolled to three straight conference wins, including a dominant 3-0 win at rival Hope.

10. Mass-Boston (7-0-0, No. 16) – Mass-Boston has won all seven games and posted six shutouts. The Beacons (you have to love D-III mascots) made the tournament in 2014 and 2015, and look like they might be even better this year.

Trending Up: Messiah, Macalester, Middlebury, Carthage

Trending Down: Christopher Newport, Redlands, Centre, Wheaton (Ill.)



** Messiah is averaging 1,895 fans per game and had 2,819 fans attend last weekend’s game.


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Ryan's Ruminations


Ryan's Ruminations will go beyond the box scores to offer analysis and opinion on major storylines around the country.  Ryan will provide in-depth analysis of the current season and insight into important aspects of Division III soccer, augmented by fun and compelling stories about players, coaches, teams, and games.



Ryan Harmanis

Ryan Harmanis played for Ohio Wesleyan from 2007 to 2010 where he was a three-year captain. Following graduation, Ryan continued to follow the D-III landscape before joining in 2013. He combines an analytical background with a passion for writing and the game of soccer. [see full bio]

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