"Managing the game" is one of those modern soccer expressions that many equate with "stalling for time" or "parking the bus," and it's usually the teams unable to do it well end up paying the price.
While the best method to protect a lead of one goal is to score another one, the stark fact is that even a superior team often needs to ride out a period of pressure to deny an equalizer. However, that task is greatly eased by denying the opponent anything more than an occasional stint of effective possession, rather than defending with nine and relying on blocks and saves.
Several successful examples of holding one-goal leads to secure an important victories occurred last weekend in MLS, along with a couple of utter failures.
San Jose, Chicago and D.C. United were able to ring up three points, while New York and Vancouver succumbed to late goals and had to accept a single point instead. Columbus got a great start by taking a 1-0 lead on the road in the 15th minute yet 11 minutes later was trailing, 2-1, and never caught up.
The Quakes topped Seattle for the third time this season by scoring twice in the first half to take a 2-1 lead, and controlling much of the second 45 minutes with intervals of possession play interspersed by cohesive defending all over the field. The central midfield pairing of Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin consistently got the best of the more combative but less polished duo of Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans, and twice a Sounders' attack was broken up by left midfielder Simon Dawkins, who after scoring the first goal with a 25-yard laser tracked back on 50-yard sprints to break up plays.
It might seem counterintuitive to use rugged banger Steven Lenhart as a sub when trying to keep a lead, but he can hold the ball as well as help defend on crosses and set plays, which is about all the Sounders could muster in the second half. They failed to put a shot on goal in the second half and finished with just one, that being Steve Zakuani's goal that tied the game in the 14th minute.
Unlike the 2010 team that came within one game of reaching MLS Cup, the 2012 Quakes can keep the ball as well as knock it forward quickly. Baca, Dawkins, and centeral defender Victor Bernardez are all upgrades in the skill department, as are Roger Chavez and Shea Salinas, who didn't play in Seattle.
The Fire won its seventh game of the last eight by grinding down the Crew, which capitalized on a mistake by goalie Sean Johnson to take an early lead. But the Crew had no solution for the skill and guile of Chris Rolfe, who not only provided the lead with goals in the 23rd and 26th minutes but also led a smart second-half performance that leaked a couple of second-half chances before reaching the final whistle with the 2-1 lead intact.
Despite losing Marco Pappa and Sebastian Grazzini to midseason moves, the Fire actually looks crisper and more skillful with Rolfe and ex-Sounder Alvaro Fernandez added to the mix along with Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo. The Fire has taken on the persona of a team that can not only use the ball shrewdly in the attack but defend by keeping it.
D.C. United has earned 13 of its 15 victories after scoring the first goal and with a pair of 1-0 wins (in Philadelphia Thursday and at home against Chivas USA Sunday) it managed those games successfully after scoring in the 67th and 64th minutes, respectively.
The addition of longtime MLS veteran Marcelo Saragosa has helped settle the United midfield, which no longer can relieve pressure and get attacks going by driving balls upfield for Dwayne De Rosario,who's out for the season with a knee injury. Saragosa can be prone to fouling -- he committed four fouls against Chivas USA -- but his experience can help youngsters like Andy Najar, Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon handle the stress of keeping a lead.
The Red Bulls were within seconds of a courageous victory at New England yet somehow squandered it. Down to 10 men after rookie Connor Lade saw his second yellow card in the 74th minute, they stunningly took a 1-0 lead when Joel Lindpere scored in the second minute of stoppage time only to give up a headed equalizer to Darrius Barnes -- his first goal of the season -- in the final seconds.
For all the money lavished on this team, one would think there'd be enough poise and resilience to get through a minute unscathed against a mediocre opponent. But Ryan Guy's cross from the right wing reached Barnes, who outmuscled two Red Bulls to score the goal that cost them an important two points. They will probably make the playoffs regardless but on this display their fans can't be confident of a successful run.
Vancouver's five-game losing streak came to an end, but instead of a badly needed win they settled for a 2-2 home tie with Colorado despite taking a 2-1 lead on a goal by Kenny Miller in the 68th minute. To their credit, the 'Caps didn't sit back, and threatened to score a third on good chances for Gerson Koffie and Miller. To their chagrin, they conceded an equalizer when three defenders floundered at a critical moment.
The 'Caps should have been warned. Just before the goal, some sloppy marking had left Conor Casey wide-open for a header he sent right to keeper Brad Knighton. Instead of tightening up, they fell apart.
Alain Rochat and Y.P. Lee both went for a ball lofted near the penalty arc and neither could win it against a battling Jamie Smith, who after gaining control deked past the lunge of Jay DeMerit to smash a shot past Knighton.
The extensive changes wrought by Vancouver in midseason have disrupted its cohesion and undermined its confidence. A team with Camilo Sanvezzo and Barry Robson in midfield and experience in the back should be able to preserve a 2-1 lead at home, and its failure to do so personifies why it is scrapping with FC Dallas for the last playoff spot in the Western Confence.