The importance of set pieces is one of the most tired clichés in soccer.
It seems not a pregame show can go by without one (or two, or three) of the commentators mentioning how critical set pieces will be in the outcome of the match. There is certainly truth in the statement, as corner kicks and free kicks – sometimes even throw-ins – require the utmost concentration to defend and a killer instinct to finish.
Yet the majority of goals are scored from the run of play, so is there too much focus on set pieces?
Not in the eyes of the New England Revolution.
The Revs didn’t score a goal directly from a set piece until their 28th game of the regular season last year, when Kenny Mansally’s free kick was powerfully headed home by Kheli Dube in a 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids on Oct. 3. Former Revolution midfielder Jeff Larentowicz notched the club’s only other goal from a set piece in the 2009 regular season, burying a free kick in the regular-season finale against Columbus to clinch a postseason spot.
Amazingly, with those goals New England’s offensive issues from set pieces seemed to evaporate. In addition to the club’s last two goals of the regular season – from Dube and Larentowicz – both goals against the Chicago Fire in the playoffs came as a result of dead-ball situations.
Of more concern for the Revolution as the 2010 regular season approaches is defending set pieces, which the team struggled with throughout 2009 as it conceded an unusually high amount of goals from free kicks and corners. It was a troubling development for a club which didn’t allow a goal from a corner kick until its 26th game in 2008.
While the Revs showed little signs of trouble defending set pieces in their first three games this preseason, some of those old concerns were raised on Wednesday morning when Duke forward Nick Sih – one of the smallest players on the field at five-foot-eight – snuck in at the near post to bury a header from Cole Grossman’s corner kick.
Chris Tierney – who has spent the first two years of his career on the left side of the field but filled in as a right back against Duke – couldn’t hide his disappointment in the manner the goal was conceded.
“It was a really weak goal that we gave up,” he admitted. “It was a good ball in – it was a ball that was whipped in hard and it was directed at the front post – but I think we could’ve done a better job of stepping off the post and really attacking the ball. We sort of let the ball play us instead of attacking it.”
Battling through illness, Pat Phelan found himself in a similarly unfamiliar situation as Tierney. While he’s plied his trade as a central midfielder in his first two professional seasons, Phelan was deployed as a central defender against the Blue Devils, lining up alongside Emmanuel Osei.
Although he refrained from singling out a teammate, he made it clear that it’s necessary for everyone to be alert when defending set pieces.
“We all have specific jobs on corner kicks and you have to be awake,” he said. “The early morning kickoff could’ve been a factor – it’s tough to get up for those games – but at this level, it’s really not acceptable. We just need to be more awake on set pieces.”
Another factor could’ve been the missing personnel. Kevin Alston (hamstring), Darrius Barnes (quad) and Cory Gibbs (rest) may all find themselves in the Revolution’s preferred starting lineup this season, but none of them were on the field against Duke.
Even so, both Phelan and Tierney noted that defending set pieces has been a focus for the Revolution this preseason.
Tierney pointed to the development of the younger defenders and the physical presence of the newly-acquired Gibbs as the main factors in an improved defensive effort on dead-ball situations.
“I think we’re going to be much better [defending set pieces] this year,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of big, physical guys. With Cory coming in and Darrius coming into his own, we’ve got guys who are good in the air. I think we should be better both offensively and defensively on set pieces this year.”
Phelan agreed with Tierney’s assessment, adding that besides the corner-kick goal conceded against Duke, the Revs have been solid defending set pieces this preseason.
“Last year we struggled with [set pieces] and we’ve taken some steps to curb that and to fix that,” he said. “Obviously, this is a good shot in the arm that we’re not quite there yet, but we definitely have the personnel to do it.”
“We need some more organization and a little more communication, but I think we’re definitely not going to have as many problems with it as we did last season,” he concluded