When I got home from RSL’s 2-1 win over Seattle on Saturday night, I was talking about rookie forward Devon Sandoval's excellent outing so much that my wife accused me of having a "man crush" on him.
I laughed it off at the time, but now that I've had some time to think about it, you were right, dear. I do have a “man-crush.”
I think RSL fans realize that Sandoval had a nice night in his first-ever start, but I think it was better than most people realized. In fact, for me he would have been Man of the Match had it not been for Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who I thought was the best player on the field despite conceding twice. On Saturday I thought Sandoval did what we expected and even more, and did it with a calmness that defies his age and experience. So what was so great about Sandoval's game?
I usually leave these tactical chats in the capable hands of Matt Montgomery, but take a look at the chalkboard to the right. Here you can see Sandoval's entire night from a passing perspective - all 22 successful passes and his six unsuccessful passes.
Take a look at his passes that originated from between about 35 and 55 yards from goal; almost all of them are "negative" (i.e. backward) passes. This is exactly what you want and expect your target-style forward to do. Almost all these passes are long balls sent up field by defenders from deep in RSL's end. In these cases the target forward puts his back to the goal, holds the defender at bay, settles the ball, and makes a backward pass to a midfielder who probably doesn't have a man draped all over him. Looking at Sandoval's high completion percentage on these back passes, clearly he met expectations in that aspect of his game.
Next, take a look at his passes that originated from 35 yards out and closer; you can see that most of these passes are going forward, not backward. These mostly came from times when RSL was advancing on goal with numerous attackers, and this is where Sandoval went above and beyond in my opinion. Many target forwards - especially young ones - aren't comfortable attempting incisive passes and joining in combination play with teammates. But instead of being a one-trick pony who only wants to play "post-up" soccer and lay off back passes, Sandoval's passing around goal clearly shows that he is plenty comfortable acting as a playmaker. You don't often see this behavior with big forwards, especially ones so young.
A great example of this is his combination with Ned Grabavoy and Joao Plata on Plata's 55th-minute chance. Grabavoy plays a pass into Sandoval who is holding position with his back to goal. But instead of playing a back pass right back to Grabavoy, Sandoval flicks a forward pass into space where Plata runs onto it for an open look. The only thing that kept Sandoval from recording a beautiful assist was Gspurning's face getting in the way of Plata's shot.
Sandoval's finishing left a bit to be desired on Saturday night - it will come around - but I am really excited about his passing game and what it's doing to open things up for the rest of the team.