Andrea Pirlo takes three steps before his right leg slices through the ball. Pirlo doesn’t take much of a follow through because he wants the ball to have a flat trajectory.
The ball sails past a defender stationed close to the corner and, as if guided by a lasers, rises about 20 feet above the ground as it subtly curls a few feet from right to left.
Its destination: David Villa’s right foot. He meets the ball and slams it into the left corner of the goal.
It was two pieces of skill that gave NYCFC a 2-1 lead in a game against Vancouver last April.
It’s those pieces of skills – both in executing set-pieces and those required to defend set-pieces – that could prove the difference in Atlanta United having a chance to make the playoffs in its first season, or failing to match Seattle in 2009 as the last expansion squad to make the postseason in its inaugural campaign.
“It’s an important part of an identity of a team,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “It’s an important part of a game, both defending and attacking. There is also everything that goes in the run of play. Sometimes games are decided by the flow of the game, but sometime also decided by set pieces, corners and free kicks. It’s also something that we will focus on.”
Practicing and honing the art are important because in MLS last season, of the 956 goals scored, 206 (21.5 percent) came from direct or indirect free kicks (that total doesn’t include penalty kicks), according to Opta, which handles gameday stats for the league.
A direct kick can be scored by the player taking the kick. Those are the moments when you see the goalkeeper frantically trying to set up a wall of defenders in front of whoever is taking the kick. Those kicks can provide some of the most exciting moments in soccer as the guessing game between the goalie and the taker plays out in real time.
An indirect kick has to be touched by two players. Those are the kicks where you will see one player roll the ball a few inches toward an onrushing teammate.
A set-piece in soccer can be used on either type of kick and is one of the few times during the game that a team can try to identifiably execute something that it may have spent hours practicing. The common refrain from announcers after watching a play work (or not) is “something they’ve worked on at the playground.”
The Villa goal is an example. While most were watching the ball, there was a lot more going on in the penalty box than could be seen at first glance. When Pirlo starts to run, Villa is standing in front of the goalie and the player tasked with marking him. As Pirlo starts to kick the ball, Villa peels toward the back post and away from his marker.
Villa gets the space needed to volley the ball because teammate Frederic Brillant picks – just like in basketball – Villa’s defender.
The other key is having someone who can deliver the ball to that perfect spot. It’s a unique skill. Stuart Holden, a former player for the U.S. men’s national team and now an analyst for Fox Sports, was part of the 2006-07 Houston Dynamo teams that won back-to-back MLS Cups. He credited their ability to score set pieces as a reason why.
“Worked on them 3-4 times a week,”’ he said. “We had a real understanding of where you needed to be in certain moments. “Most important thing is delivery. You have to have a guy put a ball in a dangerous spot.”
Atlanta United scored on a set piece in its first preseason game in Chattanooga. It wasn’t a practiced kick. It was the result of disorganization by Chattanooga. Seeing their opponent wasn’t ready, Andrew Carleton completed a short pass, or short corner as it is also known, to Julian Gressel, who hit a cross into the penalty box. Josef Martinez dove at the ball – risking a cleat or fist to the face – and headed the cross into the goal.
“You have to be brave, you have to be courageous,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “Putting your head in a dangerous place, taking a chance, takes courage.”
When midfielder Miguel Almiron is playing, it appears he will take the corner kicks and the direct kicks. Atlanta United has several players (Kenwyne Jones, Brandon Vazquez, Leandro Pirez, Julian Gressel) who are tall enough to create danger with the possibility of headed shots in the penalty box.
The key to success on executing and defending set pieces can often be found in the scrum of players jockeying for position. The offensive players are trying to get that one step that will give them the momentum to either outrun the defenders if the kick is far from goal, or the space to leap and try to head the ball if the kick is close to the goal.
Defenders will hold, push, tug, and, sometimes, try to make contact with a tender part of a man’s body, in an attempt to slow down their man.
“That scrum is chaotic,” Vazquez said. “I focus on getting in front of the defenders in case the ball gets there. I’m there to finish the play. I don’t focus on what’s happening behind me. But they are always pushing, arms out in front of me. That’s part of the game.”
Some managers prefer to defend with man-to-man assignments. Others will assign zones when defending in the penalty box. Communication – and courage — is key with either tactic.
“Defending is not only organization, a coach can set you up, it ultimately just comes down to a real commitment by each player to not get beat,” Holden said. “Fight through picks and make sure their man doesn’t score. Making sure they are paying attention, focusing as a team, and making it a team mandate.
“That’s where you see the greatest success in Major League Soccer.”