Drogba, Giovinco and other MLS DPs thriving due to physical adjustment
It was a banner weekend for designated players in MLS.
Out of the 32 goals that were scored from Friday to Sunday, 17 of them were tallied by DPs. Four games -- the 3-2 thriller between Toronto FC and the Chicago Fire, New York City FC's 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Montreal Impact's 2-0 victory over D.C. United, and the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 triumph over Real Salt Lake -- saw designated players account for all of the scoring.
Yet what was also interesting was the varied paths that some of the DPs have taken this season, especially those who arrived during the summer transfer window. Didier Drogba has been laying waste to MLS defenses so far, scoring seven goals in six appearances. The Los Angeles Galaxy duo of Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard, who along with Robbie Keane all scored in L.A.'s 3-2 win over FC Dallas, has had their ups and downs. Only now does it seem that Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo have adjusted to MLS, and their NYCFC teammates to them.
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So how is it that some players adapt quicker than others? Every situation is different, of course. A team's relative form, the system that it plays, and quality of the players already on board all have an impact on a DP's assimilation process. But a look at Drogba's play, as well as the success that Jermaine Jones had with New England last year, do reveal a commonality in that a player's ability to cope with the physical aspects of MLS is a huge asset to have upon his arrival.
MLS is still very much a physical league, both in terms of the frenetic pace and the body-to-body contact. At age 37, Drogba's powers of recovery aren't what they used to be, but interim manager Mauro Biello has been judicious in his allocation of minutes for Drogba, even opting to send him home early from a West Coast road trip in a bid to get him extra rest. The maneuver allowed Drogba to use his power and strength that he still has to good effect, and it paid off with him netting four times in the three home games that followed.
Jones has never been a player to shy away from the game's more physical aspects, and it was precisely that attribute that the Revs were missing at the time. New England's attacking pieces were already in place and a run to the MLS Cup final followed.
Sebastian Giovinco, who had the benefit of spending the entire season in Toronto, has shown his physicality in a different way while delivering the most spectacular season in MLS history (20 goals and 15 assists according to the league). His mobility over long and short distances has allowed him to more easily evade defenders and show off his undeniable technical ability.
The reliance on physical play as opposed to technical or tactical elements has long been labeled as one of the MLS' weaknesses, and for that reason the expectation is that technical players such as Lampard, Pirlo and Gerard will dominate from the outset. But the league remains a place where players have to perform under a range of weather conditions and stark differences in altitude. That's not to say those players won't ultimately succeed, but the premium placed on fitness is exacerbated and may delay their ability to contribute on a consistent basis.
One could even hold up Lampard as Exhibit A. By his own admission, his ability to contribute more over the past two weeks has been a direct result of him being in better shape. He still has a ways to go, but the fact that he has broken through for his first two MLS goals shows that the physical component remains critical.
Without question, there are other factors in how quickly players settle in. Piecing together a midfield's attacking components is difficult, requiring a level of understanding that takes time to develop. This in part explains the struggles of Lampard and Pirlo.
Pirlo's presence has caused something of a conundrum in New York, in that he operates from deep positions, requiring Andrew Jacobson to move a bit more forward and then retreat, run and smash anything that moves when the ball turns over. That understanding between all three players appears to be increasing, and now NYCFC has embarked on perhaps its best run of the season.
Time has been the ally of the Galaxy as well with Dos Santos and Gerard now back on an upward swing following the win against Dallas. It would appear that their best is yet to come, a scary proposition considering L.A. currently leads the race for the Supporters Shield. Given the expectations place on designated players, the physical side won't be the only factor in a successful tenure.
But often, it needs to be the first.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.