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One small play made the difference between a tie and loss for Crew SC at Orlando

You never think about the little plays until they cost you a game.

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MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City at Columbus Crew Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer games are 90 minutes — sometimes more — but come down to individual battles and plays. Those build up to the overall performance but often times, given the low-scoring nature of the game, little plays can make the difference. And sometimes those little plays even go unnoticed.

That was the case in Columbus Crew SC’s 2-1 loss at Orlando City SC on Sunday afternoon.

In the 89th minute of the then tie game between the Lions and the Crew, Orlando’s Chris Mueller made an errant cross that fell harmlessly just beyond the Black and Gold’s Hector Jimenez before trickling out of bounds. Jimenez slowly trotted over to the ball to take the ensuing throw in about 10-15 yards upfield from the corner flag and waited for any teammates to get open. With the game winding down, none of Jimenez’s teammates seemed particularly lively in creating space between themselves and their defenders.

Jimenez then launched a throw in just over Patrick Mullins’ head and the ball was recovered by Orlando who immediately attacked. A couple of passes and some not particularly intense defending from Columbus led to Scott Sutter unleashing a long range shot that rattled the crossbar.

The ball was eventually cleared by Jimenez out of bounds for an Orlando throw in. OCSC took the throw quickly and created a dangerous cross, which was eventually cleared by the Crew back to Orlando who then. in the same possession, created a second dangerous shot within a one minute span. This was the start of a flurry of attacks for the home side which eventually led to the game-winning penalty kick earned by Chris Mueller and converted by Sacha Kljestan leading to Orlando’s first win since July.

Let’s step back and talk about throw ins, plays that usually are innocuous and go without much thought. In Major League Soccer play, a team averages 22 throw ins per game, which is about 5 percent of all passes a team makes over the course of a contest. Overall, throw ins are completed 81 percent of the time. However, throw ins taken in a team’s own half are completed at much lower rates. In fact, throws taken within 18 yards of a team’s goal line are completed less than 65 percent of the time. Long throws are even more difficult to complete, being successful only 63 percent of the time and only 48 percent of the time within 18 yards from a team’s own goal.

Furthermore, Thomas Gronnemark, Liverpool’s recently hired throw-in coach, has determined that when the receiving player is under pressure, throw ins are completed less than 50 percent of the time. Due to this, some teams have even employed a strategy of deliberately kicking the ball out of bounds deep in their opponent’s half on kickoffs so as to potentially gain possession in a more dangerous position (see, Nashville SC, Amiens vs. PSG, and Leicester City during their title winning season). In summary, letting the ball go out of bounds deep in your own half so that your team gets a throw in is rarely the best strategy.

Back to the game, following Chris Mueller’s failed cross, Jimenez did not put any effort into recovering the ball before it went out of bounds. While we can never know for certain, it appears that Jimenez probably could have prevented the ball from crossing the sideline. With seemingly little to no pressure from any Orlando player nearby, the Crew would have almost certainly retained possession had this occurred.

In this alternate reality, Sutter’s shot off the crossbar would not have been taken, perhaps the Lions’ momentum would have been broken and the winning goal would not have come a few minutes later. Instead, this almost 100 percent chance of retaining possession was reduced to less than 50 percent when the Crew “won” a throw in deep in their own territory.

Of course, Jimenez is not all to blame here, his teammates put very little effort into creating space for themselves to receive a throw in. Just a little bit more effort may have made the difference between a draw and a loss in this game. A tie against Orlando would have made Oct. 28’s Decision Day a bit more comfortable for the Black and Gold, with the team needing only a tie instead of a win to ensure passage to the playoff.

(H/T to American Soccer Analysis for the data in this article)