In the span of a few weeks, the Oakland Roots SC have squandered a driver’s seat towards hosting a playoff game. Following a 3-1 loss to Orange County SC, with just two games left, they find themselves slumping towards losing an opportunity to even participate in the postseason. Just like against San Antonio FC on the weekend, Oakland’s forwards grabbed an early lead in when Anuar Peláez broke through in the 11th minute, but the team failed to hold onto three points.
For much of the season, Roots’ lack of forward depth has been solved by one of Johnny Rodriguez or Paláez coming off the bench, but the recent struggles to create goals have forced both into the starting 11, with Rodriguez on the right wing. The results of this rotation have been a mixed bag, filled with early promise, but both times skidding to a frustrating halt.
In both games, to accommodate for both of these forwards while maintaining their front three shape, Lindo Mfeka (or Jeciel Cedeño against San Antonio) moved to the left wing. While this allows Rodriguez to run behind defenders towards goal, it takes away the naturally left footed wingers abilities to invert onto their dominant left foot and run at defenses. Without an immensely creative player centrally, the Roots rely on them tucking inside to create chances. Needing to play on their right foot to go centrally appears to have affected the fluidity of their inverted movements.
Since starting together, Rodriguez and Paláez show action early in matches but see their production falter down the stretch. Below shows the pair dominating shot attempts in the first halves of games, but seeing just two total shots in the second halves.
Despite piling up plenty of good looks in the last 45s, the chances did not fall to the feet of club’s strikers. Rodriguez was subbed off in the 67th minute against the Soccer Club, but Project 510 forward Luis Saldaña failed to provide the needed spark.
The goals created by the duo have been Chaotic Good. They fly out of the gates, harass sluggish centerbacks into mistakes, and do a solid job cleaning up the messes they cause their opponents to create. This makes it unsurprising that, without fresh legs, Oakland’s forwards cannot sustain this haywire pressure for 90 minutes.
To the Roots credit, they have not asked their thin roster to play full throttle until the final whistle. But while their strategic blitzing has often looked hard to play through, Oakland has gotten picked apart while hiding in their defensive shell.
John Morrissey points out how Orange County were able to expose Oakland’s pressure by overloading their low midfield to play through the set defense and high line the Roots deploy.
Without being able to achieve consistent pressure on the ball, the Roots high line is exposed frequently. While their center backs have shown quality in possession through tough spaces, they have been subjected to footraces, putting them at a disadvantage against faster forwards.
Looking towards the final two matches of the season, Oakland appear to be getting closer to full strength. While this still leaves them without much goal scoring depth, Noah Delgado will at last be able to put out his best 11 at the season’s most pivotal juncture.
What might that look like? Well, while maintaining their 3-4-3 shape, Noah Delgado has overseen a tactical overhaul trying to correct for Roots run of form. The back three have stabilized to consistently be Emrah Klimenta/Neveal Hackshaw/Danny Barbir from right to left, while the midfield has been in flux the whole season.
Before injury, Daniel Gomez made himself a staple in Roots’ midfield and they have not looked as dynamic lacking his presence. His availability in the final stretch could change Oakland’s outlook if he returns to his previous form. A pairing of him and Tarek Morad could bring back some of the structure and compatibility Oakland have needed centrally. In attack, a more sustainable solution needs to be found that allows the Roots to put pressure on their opponents defense beyond just the opening minutes.
The Roots identity may feel less certain now than at any previous point in the season. Players moving positions, returning from injury, and struggling to find form hardly resemble the squad that dominated the middle of the regular season.
It just may be a lack of depth and untimely injuries, but Oakland have lost that sense of quality and placed their own backs squarely against the wall.