What Real Salt Lake ultimately expected out of Brooks Lennon on a brief one-year loan, back from his heralded career track at Liverpool, was more or less revealed three games into the 2017 season. And again about a month later, on Saturday night.
Lennon didn’t return from CONCACAF U20 World Cup qualifying until the eve of the season, about a day before RSL’s first game, and as a result he sat RSL’s first two games while acclimating back to the practice climate. Lennon had been, with few critical exceptions, the U.S.’s most consistently dangerous attacker off the right wing in Costa Rica and ultimately was the U.S.’s top goalscorer. If a few players played themselves off the World Cup roster, Lennon thrust himself into the starting XI with no doubts.
Almost as soon as Lennon was ready, RSL loosed him like a freed arrow. He got his first start on March 18, a 2-1 loss against the LA Galaxy that also happened to be Jeff Cassar’s last hurrah before being fired two days later. But for Lennon, the curtain had only just lifted off the wood-planked floor. Under new management, Mike Petke this time, Lennon started again a week later, and again, and again, until his continual 90-minute stints became as regular and routine as the earth’s orbit.
And then, on Saturday, Lennon’s breakthrough; a late match-winner against the rival Colorado Rapids for a desperately needed and life-giving three points.
On a tactical level, this is more or less what to expect from Lennon, and RSL will have been less surprised than anyone to see it after the years he spent doing exactly this at the academy level. At his best, Lennon is an inverted winger dragging inside from the outer reaches of the midfield to throw a lasso around the hips of his marker and plant them on uncertain ground.
Players of Lennon’s caliber and preferred modus operandi are such a nuisance in the zonal marking era because they obfuscate the lines of those zonal boundaries. Where, exactly, are the precise borders between the left back and his attendant left-central center back? And when the attacker crosses them, whatever the border ultimately is, how do the defenders pass off marking responsibility from one to the next? Who trails who? When does the fullback then peel back to keep an eye on the overlapper rolling across his shores?
Call it the Arjen Robben paradox. This is why he’s able to do essentially the same thing every time – cut inside right-to-left in order to find his knifing left foot somewhere about 15-18 yards out – and have so much success. His very movement is an affront to zonal marking. It doesn’t much matter if you know it’s coming when you’re asking so many defenders to coordinate at such a breakneck speed. It’s like organizing deck chairs on speed boat.
These are difficult questions to answer because they don’t really have answers. Defending, like the game itself, is a fluid thing prone to factors beyond rigid definition. So when Lennon and those in-dragging wingers force defenders to make split decisions on where exactly their zonal tracks of land are, and when to ease off and hand marking duties to a teammate, it’s like asking a purely hypothetical question – what is the universe expanding into, man? – and then forcing your pupil to answer in multiple choice. You won’t get the whole answer. You won’t even get a sliver of a fraction of it.
Lennon’s game is like this, and Lennon’s first MLS goal was certainly like this. Lennon was a bit further out than normal, and so the defenders themselves in this case were bystanders, but the defensive midfield certainly wasn’t – or they were, but they should not have been. Lennon essentially found the zonal seam between Dillon Powers and Micheal Azira, and you can see him working his way along it as soon as Powers eases off. Lennon’s microscopic settling touches – those little course stabilizers on the ball that act like thrusters on a hot air balloon gently floating in place – have always been among the best in his USYNT class. Here, they allowed him to niggle into that zonal seam, and the Rapids missed it.
Watch at about the three-minute mark. This is the defensive handoff – or it’s supposed to be – when Powers eases off the accelerator and gives the marking to Azira. But Azira is too slow, Lennon having glimpsed the crack in the zone, and after another one of those thruster touches, he hits the burners. Azira is powerless now. Lennon has him. By the 3:02 mark – two seconds after Lennon glimpsed the break in the defense – the ball is gone and Azira is watching Lennon’s powerful blast scoot past Zac MacMath.
Lennon’s straight-line speed has always been his most visible attribute, but I think this is an even greater asset. He is so fast mentally, and his skill set can be so devastating to modern defensive setups, that it would seem to me his breakout on a stage even greater than one RSL can provide is more imminent than not. Whether or not Lennon ultimately cracks Liverpool’s XI down the road, which is no great failure all things considered, he’s already making the most of his loan back home.
Next stop? South Korea and the U20 World Cup next month. Few if any Americans walk through its doors on better form.