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Failure to Cohere: A short essay on Run of Play

This is an essay I wrote after the USA U23 team crashed out of Olympic qualifying. It was published on runofplay, Brian Phillips’ very excellent dreamland.


Around 11 p.m. last Monday, Caleb Porter was wearing a pained, tight expression, like a man who’d elaborately prepared an orange for eating – peeled it, scraped its white resins off the delicate inner skin, sectioned it; perhaps opened a beverage suitable for the side; sat himself somewhere comfortable, with entertainment, orange and beverage at hand – only to find that the orange was not an orange all along, but was instead an artistic evocation of one’s career hopes vanishing forever, and so every choice thereby proved wrong in that moment. No orange, but an orange-suitable entertainment. And orange-suitable beverage! But no orange. His expression pained and tight. In short, a man in crisis.

Hard not to be pained. He had just seen his second highly-touted keeper of the game (Sean Johnson; the first was Bill Hamid of DC United, who sprained his ankle, insisted he was fine, and gave up two goals in the following three minutes before discovering his injury belatedly) fumble the third goal-against of the final game of the rest of his freaking life (when compared with, for example, coaching the Akron Zips in Spring Soccer!!) into the net, sending El Salvador on to play Honduras, and sending Caleb Porter on to coach the Akron Zips in Spring Soccer!! instead of leading the USA onto Wembley in the London Olympic Games.

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On the need for Maurice: USA’s perilously thin backline

I admit it: I read BigSoccer every day. There, I’ve said it. I don’t post a great deal but I do read the boards, mostly because it gives me a chance to jaw about football and listen to others do the same.

Right now, there are discussions (notably here and here) all over BigSoccer about Maurice Edu’s performance as a centerback against Poland in Saturday’s friendly. “For the LOVE of GAWD!” the critics shout. “He’s a central midfielder!” The tone runs from sarcastic (“another genius move by Bob Bradley”) to the exasperated (“how can we pretend to be a soccer nation when we can’t produce two centerbacks worthy of a start?”). I can sympathize with the thoughts of the critics, especially that line of reasoning which runs thus: Edu plays and trains as a central midfielder day-in, day-out; therefore, to expect him to react appropriately as a defender in crucial moments is a big ask.

And it is, surely, a big ask. I’m certain Bob Bradley would rather not ask it of Edu, however much he may think of Mo’s ability. Problem is for USA, the cupboard’s bare in that position, and it’s hard to see anyone in the pipeline with the goods to push Mo back into midfield.

Under Bradley, the US does not play a simple flat backline - the centerbacks have two distinct roles: Stopper and cover-man. The stopper needs to be physically dominating and aggressive, great in the air and strong in the tackle - in other words, a stereotypical centerback. The cover-man is a different beast; he needs speed, calmness and great anticipation, plus the ability to conjure a solution when none seems likely. Since his first touch is often the difference between a breakaway and a simple reset, it must be solid.

Onyewu is obviously a prototypical centerback, and fills the stopper role for us. That’s fine. The problem is that every one of our second-choice centerbacks are also best-used in that role: Goodsen, Marshall and Gonzalez are stoppers. So we have to go looking.

Who has the game to fill the cover-man role? Bocanegra’s all heart, but the wheels aren’t there. Cory Gibbs was a guy we all thought would be in the mix, but injuries have taken his speed. In MLS, there’s a few guys who might help, but are any of them ready? Marvell Wynne has the speed but not the football mind at this level. Ugo Ihemelu is 27 and hasn’t pushed his way into the roster. Who else is out there? AJ DelaGarza?

Bradley could change the way he organizes the defense - have the backs play flat with one another and rely upon their communication to make it work. Problem is, the greater part of tactical innovation in the last five years has been designed to collapse the foundation of that approach. The advent of single-striker ‘false-9’ formations, where the single forward serves as a contrary-motion pivot, means that flat centerback pair spends all game trying to corral late runners from midfield (and typically failing - that’s why the innovation has stuck).

So: If Gooch is going to thump on the opposition striker all day, then the other centerback needs wheels, poise and calm. We don’t have one of those, so we have to try to create one. Ergo Mo Edu in the centerback role. It’s as simple as that. Unless or until another option makes himself known, it will likely stay that way.

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