wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Monday, March 06, 2006

Left back and forth

Every team has their problem areas. For the US, areas of concern are second striker (assuming we play a two-striker formation), right midfield, and—probably the longest-standing area of concern—left fullback.

We’ve got a surfeit of candidates at center back: veterans like Pope and Berhalter, newcomers like Onyewu and Conrad, seasoned regulars like Bocanegra, and wild cards like Gibbs (who may or may not be back from injury). At right back, Cherundolo is back from a nasty injury but looks on-form and is a lock for that spot. But left back continues to be a problem for us.

And this matters because the kind of teams we’ll be playing at the World Cup will key on any weakness and exploit it for all ninety minutes. To see what kind of impact even a single weak link in the backline can be, cast your mind back to 2002 when almost every goal we surrendered (and some we didn’t thanks to great goalkeeping from Friedel) was due to Jeff Agoos being sadly but plainly overmatched. So what to do? The options:

Eddie Lewis. Eddie usually plays left-sided midfield for Premiership promotion hopefuls Leeds United. His virtues are quickness and excellent crossing, as well as a decent free kick and one of the better shots from distance on the squad (though the latter is really not saying much). Against Poland, Bruce Arena slotted him into the LB slot and he performed quite well, earning MOTM honors (from ESPN) for an error-free performance that included a wicked cross that led to the game’s only goal. The concerns are his size and lack of experience, but I’m not too bothered about either of these. A wingback need not be large to be effective; Dolo is short at RB and does a great job (if anything, size might compromise needed mobility). As for experience, it’s somewhat of a concern, but Lewis looked comfortable in the LB spot as a first-time gig against Poland, and he has plenty of WC experience, so I’d be happy to see him start for us there in the World Cup.

Jonathan Spector. Between Wednesday and Saturday of last week, I had pretty much accepted the idea that a converted Eddie Lewis would be our LB in the World Cup. And while I still fully expect that to be the case, I began to question this a bit over the weekend when Jonathan played a stellar game at left back for Charlton Athletic, helping to hold Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield. He got an 8 rating from Skysports and was named to the Premiership Best XI for the week. Most impressive was his performance against Djibril Cisse, the crafty French forward who Spector pretty much marked out of the game, even though you could tell Liverpool had begun attacking down the right flank to try to exploit that side as a weakness. Spector remains young and has only a touch of USMNT experience, so his mere inclusion in the WC roster would be a surprise, but Arena has shown a willingness to take a chance on promising youngsters (e.g., Beasley starting in the 2002 WC), and strongly favors on-form players starting for their top-flight teams (and it looks like Spector has merited at least one more start for Charlton), so I think there’s an outside chance of Spector being in the mix this summer, at least if he continues to perform like he did over the weekend.

Frankie Hejduk. Frankie played RB for us during the last World Cup when David Regis simply didn’t have anyone’s confidence, and he did a damned good job (though I believe LB is his most natural position). You know what you get with Frankie: speed and tireless effort. He’s not the most skilled player on the ball, and doesn’t bring any real offensive weaponry, but with wheels and World Cup experience, he’s a solid third-best option.

Carlos Bocanegra. About three years ago, Carlos seemed to be our best young defender. He won MLS defender of the year honors, then Premiership side Fulham acquired him and immediately slotted him into the starting XI. Trick: the Cottagers put him in as a left back, not as a center back (his natural position), with the result that Carlos was getting run down badly by the speedy forwards and wingers who populate the English game. He’s back at CB for Fulham now, starting and (despite some controversy) doing fairly well. I see him as a backup option, though; certainly not an ideal LB (lacks the speed and ball skills, plus too tall), but he’ll be the option if the others don’t pan out. It wouldn’t be an unmitigated disaster to have Carlos play out of position for us in the World Cup, but it does sort of make me cringe to consider the prospect.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. I really can’t think of another player who could plausibly play LB for us at the international level. And while the tone of this post is optimistic, given both Lewis’ and Spector’s outstanding performances in that position this past week, we’re really only an injury or two away from having this be a truly problematic position.


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