Getting Stuck In: Time to put the “D” in DP

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into whether MLS clubs need to invest in more defensive Designated Players to enjoy success.

By Dave Lewis

So why should you read this gas bag talk about MLS? Well, my analysis wouldn’t help you win a bet in Vegas, but it might help you understand where MLS teams are coming up short. First, a disclaimer: I am not one of those Moneyball, sabermetric nerds that can take the amount of touches a centre back takes during a game, divide that by his passing completion rate, multiply it by his weekly salary and surmise his true value. Instead, I use the highly advanced method of the eye test. And the level of defense in MLS isn’t passing it.

As we know there is nothing sexy about being a central defender. The glory positions are in attack. The forwards get the commercials, the big wages and the women (John Terry being the exception – sorry Wayne Bridge). For MLS teams, shoring up the backline is an afterthought. In LA you have midfielder Robbie Rogers starting on the backline. DaMarcus Beasley, a winger most his life, starts in the back for Houston. And what is Brek Shea doing for Orlando City? You can’t just throw anyone back there.

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There are two teams with huge defensive deficiencies who tanked in the playoffs. Toronto, who fizzled out of the first round because they spent close to $16 million on three attacking players (Altidore, Bradley and Giovinco) with no regard for defense. And then there’s the Galaxy, who let in five goals at home to Portland just prior to their first round playoff exit to Seattle. LA, like Toronto, spent an ungodly amount on their three DPs (close to $15 million) while losing their star keeper, Jaime Penedo, over money. They replaced him with an over-the-hill Donovan Ricketts in the second half of the season who let in goals at an alarming pace. As my old man once told me: “It’s expensive to be cheap.”

Here’s my theory: If you take one of those attacking DP slots and use it on a defender or ‘keeper that is quality, experienced and young(ish), your MLS team might score less, but give up less. Defense wins championships, no?

Ok, maybe it’s unfair to pick on the two expansion teams since expansion teams rarely make the playoffs their first go around, but a little dirt kicked their way may wake them up.

Adding “D” will help NYC with the “Ws”

NYCFC  plays on the silliest looking, most awkwardly laid out pitch in MLS (and maybe the world?), with horrible sight lines and huge walls meant for baseball (wait, it was meant for baseball). The field is small in width, length and history. With the Manchester City money behind them, the club goes for flash: Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. Attacking players. Big name DPs. But what if they took one of those high priced players and put the money on a DP defender (they were tied for last for most goals given up in the league in 2015).

What if they took Lampard’s $6 million and gave it to let’s say Leighton Baines. He is 29. Still plenty left in the tank. He is a left-back with grit, great on set pieces and is a forward-like penalty taker (he just signed a new deal with Everton so not going to happen, but you get the idea). Or if you want a commanding centre-back, offer Martin Skrtel $7 million and the chance of living in the US, and he might leave Merseyside.

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Orlando is a keeper (away)

Ok, the goalkeeper position wasn’t the main problem in Orlando. But they did let in 56 goals with very few clean sheets to reflect on. Not all the fault of Tally Hall et al. Orlando has plenty of attacking players (see Larin). And they needed Kaka and his MLS leading salary to sell tickets in their inaugural season. But what if you took that Kaka money, or even half that amount, and put it on a ‘keeper? A star-studded stopper. Let’s say they signed Keylor Navas before he went to Real Madrid (he’s making Real fans forget about De Gea). Man, that would’ve put Orlando’s Mickey Mouse “D” to rest. Plus, he comes from Costa Rica where he would be closer to home, making it easier to make national team call-ups.

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True, there are some great young defenders in the league (the Whitecaps Kendall Watson and the Red Bulls’ Matt Miazga come to mind). But when I do my highly scientific analysis and get on FIFA 16 to play NYCFC versus Toronto, I have to watch Andoni Iraola, the highest rated MLS defender (according to EA) mark Giovinco, and that sure doesn’t pass the eye test.

Clearly the focus needs to be on “D”.

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MLS Preview and Prediction: Houston Dynamo vs Columbus Crew

Competition: Major League Soccer – Houston Dynamo vs Columbus Crew

Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium – Sunday, March 8th – 20:30 ET (01:30 GMT – Sunday, 9)

Match Odds: Houston Dynamo 5/4 – Draw 11/5 – Columbus Crew 11/5

Match Preview

Houston Dynamo host the Columbus Crew on Saturday night in their season openers of the 2015 Major League Soccer campaign. This one sees two good sides that have had eventful yet promising offseasons go head-to-head.

Houston has changed their manager, opting to go for Owen Coyle. The Scot replaces Dominic Kinnear who departed the club at the end of the 2014 season after eight years in charge.

The managerial change sees former Premier League manager Coyle take over a Houston side that needs to do better than last season as they have a lot of promise in the squad.

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With the addition of Erick Torres to bolster an already strong team that boasts World Cup stars DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Davis, the Dynamo could be set for a good season.

Starting a season at home is always a good thing and Houston are the favorites going into the game against the Columbus Crew.

Houston Dynamo’s MLS home record in 2014: P17 – W8 – D4 – L5

The Columbus Crew’s changes have been more image-based as the club enter 2015 with a new logo and are without too many changes to their roster. The addition of Kei Kamara will bolster their attacking options and is a good pickup.

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Midfield acquisitions, Mohammed Saeid and Kristinn Steindorsson will add depth to a midfield that is very strong. Defensive midfielder, Will Trapp was recently called up to the USMNT and will want to continue to impress this year.

Columbus Crew’s MLS away record in 2014: P17 – W5 – D6 – L6

A special mention has to go to Ethan Finlay as the young attacking midfielder chipped in with eleven goals in MLS last term and will be hoping for more of the same in 2015.

Team News

Houston Dynamo: No injuries and we’re expecting everyone to be available for selection. Will Bruin is set to start in attack while defender Raul Rodriguez should make his debut at centre-back.

Columbus Crew: Romain Gall is out of this game with a knee injury. Kei Kamara and Kristinn Steindorsson should make their debuts.

Key Points

Houston Dynamo’s form: N/A

Columbus Crew’s form: N/A

Key Stat: The Houston Dynamo have only lost once at home to Columbus in MLS, a 2-0 defeat in June 2011.

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Key Player: Federico Higuain – The Argentinian playmaker can lay on assists as well as score goals. He was key in 2014 for Columbus and if they are to take anything from Sunday’s game he will need to be at his best in a playmaking role.

Score Prediction

Houston Dynamo 1-1 Columbus Crew – A game that neither side want to lose and we don’t think either will risk losing in this one. It could be a tight game but with each side bagging a goal. Score draw.

DaMarcus Beasley: Left-sided legend retires from international duty

DaMarcus Beasley announced that he would no longer be available for the USA on Monday, signalling the end to a great international career in which he amassed over 100 appearances for his country. Here’s a recap of what he has achieved so far.

Naturally left-sided, Beasley has recently been deployed as a left-back as he has aged, but he started his career as a direct winger who was always a threat with his speed.

A product of the IMG Academy, Beasley starred for the USA at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 1999 and never looked back.

He signed with LA Galaxy in the same year but failed to make an appearance before joining the Chicago Fire the following season and spending four seasons in the windy city.

He spent the most part of his career travelling around Europe and playing for clubs such as Manchester City (England), Rangers (Scotland), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) and Hannover (Germany).

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He was the man who replaced Arjen Robben for PSV in 2004 after the Dutch winger left for Chelsea, so is a player who many respect greatly across the world.

He joined Club Tijuana in 2011 and spent three seasons in Mexico before finally returning to MLS with the Houston Dynamo this year where he is a designated player.

For the USMNT he has been a great servant down the left flank and has an incredible 121 caps (17 goals) for The Stars and Stripes. Playing as either a left-winger or most recently at left-back.

He is the only American to feature at four FIFA World Cup’s, having played in 2002, 2006, 2010 and this summer in Brazil where the USA reached the last sixteen.

His greatest achievement for the USMNT has to be captaining the side to his fourth Gold Cup win in 2013, which the USA will defend next July on home soil.

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Beasley has retired for the USA a legend of US soccer and replacing him will be a huge task for the young Greg Garza. And at the age of just 32, many will question Beasley’s decision to quit so soon.

He can now focus on club football with the Dynamo but his successful international career and work rate given to his country is something few will forget.

Has DaMarcus Beasley retired too soon?

Preview and Prediction: Republic of Ireland vs USA

USA will complete their 2014 schedule on Tuesday night when they travel to the Aviva Stadium to take on the Republic of Ireland in another international friendly.

They will be looking to bounce straight back from the defeat to Colombia on Friday night and a positive result will be essential, with a strong performance to match high on the agenda.

Ireland will be without their all-time leading goalscorer in Robbie Keane, as he was released on Saturday in order to prepare for his upcoming MLS playoff matches with the LA Galaxy.

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[Ireland and LA Galaxy star Robbie Keane will not feature against USA on Tuesday as he was released from the squad]

Furthermore, Jurgen Klinsmann has released four MLS-based players from duty in order to increase game time for those not involved in the playoffs.

Lee Nguyen, Jermaine Jones, DeAndre Yedlin and DaMarcus Beasley have all been sent home following the loss to Colombia. Nguyen and Jones need to prepare for New England Revolution’s push for the Eastern Conference title, while Yedlin will be with Supporters’ Shield winners Seattle Sounders as they look ahead to their clashes with the Galaxy.

Klinsmann has not called anyone else up so he will go into the Ireland game with a 21-man squad and several players will be hoping to impress.

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[Jurgen Klinsmann looks on from the dugout at Craven Cottage during the USA vs. Colombia game]

The last time the two sides met was in April 2002, just prior to the FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan. The game ended in a 2-1 win for the Republic of Ireland.

As much as this is billed as a friendly, both teams will want a result, as Ireland will be looking to regain a bit of form following their loss to Scotland, and the USA will be hoping to build towards the 2015 Gold Cup – which they are hosting.

This should be a good game, possibly open and end-to-end, but we expect that the USA will come out on top.

They played well against Colombia on Friday, and have enough quality to end 2014 on a high – something Klinsmann will be desperate to do.

Predicted USMNT lineup: Brad Guzan, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Greg Garza, Alejandro Bedoya, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Julian Green, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood.

Key Player: Kyle Beckerman – Was influential on Friday night and provided cover for the USMNT when they were going forward. Expect him to anchor the US midfield once again.

Key Stat: USMNT forward Rubio Rubin would have been only three months old (18 years ago), the last time the USA beat Republic of Ireland.

Score Prediction: Republic of Ireland 0 – 2 USA

2014 MLS Season Review: Houston Dynamo

Eastern Conference Final Position: 8th

Review

They started the season with a flyer, beating New England 4-0 at home but struggled without Brad Davis during the World Cup and never challenged for a playoff spot.

Best Moment

Signing DaMarcus Beasley – World Cup star Beasley joining Houston was a signal that the Dynamo can still attract marquee signings.

Worst Moment

Mark Sherrod’s injury – Just twelve minutes into the D.C United game, Sherrod went down and the forward’s season was over. We’re hoping to see him fully fit in 2015.

Player of the Year

Brad Davis was the main man and the leader of the pack. They missed his influence massively while he was at the World Cup in Brazil.

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Biggest Win

Houston Dynamo 4-0 New England Revolution (March 9 2014)

Biggest Defeat

New York Red Bulls 4-0 Houston Dynamo (April 23 2014)

What to improve for the 2015 season…

Houston needs to strengthen defensively; possibly another midfielder in the draft, someone who can learn from Brad Davis so they can form a core to build around.

What next for Klinsmann and the USA?

USA fell narrowly to Belgium in the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday night, losing 2-1 in extra time but they gave a great account of themselves and earned many plaudits from worldwide supporters.

The USA impressed and exceeded expectations at the World Cup and have now officially announced themselves as an elite footballing nation.

The performance last night typified them as a group. They were unified in defeat and resilient towards the end, with a never-say-die attitude that has to be admired.

Jurgen Klinsmann now has the task of building towards the next World Cup in Russia in 2018, and he has the potential in this squad to succeed there.

DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green both showed promise and were both a threat against a very strong Belgium side.

Going forward, this ageing USA squad must develop the younger players, which will leave question marks over the international futures of players like DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman.

The USA look very strong at the back, and have potential to better the current unit with the likes of John Anthony Brooks and Yedlin coming through the ranks.

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There is a question regarding the excellent Tim Howard and if he will be around for the next World Cup as he will be 39 by the time the tournament in Russia comes around.

There are plenty of emerging American goalkeepers in MLS that now have a chance to prove their quality to Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of the next tournament.

One thing is for sure, the USA can be proud of their team and they have more than proved they are capable of challenging the best on the biggest stage.

Belgium now progress to the quarter-finals on Saturday, where they will play Argentina.

USMNT gather momentum going into the World Cup

USA has now won all three of their warm up games. They were, however, less than impressive in the opening two of their ‘send-off’ series.

But they changed their performance last night as Jurgen Klinsmann ditched the diamond and flooded midfield.

The structure was simply genius as it allowed Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey freedom on counter attacks.

There are things we need to look out for at the World Cup, assuming that Klinsmann won’t change this current team too much.

1. Zonal Marking – ditch it.

Set pieces are the worst way to concede a goal, as you have plenty of time to set yourself up and zonal marking is the greatest liability.

The system allows players to get complacent because you rely on each other, whereas, in a man-marking system everyone has a job.

We hope he doesn’t use it in Brazil against the likes of Germany who will punish the team from corners otherwise.

2. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones are a great insurance plan.

When you risk everything on a fast-paced counter attack you have to take precautions defensively.

Jones and Beckerman provide that cover so that the fullbacks, Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley can bomb on.

Klinsmann has found an answer to his midfield issue, and the USMNT have a realistic chance of success at the tournament.

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3. Michael Bradley is ready to shine.

Based on what we have seen in the three warm up games, Michael Bradley will have a great World Cup.

He is one of the first names on the USMNT team sheet and he provides a range of passes that can trouble any defence.

Ghana, Germany and Portugal better have done their homework because Bradley could hurt them.

4. Bedoya or Zusi?

We like Bedoya and he had another good game last night. But we have cause to believe Graham Zusi would be a better choice in terms of structure.

He is more than capable of joining in on the counter attack and he can also pick out a pass to perfection.

But unlike Bedoya, Zusi gives you a bit more defensively and we think he should start instead. It is likely that Bedoya will play though because we cannot see Klinsmann changing his team too much now.

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5. Jozy Altidore can score goals.

It’s an extreme long shot but who’s to say he can’t win the Golden Boot? Although this is extremly unlikely, he did give us cause for optimism with a well-taken brace and lead’s a side with goals in it.

Granted the first goal was a tap-in and had he missed it, he should have retired, but his second cannot be questioned.

The confidence he showed while in possession was great to see and we think the USA have a great platform to attack with him as their outlet alongside Dempsey.

The USMNT will now play Belgium in a behind closed doors match on Thursday but we expect the team will stay much the same regardless of what happens there.

USA win again but there are still major problems within the set-up

The USA beat Turkey 2-1 on Sunday night, setting the benchmark for upcoming performances, however Jurgen Klinsmann still doesn’t know his best team.

We can assume he will play the diamond formation, having used it in both warm-up games so far, but they are left open at the back and better teams like Germany and Portugal will tear them apart.

We take a look at the areas that need more attention:

1. Left back.

Klinsmann has used DaMarcus Beasley and Timothy Chandler so far and both have looked questionable at best.

Klinsmann isn’t budging on moving Fabian Johnson from right back, even though Chandler and Johnson prefer the opposite flanks.

They need to find a solution at left back and quick, or hope that Chandler or Beasley are up for the challenge come June 16.

2. Should Jozy Altidore lead the line?

Altidore looked very good but the only thing missing was a goal.

He hasn’t scored a goal since the 4th December so fans will be hoping he finds the net before the big opener against Ghana.

He used his strength throughout and was unlucky to have a goal disallowed for a push on the goalkeeper.

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3. Julian Green – too early?

The 18-year-old has only had one cap prior to his World Cup call up, and has yet to win over the USMNT fans.

Coming on against Turkey, he failed to make a valid contribution and the omission of Landon Donovan will look even worse to the USMNT faithful.

4. Portugal have Ronaldo, but the USA have Bradley.

We’re not going to begin to compare the two players, but they do mean a lot to their respective nations hopes at the World Cup.

Bradley is the pivotal player for the US and any hopes of them progressing out of the group lie solely on his ability to supply the goals, as he did last night. We expect him to have a great World Cup, although he will need a good supporting cast in front.

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5. Geoff Cameron, first choice centre-half?

Cameron has only played one game at centre back domestically this year, yet he looks set to play there at the World Cup.

Unless Klinsmann knows something we all don’t, we can’t understand the logic behind his defensive combinations. He has a right back playing left back, a left back playing right back, and another right back playing centre back!

If Cameron does start in the heart of defence, where does that leave natural defenders Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez?

Five USMNT players that should move back to MLS

With Major League Soccer on the rise, and key American stars such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley heading back home to play their football, we take a look at five players that should follow suit this summer.

The national team will only improve if the majority of players are based in the US, and a certain playing style will be seen throughout the team as a result. The following five players should look to make the move to MLS this summer:

1. Jozy Altidore

The 24-year-old striker started his career in MLS after he was drafted by the New York Metrostars (now Red Bulls) with the seventeenth pick in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. He moved to Europe in 2008 as an 18-year-old to Spanish side Villarreal but never managed to fulfil his potential, and couldn’t shine in loan spells at Xerez, Hull City and Bursaspor either.

After two very impressive seasons with AZ Alkmaar, he made the move to Sunderland last summer, but scored just one league goal in 30 appearances at the Stadium of Light last season, and a move back to MLS could turn his career around. He would get the respect from national press and fans alike, and would be able to score goals in a league that’s rapidly becoming more recognised around the world. The move could save his career from dwindling into unfulfilled potential.

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2. DaMarcus Beasley

Beasley is another who started in MLS before moving to Europe, after five seasons with Chicago Fire from 2000-2004. The 32-year-old played all across Europe and was the first American to play in the UEFA Champions League, when he played for PSV. He moved to Mexico to play for Puebla in 2011, and looks set for a return to US soccer this summer.

There will be shortage of interested parties for the experienced winger, who also plays at left-back now, and the former-Manchester City man is thought to want a move back to MLS after the World Cup.

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3. Alejandro Bedoya

Bedoya has never played in MLS, but is a part of the USMNT 23-man squad for the World Cup, and a move to Major League Soccer would only boost his career. He is currently playing for French club Nantes, after moving there last summer, and enjoyed a good season by scoring six goals in 32 appearances in all competitions.

Though if an offer arrives from MLS, the 27-year-old would be wise to make the switch and enhance both his and US soccer’s image across the globe. He plays primarily as an attacking midfielder but is often used out wide as well, and that is where we are likely to see him deployed by Jurgen Klinsmann in Brazil.

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4. Mix Diskerud

Norwegian-born, Mix Diskerud chose to play for the United States in 2010 and has made 18 appearances for the USMNT since then. He scored in the friendly against Azerbaijan earlier this week, and will wear the No. 10 shirt formerly worn by Landon Donovan at the World Cup. Diskerud has not played in MLS, but came close in 2012, when a move to the Portland Timbers broke down due to a disagreement over MLS transfer policies.

He remained with his current club Rosenborg in Norway, but at just 23 could make the move to MLS and enhance his career. The central midfielder would be playing a better standard of football in the US, in a league filling up with global stars by the year. After several weeks with the USMNT, Diskerud might just want to make the switch come the end of the World Cup.

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5. Jermaine Jones

The 32-year-old is another who has yet to play in MLS, but a move this summer would be the perfect time to make the switch. Jones is currently playing for Turkish side Besiktas, after many years in Germany as well as a loan spell with Blackburn Rovers. The defensive midfielder would get into most sides in the league, and despite only joining Besiktas in January has a contract that expires at the end of June.

Jones has already said that he almost moved to MLS before making the switch to Turkey earlier in the year, and could be set for the move this summer, after the World Cup.

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How many of these USMNT stars do you see making the move to MLS?

 

Key takeaways from the USA’s 2-0 win against Azerbaijan

The US national team made hard work of a win on Tuesday night, which saw them snatch a 2-0 win late on against Azerbaijan in the first of their three games in the send-off series before the World Cup.

The USMNT dominated most of the game, enjoying 70% of possession, but they failed to convert on several occasions.

There were a few issues to be addressed and these are our key takeaways from the performance:

1. Can Chris Wondolowski lead the line?

Clint Dempsey pulled out last minute due to a precautionary injury concern with his groin. He has recently stated the minority of the issue, and has claimed that he should be fit to play Turkey on Sunday night.

The concern will still be felt across the nation, as if he were to miss out the fate of the team would lie on Wondolowski and the out-of-sorts Jozy Altidore.

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2. A new era for the No. 10 jersey.

In the absence of Landon Donovan, the unoccupied No. 10 jersey has been filled by Mix Diskerud. The 23 year-old midfielder started on the bench but made an instant impact by coming on and scoring on Tuesday night.

It is still unclear as to how much of an impact Diskerud can make at the World Cup, with Jurgen Klinsmann opting for a diamond formation on Tuesday night, but he proved against Azerbaijan what a valuable asset he is to the squad.

3. Fabian Johnson starting at right-back?

It was thoroughly documented that Fabian Johnson has been training exclusively at right-back and as expected he played there.

We struggle to see how this will fair for the Americans, as playing Johnson on the right leaves the side imbalanced. However, it does allow DaMarcus Beasley to operate at left back, as he was up and down the left flank all night, in a stellar performance from the veteran.

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4. Is Omar Gonzalez fully fit?

Omar Gonzalez came off the bench to replace Geoff Cameron last night, and with question marks over his fitness, should he have played at all?

Klinsmann will be happy to see him get through the second-half, and if he were fully fit, he would surely resume his great partnership with Matt Besler in the heart of the American defence.