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”.