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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Former Leeds player explains how LA Galaxy move changed his life

LA Galaxy defender Robbie Rogers has reflected on his first MLS game for the club back in May 2013 and how it has changed his life after he had previously left Championship side Leeds United and retired from the game, believing he couldn’t continue because of his sexuality.

Rogers returned to action with a substitute appearance for the Galaxy during a 4-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on May 26, 2013 and is delighted he’s playing again and sees that first game as a defining moment.

“It was amazing, it was one of those games where you realise (being gay) is put into perspective. There’s millions of kids that struggle in the world with who they are, regardless if they’re gay or straight, or different religions, or ethnicities,” Rogers told LA Galaxy’s official YouTube channel.

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“To be a spokesperson for just being different I guess, I realised that game was a symbol in that way. I wasn’t ready to play, I wasn’t really fit or hadn’t trained for a long time but I was really excited and I felt grateful to be able to get onto the field and start my career and have my family there. And obviously my teammates were really supportive,” he added.

The 28-year-old has since gone on to make 29 appearances for the Galaxy and enjoyed another pivotal moment in his career when LA secured the MLS Cup title in 2014.

“Winning the championship last year, I think that’s why I was overly emotional after we won because I remembered all those experiences; the ups and downs, hard road trips, tough training sessions, bad games and good games.”

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The LA Galaxy defender can’t believe how quickly time has flown since his arrival and admits that his life has changed for the better.

“It’s crazy that it’s been two years, it feels like it’s been a lot longer than that. I think some of the biggest changes would be more just enjoying every day coming in here and being at peace with who I am and how I am different from guys on the team.

“But also how I’ve been able to fit in and to transition into being just another member on our team and to be a soccer player, or Robbie, rather than being a gay soccer player.

“When I first came in, it was tough, media every day had different events where there was just so much focus on me being a gay athlete. And now I don’t really even think about it so I think that’s the biggest difference.”

Are you impressed with how good Robbie Rogers has been for LA Galaxy?

LA Galaxy star frustrated by defensive struggles

Robbie Rogers‘ debut season at left-back for the LA Galaxy saw him impress in 27 competitive starts throughout a successful 2014 MLS campaign.

The 27-year-old moved to left-back last July having previously played as a left-sided midfielder, but has come in for some criticism of late as he has been partially at fault for defensive errors so far this season for Galaxy, which has frustrated him.

“It’s just been a little weird. There’s little moments where I think my decision making hasn’t been as good as I want it,” Rogers said while speaking to after his training session at the StubHub Center yesterday.

“It’s been a little frustrating because it’s just little mistakes that make a big difference, and I’m not used to that many in a row like that. It’s a little disheartening.”

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Rogers cannot afford to dwell on this ‘issue’ as his LA side travel to Vancouver Whitecaps this weekend with the Galaxy currently sitting in fifth having won just one of their opening four games and Rogers admits he still has a lot to learn.

“I need to work on the offside thing, and I was better with that the next game,

“Working as a unit defensively and the spacing between guys, staying the [holding] line and covering for guys, and then picking my times to go forward, as well.

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“Sometimes I feel like I’m going forward too much, and sometimes not going forward enough, I still need to get better at that,” Rogers added.

It is no surprise that as a former left-sided midfielder, Rogers has the tendency to move forward and his defensive qualities will continue to grow as he learns from the mistakes he’s made.

Is Robbie Rogers struggling as a left-back for LA Galaxy?