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The Big Pitcher: Stay on Target Edition

Editor's Note: Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but It bends toward justice”. Sometimes we American soccer fans get wrapped up in the day-to-day, Monday morning quarterbacking (or centerbacking), knee-jerk reactions and miss out on the big picture. This weekly column will focus on picking out the larger themes and issues of Major League Soccer and the American game.

By Eric Betts / Senior Crystal Ball Correspondent

Sometime a couple of years ago when Lionel Messi was still being talked about only as the greatest player of his era and not as either the greatest player of all-time or the guy who’s keeping Neymar’s seat warm for him, this theory sprung up that supposed that perhaps the reason he was having so much success was that modern defenses were so ill-constructed to stop a player like him. That the evolution of the center-forward position toward what we call the false 9 role would eventually necessitate a new breed of central defender to counter them: Faster, more agile and more comfortable judging when to step out of his line and deny space and when to stay and track runners.

Forwards who played like attacking midfielders would require defenders who played like defensive midfielders, to challenge them on their own terms rather than kicking the crap out of them as they ran by. Javier Mascherano became the obvious example, but for a moment in time it seemed as if every central defender under 6’2” was getting seared with the new-breed brand. They were the future.

If that had been true, it would be fairly easy to see how the whole thing could become cyclical. Stocking a defense full of Roberto Ayala’s would reincentivize aerial bombardment and lead to the world Andy Carroll sees when he closes his eyes at night, a world in which when he died in a freak Sea-Doo accident on the River Tyne at age 39 his tombstone would read “A Man Before His Time. And After It As Well. Basically, He was the Opposite of The Dude.”

Instead, this generation of the new breed turned out to be much like the old breed, only slightly smaller. But the paradigm had been set, the future was in technique, in figuring out how to reach higher and higher levels or it or in grafting those higher levels onto bigger, stronger and faster players. The False 9 was an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. Compared to that, the classic target man was treated as more of a board with a nail through it.

Which is why the contrarian in me thinks it’s an awful lot of fun to see them when they do thrive. A guy named Fred playing an integral role in front of Brazil’s $150 million trio of Neymar, Oscar, and the artist formerly known as Hulk. Super-targets Edinson Cavani and Stefan Kießling leading their respective leagues in scoring. Belgium somehow producing Romalu Lukaku and Christian Benteke at the same time. Edin Dzeko (hopefully) getting a chance far from the Eastlands.

In MLS, hardly the most technical league, what’s startling isn’t so much the number of teams still using target men, but the variety of ways in which they’re used. In Philadelphia we get the classic big man-little man strike partnership with Conor Casey and Jack McInerney. In Portland, Ryan Johnson serves as a focal point for the flittings and charges of his wingers and center midfielders. The Gordons, Lenharts and Sandovals of the league open space for their offenses by wrestling center defenders into nearby buildings, causing massive amounts of property damage. Even as the league has grown more technical, importing players with touch and vision – because size and strength we can take care of, it’s the stuff you can actually teach that we need (Blaise Nkufo nods.) –  the spots they’re taking aren’t those of the target men.

Same thing holds true with USMNT. In our search for Clint Dempsey’s best position last time around, we flirted briefly with the idea of ensuring that Dempsey stayed close to goal by suggesting simply playing him as our lone forward and letting his movement and instincts cause havoc for the defense. Let’s just all agree to pretend that didn’t happen; that team too can thrive with a target man.

Jozy’s an interesting case. He doesn’t always look like a target man, but it’s no accident that when he does embrace that role and engage with defenders in ways that aren’t just going to goal, he usually has a better game.

Even if he hadn’t scored the goals through May and June, it was clear U.S. fans were getting good Jozy. He was engaged. What’s depressing about this chart from the Jamaica loss last September isn’t just the low total number of passes (12 successful, six unsuccessful, to go along with 0 shots), but how far they had to go to be successful or unsuccessful. (The same was true against Mexico.) He was so isolated, the teammate he completed the most passes to in 2012 was Wilson the volleyball.

Thanks to either a sharp team talk from John Donne or a more-forward deployment for Clint Dempsey and new creative license for the outside midfielders (helped by Michael Bradley’s Veni Vidi Vici return to the fold post-Belgium), that wasn’t a problem in this summer’s games. The service helped, but so did the close support, allowing him to receive the ball with his back to goal and find ways to release teammates into space, play quick one-twos, and spray it out wide and break to goal for the return pass, restoring balance to the team’s possession vs. penetration equation.

Who needs the future, anyway?

About Eric

Eric Betts is a freelancer writer who lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his dog Lando (yup). He is a contributing writer for "The Other 87 Minutes". While attending Emory University he won "College Jeopardy"

Tags: Big Pitcher, Eric Betts

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