Central Winger: Who's the top MLS ball-winner for USMNT?
With only a single true defensive midfielder for the January camp, and given his penchant for playing at least one (and often more) defensive midfielder at at time, Jurgen Klinsman is almost certainly going to deploy Kyle Beckerman in his normal withdrawn role against Canada on Tuesday night (9 pm ET on ESPN2/Univision Deportes, Sportsnet in Canada, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
As a defensive midfielder in Klinsmann’s system, the ability to serve as a passing hub in transition is a primary focus. But, no matter the system, defensive midfielders are also required to contribute defensively when called upon. In the visualizations below, we take a close look at interceptions and how three of the premier ball-winners in MLS got the job done during the most recent season. (Note: Players are defending the goal area at the bottom of each picture.)
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake): Each circle represents the location in which Beckerman intercepted a pass from the other team. The attached line represents the path in which the ball moved just before being intercepted. This allows us to examine what types of passes are being intercepted by Beckerman.
Beckerman seems to have a tendency to intercept longer driven balls from the opponent, especially from either flank. By protecting his team from long insertion passes, he allows the midfielders ahead of him to play more advanced roles. Also, this perhaps speaks to his ability to read the game at an exceptional level as mobility and range in the defensive midfield relies as much on physical attributes as tactical intuition.
Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls): For people who watch MLS everyday, it has become awfully perplexing as to why Klinsmann hasn't extended a USMNT camp invitation to the Red Bulls' McCarty. With Rafa Márquez gone next year, McCarty will likely have free reign over the defensive midfield in New Jersey. Here’s a look at McCarty’s chart, and again, each circle represents the location in which he intercepted a pass from the other team.
McCarty's role seems to be a bit different than Beckerman's. While McCarty completed about 33 percent less interceptions (66 to Beckerman’s 88), his interceptions were much more concentrated in the defensive end of the field. This could be caused by a few factors, including the tactical responsibilities assigned by the New York Red Bulls coaching staff to their holding midfielder.
In New York's system, it's clear that McCarty's role is a bit more conservative. Also, I expect that the slight right-side trend for Dax's interceptions is caused by his deployment on the right side of midfield for a few games this season.
Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders): Another MLS player well known for his defensive prowess is Seattle's Alonso. No, he can’t play for the US national team, but looking at the sheer volume and variety of the passes the "Honey Badger" stole this season, it's very clear why he was one of MLS's premier players in 2012. It's particularly impressive how many of his interceptions happened in the attacking half.
A majority of Alonso's interceptions on passes originating in the attacking half are of the longer variety. In the defensive half, his intercepted passes tend to be a lot shorter. Granted, long passes out of the back and short passes up front is a league-wide trend - but that suggests that Alonso is making interceptions everywhere.
So is Beckerman really the best of these three? In Klinsmann’s system he seems to be the right fit for now. Expect him to do his thing on Tuesday vs. Canada.