Lalas: Hold on loosely

and in my opinion, with all due respect to Armas, he is the best we have in that role.) Then there are the youngsters: D.C.'s Brian Carroll and the Metrostars' Ricardo Clark. These are smart, tough guys who aren't averse to doing the anonymous dirty work that makes the No. 10s in front of them look good.

"If the defensive mid goes unnoticed, he's done his job," says Vagenas.

The story of how Vagenas came to play holding mid is typical. "I came into the league as a more attacking player," he relates. "At the time, [Mauricio] Cienfuegos was in L.A. -- arguably the best No. 10 the league's ever seen. So for me to get on the field and see any playing time, I had to tweak my game, learn how to play a more defensive type of game, more possession-oriented."

On the surface, that kind of hard-nosed, do-what-you-have-to-do approach seems to explain everything. After all, the stereotype of the American player is, as Vagenas admits, "an honest athlete." But playing holding mid is not really about hard work, just as playing a rock show is not just about pumping your fist and yelling, "You ready to rock, Detroit? Well, awright!" Both require a great deal of feel, of nuance and awareness and intuition. The holding mid has to read the game and know when to change its flow.

"It's a totally cerebral position," Richard Mulrooney explains. "You can't just run around and try to win the ball. You must read the game, know when to attack, when to support."

It's not all about being "defensive." You must have mad skills, too. Nearly every build-up goes through the position and nearly every counterattack begins with him. "You have to be a little nasty," says Vagenas, "but delicate enough to make those touch passes that get the team out of bad situations."

So how is it that Americans make good holding midfielders?

1) The stereotype. Yes, American players are hardworking, so the necessary work ethic already exists.

2) American defensive mids are often reformed No. 10s, so they already have the ball skills.

3) Americans learn to play stringent defense from the day we show up as an under-8 with our shinguards strapped over our jeans.

4) American players are educated, intelligent, and quick studies, so they are usually very capable of reading the game, though they are not always so good at taking advantage of what they read.

And 5) The James Dean individualist thing. (That last one also leads to some dubious geopolitical decisions and some even more dubious solo albums, such as Jani Lane's "Back Down to One" and Tracii Guns' "Killing Machine.")

"You have to go get the game at this position, rather than let the game to come to you," says Mulrooney. "I want to go and try to control the game."

Fourteen years from now, when some wunderkind striker from Albuquerque is raising the World Cup trophy and signing with AC Milan for A-Rod-type money, he'll be there because an anonymous holding midfielder is in total control of the game.

* * *

I spent two days trying to figure out how to work the Miss USA pageant into this column as seamlessly as Jeff Bradley worked his Masters gig into his "First XI" column. This is all I got:

My lock for this week is Kansas City over Columbus. If recent history means anything, I'll be wrong. Because I thought Miss Tennessee was a lock to win the Miss USA pageant. She was witty, intelligent, unaffected and beautiful. She was robbed! She came in fourth runner-up! She was even bested by Miss Oklahoma, who answered the hypothetical dinner-guest question with "Justin Timberlake." So now I'm on a mission to console Miss Tennessee. Anyone have any leads?

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. E-mail him at cheapseats@g73.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.


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