AMSTERDAM – For as long as most US national team supporters can remember, head coaches of all sizes, shapes and hair situations have tried to play Dr. Frankenstein with the same perpetually aggravating position: left back.
The problem is that they've been doing it all wrong.
For more than a decade now, I've publicly turned my nose up at all the experiments that have removed a given winger or random left-footed attacker from his optimal position and dropped him, green and inexperienced, into the left-back slot. Such patchwork strategies not only weaken the area clipped from, but they also make it virtually impossible to grow the position's strength with actual, day-job left backs.
So we've seen everyone from Bobby Convey to Eddie Lewis to DaMarcus Beasley to José Francisco Torres tried at left back, usually with negative results. The players' previously helpful offensive contributions typically wane to a minimum, while supporters who clamored for the misfit trial get a lesson on why tracking back well on the flank and defending as a fullback are far from the same thing.
But you know what? Fine. I give up and give in. The World Cup is nine months away, and the fervor to play soccer god with left back has never been louder. Therefore, I'm finally compelled here to show how it's properly done. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. And the apparently hidden reality is that there are two players with a sizable history of USMNT involvement that might just make perfect left-back converts:
Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu.
Don't scoff or snicker, especially if you're one to march every left winger that comes through the pool back a line. Both of these players live to disrupt, both can run all day with the eager ease of gazelles drunk on Jolt Cola, and both to some extent work international duty in the shadow of more-rounded players in their best role (namely, Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron). They also both have tendencies for the occasional bad turnover or "punt on first down" when the quick, simple pass from central midfield would have sufficed.
But here's the "So why has this never come up before?" kicker: Both have enjoyed rather successful club cameos at left back in the past.
Jones is the obvious top choice right now, if for no other reason than he is also the only one of the two to play first-team ball past April of this year. It goes without saying that Jones lives to get in opposition shirts and challenge passes. He also does not look out of place when his forays into attack venture out wide. What's more, when moving forward, Jones loves to lob passes into the channels, as seen on his assists to Jozy Altidore against Poland in 2010 (watch it here) and Clint Dempsey at Honduras earlier this year (watch it here). Why not just make it shorter and easier for him?
Turning to Edu, his best possession work has always come when he sticks to quick passing in triangles, which is something a wingback encounters all game long. To boot, his presence on the field undeniably adds another set-piece killer. His lone national-team tally came on a restart, as did several key Rangers strikes, and of course he also had a perfectly good goal waved off at the end of the 2010 World Cup tilt against Slovenia. The impact of variables like this are magnified in a short tournament. Of course, unlike Jones, Edu is currently outside the likely 23-man roster that would go to Brazil if the World Cup started now.
Opponents might argue that Jones is a righty that can be rash in one-v-one defending, or that he's simply too necessary in the midfield stable. They may add that natural lefty Edu first must work some encouraging action above the Premier League reserve level before he's even considered by Jurgen Klinsmann for any spot. Both are probably fair arguments.
However, the time has long gone to weaken the attack stable in a trade for, at absolute most, a barely acceptable replica of a left back. Beasley has played well relative to the expectations one would have of him, but he's still been culpable on several breakdowns against CONCACAF teams that resulted in goals. What happens when he or another transplant runs up against Cristiano Ronaldo or Franck Ribéry for 90 minutes? Without any intended offense, I shudder at the prospect.
At a tournament like the World Cup, defense has to be the first priority in staffing the position. As many in the US soccer bubble are still so eager to take chances with left back, it's time to gamble wisely or not at all. It says here that Jones and Edu represent the only potentially smart choices to make the switch during this cycle.
Greg Seltzer covers Americans based in Europe for MLSsoccer.com.