The Crew's Frankie Hejduk is the quintessential attacking MLS defender.
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Talking Tactics: When MLS defenders attack

 

We’ve all heard the old joke about defenders who prefer to attack, treating defense as an afterthought. He doesn’t really live on the back line, he just likes to keep an address there.

Are there any such nomads in MLS? Not really, but some definitely get forward more than others.

What are the determining variables? Sometimes it’s about the managers. Some covet defenders who can attack; the more conservative want defenders who are experts at – what else? – defending.

The risk-averse, for instance, are less willing to vacate their post. Sometimes ability is the determining factor; why risk motoring forward, after all, if you aren’t up for the job upon arrival?

And sometimes it’s simply about fitness and desire. Frankie Hejduk was never the best crosser from the flank, but he had such a big motor and was so devoted to chasing back that he made a career as a right-sided menace.

Attacking defenders are cornerstones of the modern game. Teams generally keep center backs at home and often pinch the outside midfielders into the middle. So outside fullbacks must create the attacking width.

That’s one reason Real Salt Lake’s balanced midfield is so effective. Manager Jason Kreis has three outside backs (Robbie Russell, Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert) who are comfortable getting forward. The champs may sometimes struggle to finish, but they typically win the midfield wars. The support of those attacking fullbacks is a big reason why.

The US national team likes a different midfield shape but wants the outside midfielders squeezing in, similarly. So they need fullbacks who can add weight on offense. That started under Bruce Arena, who told his back line candidates that defending simply wasn’t enough anymore.

Arena’s current team, the Galaxy, still play that way. That’s why he likes to get A.J. DeLaGarza on the field when possible. The former Maryland Terrapin provides something in modest supply around the Home Depot Center: speed along the flanks. It’s no wonder LA’s offense floundered against Toronto on Saturday with newbie defender Bryan Jordan playing in DeLaGarza’s stead.

Speed is also a hot commodity in Colorado, where Marvell Wynne is back in his niche at right back. Wynne was never the best in the attacking third, but his unimpeachable speed and presence cause trouble. Opposing defenders have to tweak their games, adjusting their starting positions to avoid a foot race they simply cannot win.

He looked good, too. Along with Omar Cummings, who set up on the right of Colorado’s 4-4-2, they kept D.C. United’s left side mostly pinned down. Plus, Wynne’s speed means he gets back into good defensive positions lickety-split.

On to Columbus, where the Crew’s 1-0 win over visiting Chivas USA offered up a case study of the attacking defenders of the day. While Hejduk and Gino Padula like to get forward for the Crew, Jonathan Bornstein has long been the gold standard of attacking left backs in MLS.

Hejduk doesn’t stray from defense as relentlessly as before, but does remain a threat. Across the field, Padula frequently becomes a foil for Robbie Rogers, who likes to hug the left touchline. That reduces the room (and necessity) for overlapping runs. But Padula can still selectively create 2-vs.-1 situations.

Kansas City, meanwhile, employ a 4-3-3 set-up that doesn’t rely on defenders getting forward, but they could. The league’s shortest field (107 yards at CommunityAmerica Ballpark) helps; Michael Harrington on the right and World Cup-bound Roger Espinoza have less distance to cover when they do range forward.

In Seattle, a formation with three forwards suits defenders James Riley and Leonardo Gonzalez, since they defend better than they attack. In Saturday’s 1-0 win over New York, we didn’t see enough of the home team’s defenders in attack. Roy Miller loves to get forward for the Red Bulls on the left, but was unavailable Saturday.

How’d all that work out for New York? Show me a team with one shot on goal in their own building (as Hans Backe’s men had Saturday) and I’ll show you a team that’s about to drop important points at home.

Steve Davis writes about Major League Soccer and the U.S. game for MLSSoccer.com, SI.com and at his blog Daily Soccer Fix.


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