Armchair Analyst: Perception, reality and the return of Clarence Goodson to MLS

This is a tactical analysis, which means we’re going to be spending some time on how things should (not necessarily will) play out on the field. But frankly, the more important part of the Clarence Goodson acquisition by San Jose is the off-the-field part, particularly in regard to how MLS is perceived by guys with international ambitions.

Grant Wahl summed it up pretty succinctly in one tweet:

Back in the mid-2000s, the perception (and maybe the reality) was that you’d do more for your international future by signing just about anywhere in Scandinavia than by staying in MLS. I maintained at the time that this was a bigger problem for the league – losing the likes of Goodson, Danny Califf or Chris Rolfe – than losing the likes of Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley or Michael Bradley.

The highest-level, elite players are almost all going to try to end up in one of the Big Four European leagues. That’s as true for someone raised in California or Texas as it is for someone raised in Brazil, Argentina or the Netherlands.

The key for MLS’ growth at that time, both in terms of quality and perceived quality (and I’d argue we lack the second more than the first) was thus to mimic the Eredivisie, the Brasileirão and Argentine Primera División: Hold onto the guys who are just a step off the elite, let them form the backbone of your club for six-to-eight years at a time, and groom the next generation along the way. Lose a star player to England? Fine. Lose a backbone player to Denmark? That’s a problem.

Both Goodson and Graham Zusi, who signed a brand new contract with Sporting KC on Friday, have legit World Cup ambitions. Both decided it would be better for them to chase that dream in MLS. That probably wouldn’t have been the case six or seven years ago.

MLS teams are understanding and prioritizing their backbones. MLS players are understanding that the league is more than a stepping stone. Progress.

Now, will it work for the Quakes? In theory, yes. On paper, yes. And that should make the folks down at Buck Shaw happy, because they’re still waiting for something – anything – to go right this year.

Goodson is a stay-at-home central defender who reads the game well, which means he’s not inclined to be particularly risky out there. That’s the ideal partner for Víctor Bernárdez, who plays central defense like a dog let off his leash. I don’t think there’s any center back in the league who likes to step up into the midfield, both with and without the ball, as much as Bernárdez. Goodson should give him license to do so more effectively.

However, the Quakes will almost certainly play a deeper line than what we saw from them last season when they won the Supporters’ Shield, which seems like a million years ago now.

From our good friend Matt Tomaszewicz, who you can catch on March to the Match every week:

Goodson’s best performances of recent vintage with the US national team were the 1-0 win in Italy in February of 2012, and the Snow Game against Costa Rica in March of this past year. Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan in Italy was “stay deep, don’t let them hit it over the top and make them play directly into the central defenders.” Goodson thrived.

The Costa Rica game was obviously a little trickier, but as it became more and more apparent that the US was just going to sit back and wait for the Ticos to mess up, Goodson got better and better. He was arguably the second best US player on that day, as he was allowed to read the game in front of him, clean up whatever messes happened and dominate in the air.

Now, contrast that to the 4-2 loss to Belgium from last month. Goodson (like everybody else) struggled badly. Mostly that’s because Belgium are awesome right now, but a solid part of the problem came from the US backline pushing up and trying to compress the amount of space the Belgians had to work with, which was borderlilne suicidal against such an athletic, skillful team. It was the wrong gameplan with the wrong talent against the wrong side.

To his credit, Goodson seemed to recognize that and was constantly dropping deeper than Omar Gonzalez, his central defensive partner in that game, to try to compensate for Belgium’s physical advantages. He definitely understands the game.

It’s also incredibly obvious that no MLS team – few teams of any sort in the world, actually – is going to ask the types of questions that Belgium did on that day. It just won’t happen (though there's like a 40 percent chance that he will, at some point, feature as the victim in a Darlington Nagbe highlight video).

Regardless, this is a home run for San Jose, who get an organizer at the back and the added bonus of yet another target on set pieces. He'll be San Jose's Omar Gonzalez, and let Big Vic be Big Vic.

And if, in the process, Goodson manages to remind Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart where the goal is, he'll be worth his weight in gold.