The job of a central defender is a largely thankless one, and perhaps nobody proves that point more than FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges.
Hedges ranks among Major League Soccer’s most consistent defenders for the past several years, yet has spent much of his career being looked over, always talked about as a player on the periphery of the US national team picture, never someone actually brought into the fold.
So much so, in fact, that when Hedges got word of his recent call-up into Jurgen Klinsmann’s January camp (as a replacement for an injured Brad Evans) the former Butler Bulldog could scarcely believe it.
“It was a couple of days into camp so obviously I wasn’t expecting anything,” Hedges told MLSsoccer.com after a sun-soaked training session at the University of Texas, part of Dallas’ recent visit to Austin for the ATX Pro Challenge. “There had come a point where I wasn’t really expecting to ever get a call-up, because it just hadn’t happened before. I got a voicemail from Jurgen saying that they wanted to bring me in, so I came out there – I was on a plane out to LA the next morning.”
Hedges’ call-up only came as a surprise due to his history of missing out. Statistically, the Dallas man seems a shoe-in. Line him up next to Klinsmann’s incumbent center backs – LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City mainstay Matt Besler – and Hedges bests Besler in nearly every defensive category, and certainly holds his own against Gonzalez as well.
Though Gonzalez is statistically better in the air, Hedges has still managed to develop his own nose for goal, hammering home a trio of headed goals last year alone. Besler had none. Hedges’ passing percentage — a shade above 86 percent — is top five in MLS.
And this is to say nothing of his experience and longevity: As he enters his fourth campaign, Hedges is drawing near his 100th MLS appearance. He will take the pitch this year, once again, as Dallas’ captain.
|Top MLS Defenders in 2014|
|Player||Passing Accuracy||Aerial %||Blocks|
|Matt Hedges - DAL||86.2%||60%||30|
|Omar Gonzalez - LA||83.6%||71%||10|
|Matt Besler - SKC||82.7%||67%||6|
So why the lack of love for Hedges? Gonzalez has set himself apart, winning defender of the year honors and a trio of MLS Cups and doing so in one of MLS’s biggest media markets. The left-footed Besler anchored one of MLS’ stingiest back lines to a league championship in 2013 and earned a Designated Player contract while doing so.
Hedges' visibility hasn't yet reached those levels. But it hasn’t kept him from doing his best to carve out his spot on the USMNT.
“I used [not getting called up] as motivation,” said Hedges. "I thought I should be getting that call, so I went out and played harder than anybody else out there, because I wanted to be [in camp] and I wanted to show those coaches that I need to be there. That was how I saw it.”
Added FCD head coach Oscar Pareja: “Matt’s call-up was deserved. He has done more than enough to participate in the national side. He has an extremely high ceiling – I dare say that at some point he’ll be ready to make a potential jump to Europe.”
Hedges – along with a handful of other US national teamers – got his first cap playing out of position: Klinsmann deployed him at outside back vs. Panama earlier this month. after DeAndre Yedlin left the match with a minor injury. It was an adjustment, but one he made well. Hedges looked comfortable on the ball and defused several attacks down the flank in a largely uneventful 18-minute shift.
Unlike a few of his teammates in Klinsmann’s January camp, Hedges seemed unconcerned with his head coach’s comments about the fitness level of those invited to participate, though he declined to go into much detail.
“I was in shape,” quipped Hedges, before adding that he’d been given plenty of input by Klinsmann during his time in camp. "Obviously we’re the top guys on our respective teams, so we’ve largely got it figured out. But he did give us plenty of instructions and he let us run with them. It was a great experience, as far as I’m concerned.”
As for whether Hedges’ call-ups will come a bit more regularly going forward, that depends on several factors. Klinsmann seems set on playing Jermaine Jones in central defense, which may spell trouble for Hedges; it looks unlikely that anybody will pry that right center back slot from the Revolution midfielder. His prospects improve slightly if Klinsmann plays a 3-5-2 formation – as he did against Chile last month.
For now, Hedges can only continue to put in good work for Dallas, and keep doing his best to catch the eye of Klinsmann & Co.
“[Not getting call-ups] hasn’t ever really ever a hugely frustrating thing,” he said. “Those coaches have tough decisions to make and they do their best to make them. I just try and go out there and show that I should be there and that’s how I’ll go into every game this year as well."
With a grueling 2015 ahead – one where many prognosticators are picking Dallas to finish near the top of the Western Conference – the lanky defender seems determined to keep his nose to the grindstone.
“Matt is still in a growing process,” concluded Pareja. “He’s leading this group, and big things are happening for him. I don’t want to rush anything with him, but I think the guy has a remarkable amount of potential. We’ll just have to see what happens."