Fans' View

Fans’ View: Getting defensive

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What’s a fan to do when the Dooping runs dry?

The Union has now gone three games in a row without a goal scored from open play, including 90 minutes at home where our team failed to register a shot on goal. Sebastian Le Toux’s somewhat fortunate penalty kick goal against New York feels like a distant memory, as lots of Union possession fails to translate into meaningful scoring chances in the final third. Plenty of excellent analysis and insight has been written here on PSP about formations, substitution patterns, tactics, and other means to invigorate an offense that has sputtered. While waiting for the Union to rediscover that attacking edge, one other avenue I find myself focusing on more is the often overlooked, under-appreciated beauty of defensive play.

In defense of defense

Yes, defense. Fullback. Center Back. Defensive midfielder.

For those who coach youth soccer, does anyone ever volunteer to play on the back line? It’s pretty rare, with nearly every kid craving that chance to hit the back of the net and celebrate by running back to the midfield line with his arms out wide, airplane-style. The backline can frequently be where aging men’s league soccer players gracefully transition to in order to make way for younger teammates to slide into more attacking roles (and yes, this happened to me recently).

Yet, there is an art to sound defensive play, a great camaraderie that develops among a defensive unit, and for a fan, much to appreciate both technically and tactically.

Filling the void

Watch a defender read an oncoming attacker’s movement, then make a quick decision to either bring pressure, or contain and wait for help and cover to arrive. Be sure to hone in on how Ray Gaddis quickly and aggressively closes down an offensive player, makes a sound tackle, then transitions quickly into a counter attack. How does the defensive unit align themselves to give cover and provide balance, in an effort to take away penetration, passing lanes, and dangerous runs? Setting aside any of his offensive limitations for a second, take a minute to observe to how Brian Carroll reads plays as they develop, giving cover to his teammates, and busting up passing lanes to disrupt play and recover possession.

It’s a simple pleasure to watch how a modern right back like Sheanon Williams cuts off a cross, heading it forward to himself to bolt out of our defensive third, throw his body around, and slice (what hopefully will once again be) dangerous crosses into the opposition’s box. Notice how Aaron Wheeler establishes position and gains separation from an opponent as he goes up to win balls in the air. Or watch closely how Amobi Okugo disrupts a striker’s run, recovers the ball, beats the first man and delivers a perfectly weighted ball forward on a string to relieve pressure and shift the Union forward.

What we need (and usually have), is a good defense

While this year’s team has had its share of mental lapses in front of our goal, a full complement of healthy, starting defenders (Gaddis/Berry/Okugo/Williams) should be strong enough for the Union to make a playoff push. Even with Berry and Williams having early season health challenges to overcome, the U has yet to concede more than two goals in any game, and eleven goals allowed in nine games suggests that the Union defense is generally keeping the team in games consistently enough to win when the offense starts clicking and finishing chances. While it doesn’t have the same sizzle as putting the biscuit in the basket, I find myself with a much greater appreciation and admiration for strong defensive play.

Of course, I’d trade all of it for a few good Doops this weekend.

9 Comments

  1. Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

    Um, I hate to be a buzz kill but the U are 8th out of 10 Eastern conference teams in goals allowed per game.

    • Dan C – I’ve got them at 6th in the East with 1.22 goals against per game. That same number would have them as the 4th best defensive squad in the Western Conference. They’re not world beaters thus far, but outside of a few painful lapses back there, the D has generally been solid. Especially considering injury issues and not having what should be the first choice 4 together, the D has been good enough to support a higher position in the standings. It’s the 1.0 goals scored per game stat that puts us towards the bottom of each conference.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        Scott, you are correct, they are 6th out of 10, my bad. But I wouldn’t compare them to the Western teams for two reasons. First, we playe the east teams 3 times and the west only once a season, also the West is scoring 1.5 GPG while the East is only scoring 1.1 goals per game. How would the U’s d look if they had to play a western schedule?

      • Thanks for pointing that out. It’s a good point, and one that probably needs to be taken into account to get the full picture of exactly where this team ranks defensively. The main points in my mind:
        1) If we can get back to the proper starting 4 in the back, shielded by Carroll and/or Edu, plus an improved McMath, defensive play should be the least of our concerns.
        2) There’s a lot of nuance and skill in defending, individually and in a team concept, that may often get overlooked. I figured I’d give defense a little love this week.

  2. Totally agree that defense of course the most under appreciated area of the pitch. I wonder though if part of the credit for our decent defensive results is due to the midfield controlling the game and limiting chances for the opposition? I would still contend that Brian Carroll’s defensive quality is continually the most under appreciated on the team. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done. All that being said, I’d still prefer to win all of our games by a 4-3 scoreline than 1-0 any day. That’s probably why I enjoy watching Liverpool so much more than Chelsea this year!

    • Andy Muenz says:

      Plus 4-3 games mean free haircuts!

    • Excellent point about the midfield and the overall improvement in possession helping to limit quality chances. I’m sure that’s a factor too. There are definitely a lot of elements that go into a team’s defensive output. I’ll always have a hard time watching Liverpool, but agree with you as well on 4-3 being a more entertaining scoreline.

  3. The Black Hand says:

    Good read, Scott. Fine defensive play should be commended. Though, I’m not sure our defense is “fine”, they have had their moments. I’m glad you got this one out before Saturday. Seattle AWAY is not a good looking match for our Union defense.

    • Black Hand – I agree. This may have been a tough post to put out there next week after dealing with an offense that has been making plenty of teams’ D look ugly!

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