Analysis

“Gaddis Island” — The fullback MLS needs

Photo: Paul Rudderow

As soccer tactics have evolved over the past few seasons, no position has changed more than the fullback.

Brazil has often played with lung-busting defenders like Cafu who make strong overlapping runs then sprint back to their position, but the modern fullback is better represented by Spain and Barcelona. These teams value possession because it allows their fullbacks to cheat so high that they essentially become wide midfielders.

This vision of the fullback’s role was swept to near-dogmatic heights by the wave that saw Spain ascend to world dominance. It has reached an apex with Luke Shaw, a teenager with clear defensive flaws in his game, commanding a fee north of £30 million.

Major League Soccer has not failed to notice the attacking fullback trend. In 2011, after Spain won the World Cup, both of Akron’s talented wide defenders (Zarek Valentin and Kofi Sarkodie) went in the first eight picks of the SuperDraft. In 2012, New England traded up to take Andrew Farrell number one. Essentially, if a fullback is good at defense but fails to show offensive flash in college, he might as well tie a brick to his draft stock.

Just ask Raymon Gaddis.

Going for O

The problem that MLS teams have yet to consistently identify is that even fullbacks that shine brightly on the offensive end in college take time to figure out that side of the game in the pros. Contributing offensively at lower levels is a clue, not an answer.

Just look at the 2008 draft class. Chance Myers went number one and took his time developing into a consistent contributor for Kansas City (though injuries slowed him for nearly three seasons). Tony Beltran, the number three pick that year, took four seasons to establish himself as the every day starter at RSL. And once he did become a solid defender and wonderful possession passer, there is disappointment that he is less of a vertical flyer. At number four in 2008, Sean Franklin has consistently struggled to pair solid defense with his obvious offensive talents. More recently, Valentin and Sarkodie both tripped out of the gate, with Valentin eventually moving to Montreal and then to Europe, and Sarkodie having to wait longer than expected to join the first eleven in Houston.

Meanwhile, MLS teams continually have issues dealing with the offensively loaded teams they face in the CONCACAF Champions League.

So just as Duncan Keith can win the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in hockey despite rarely facing the opposition’s best forwards, MLS analysts get sucked in by offensive promise and place defensive solidity on the back burner. As such, only Seth Sinovic, DeAndre Yedlin, and Chris Klute were chosen as All-Star worthy by MLSSoccer.com’s panel of experts.

A defense-first argument

Not that any of those three are unworthy (except Klute. Eleven starts!? Come on, voters…), but one could argue that they are players who exemplify the ideal of a modern fullback rather than representing the position as it is more often embodied in MLS: A defensive one.

Back to Gaddis.

Philadelphia Union interim head coach Jim Curtin said Gaddis is the best one-on-one defender in MLS right now. He continued, “I joked last year, called it Gaddis Island: attackers kind of disappear out there in the island.”

Curtin is not wrong: An argument can be made that Ray Gaddis can match up and shut down just about anybody in MLS. Lloyd Sam had to sneak inside to get involved on Wednesday, and he is just the latest wide attacker to find his hunting ground shuttered by the Union’s diminutive fullback.

Gaddis v AS FB statsCompare Gaddis to the three fullbacks MLSSoccer.com believes are the best in the league and you find him hardly out of his depth. He is averaging 5.5 tackles-plus-interceptions per match, despite teams making a conscious effort to stay away from his side of the pitch.

Additionally, Gaddis has shown marked improvement in his offensive game. Playing short passes with Vincent Nogueira and Amobi Okugo has proven to be an eye-opening experience for the West Virginia product, who spent the better part of last season without any center midfielders close enough to shout at. And Gaddis has done it all with a carousel of central defenders (and out-of-position midfielders/strikers) next to him.

Gaddis has to refine his game; he still uses his athleticism as a crutch when caught out of position, for instance. And MLS analysts who want to insist that the league is closing in on its European counterparts will continue to set their sights on offense-first defenders. But this remains a league with so much parity that teams rarely dominate the ball in a way that makes attack-first fullbacks as useful as they are to top European teams. Ray Gaddis is showing that the league may want to pay more attention to defensive skill at fullback and develop offense at the pro level. It would be easy to let DeAndre Yedlin’s breakout fool us into thinking he represents a trend in MLS development.

After all, there have been a lot of offensively-inclined fullbacks selected early in the SuperDraft over the past decade, and Yedlin was the only MLS fullback on the US roster in 2014.

The US spent a lot more time defending than attacking in the 2014 World Cup. Maybe MLS is scouting fullbacks the wrong way.

13 Comments

  1. Think this kid is on Klinsmann’s radar yet?

    • Bob the Used Car Salesman. says:

      He needs to be.

      Ray has very slowly been adding offense to his elite defensive game. Remember that cracker of a shot he had late in the game vs NE back in May? I didn’t think he could do that until that moment. That was the moment I started watching him closer. Only a decent save kept it from the twine and it opened my eyes. He’s been clipping in some fantastic crosses to Casey lately on the right side. I understand why he may see the left in the coming games, but I think its a shame. His speed and ever-improving touch are very exciting with Nogueira at #8 and Chaco at #10 playing off of him. There is a possibility for some real magic if those guys can get it together as one.

      If he keeps it up, Klinsmann has to at least call him up to Cupcake. Ray’s ceiling is pretty high. The Union need to resign him this offseason to a multiyear deal, then just sit back and enjoy his maturation into an all-star defender in MLS.

  2. It’s amazing the best fullback last year don’t even get mention. Only 2 goals 8 assist and some saves long throws even play center back midfield and some striker… Could of had a ton more assist if some goals wasn’t thrown away…I wonder what they would say if the best FB had these stats…. I could be wrong though just speculating.

  3. thanks, this was a good read though i was hoping that you would also photoshop a hawaiian lei around his neck

  4. I like Ray and think he brings terrific quality to the Union. I look forward to watching him improve and begin to grow his intellect. I find myself still yelling at him when he goes on the dribbling spree. In my estimation there is zero reason to have an outside back dribble the ball in his own defensive end. Too many times he goes on these runs with the ball 40 50 meters up the field then loses possession putting the team at risk and as you say, Adam, running his ass off backwards to regain shape. Otherwise, he is a bright young talent.

  5. Softest feet on the back line, too. A true professional touch.

  6. I have been watching Ray since his first minutes with the U. You could see the athletic ability right away. He has gotten better every week. And is a real problem for the offense to seal with! Sam started a little pushing match very early. Gaddis owned him the rest of the game! Go Ray go!!

  7. Torvald Coolguy says:

    I think you may undersell the importance of defense first fullbacks in Europe. Attacking fullbacks are certainly popular but there are defense first fullbacks like Bacary Sagna and Cesar Apucilleta starting for Champions League clubs in England. Guys like Gaddis definitely are less exciting to casual fans but have a place in the modern game.

  8. netherprovidencepops says:

    They need to make up some Gaddis Island shirts right away. Can even have the bridge on it. Shut up and take my money!

  9. kingkowboys says:

    This article has been long over due. Ever since Ray Gaddis became the starting LB and got his first consistent time I’ve been paying attention to him. He’s shown how good of a defender he is. This year has been no exception and we begin to see his improvements in the offense when he’s playing his natural position. Hopefully he continues to improve and confidence is instilled in his offensive capabilities. His touch and speed make him very dangerous on the overlap. I would love to see him driving into the box and breaking ankles.
    .
    I’ll always be a Gaddis fan. Last year versus Toronto is forever burnt into my memory. His 60+ yard sprint to catch Earnshaw on a break away saved our hope. The best part was that not only did he catch him, he picked his pocket. No moment in the Union history has been as jaw dropping (in a positive way at least).

    • I remember this play too. Outstanding!

      • Bob the Used Car Salesman. says:

        That game was fantastic. Gaddis did that TWICE that game. And it led to Kleberson’s jaw dropping goalzo. One of my favorite nights at PPL ever.

  10. This was terrific, and well deserved. Gaddis has improved steadily for his entire time on the team, and still shows no signs of peaking. He’s even getting involved in the offense!

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