Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Tim Howard: worth every penny in Colorado
Were we really debating about whether Tim Howard was worth the Designated Player tag and attached Colorado cash outlay? Or was that just some bad dream I had after too many late-night tacos?
Evidence is mounting that Howard may, just may, be the final piece in a defensively dominant puzzle at DSG Park that make the Rapids even bigger players in two pieces of hardware still available to them: the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield.
Howard was fantastic in helping the Rapids achieve a draw at Los Angeles last weekend, certainly a good result for Pablo Mastroeni’s team.
The longtime U.S. No. 1 was similarly solid a week before that in shutting out the Vancouver Whitecaps, and he was outstanding previously in a 1-1 draw with Dallas. Howard is making quality saves – but it is the showy saves he isn’t needing to make that are standing out. To watch Howard is a lesson in how the best of them guard goal through positioning, anticipation, rhythm and timing. They eliminate chances before they actually develop into serious opportunities. He holds things together before they have a chance to fall apart.
(In between the results against Dallas and Vancouver, there was a five-spot that NYCFC put on Howard and the Rapids; but the entire team was a grease fire in that one, and there wasn’t much Howard could do. He has three shutouts in six starts. A 1.33 goals-against average looks so-so, but it looks a lot different without that ugly fiver.)
Here’s the point: Yes, Zac MacMath was doing well before Howard’s arrival, with none of the embarrassing hiccups we saw early in the season (or that dogged his earlier days in MLS). But Howard’s ability to lead and to manage and, most importantly, to anticipate the unfoldings in front of him; it’s all that now making already stingy Colorado that much harder to score against.
At 0.87 goals allowed on average, the Rapids aren’t just tops in MLS, they are the only club below a goal a game. That’s with the 5-spot flub at Yankee Stadium; otherwise the Rapids’ collective GAA would look even more impressive. Either way, that kind of defense will keep the Rapids in the thick of the Western Conference race all the way. And when things get down to squeaky-bum time, there should be no drop off due to shaky hands or lack of leadership in the back.
Howard’s arrival into Dick’s Sporting Goods Park is falling squarely into “worth every penny” territory.
2. The under-appreciated No. 8
Pop quiz: Why do we hate the “8?”
OK, perhaps “hate” is a bit tough, not precise enough about how we seem to regard the position known as a “No. 8.” That’s a box-to-box midfielder, the so-called “shuttlers” tasked with linking the defensive distribution with the wow-men of attack.
Only, we seem to marginalize this position, overly consumed with the two more high-profile spots, the attacking midfielder and the holding, or “defensive” midfielder.
As U.S. international Alejandro Bedoya arrived into Philadelphia, everyone seemed to obsessively wonder where he fit? Or did he fit at all? Because the team didn’t seem to need a No. 10 (a playmaker). And Bedoya’s skill set isn’t best suited for a No. 6 (the screening role). It was as if the No. 8, a role as an all-around, do-all, box-to-box man, wasn’t even an option.
Not everyone has such a shuttler. Or in some cases, they have two of them … sort of. Teams that run a double pivot (two holding midfielders who split the duty of moving forward while the other holds) could, in a way, be said to have two shuttlers.
Either way, in the right system and with the right set of personnel, it’s a legitimate part of a tactical plan. Frank Lampard in his Chelsea days is a good example. Or Arturo Vidal in all those good years at Juventus and now at Bayern is another good example. Paul Pogba, now making his way into Old Trafford for a King’s ransom, is another.
None of this is to say that Bedoya is Pogba; you can be very good at your craft and not have club’s waving $116 million for your services. (Truly, that’s insane money.)
Philadelphia has a terrific playmaker in Tranquillo Barnetta. And they have a solid-enough, reliable holding man Warren Creavalle, although this is an area Union roster builder Ernie Stewart may circle for improvement. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of value in having a guy who can do precisely as Bedoya did in his Union debut:
Connecting passes, back to front. Setting tempo, when to “go” and when to “chill a bit” with the ball. Finding runners on the outside. Reading the game and knowing when to cheat a little further forward and when to play a bit more of the protection game, sliding back in anticipation of possible possession loss. None of those crafts of the trade scream “difference maker.” But string them all together and, yes, the body of work can be the difference between a win and a loss. You have to squint harder to see it – but the value is there.
Personally, I love a good No. 8 – and I’m not apologizing for it.
3. Time to move on from Hope Solo
I can never remember where I first heard this, a remarkable morsel of wisdom regarding problematic athletes and their place on a team: “We put up with you to the point where we can replace you.” That’s it. It’s beautifully simple math. What do you add, versus what you subtract from the greater effort?
This is about Hope Solo, the longtime U.S. women’s national team No. 1. She’s been one of the world’s best goalkeepers (perhaps the best) for years, so her unquestioned place in the team was always clear enough to understand.
But the troubling moments mounted, going way back, determined to draw attention to herself or creating headaches one of the world’s top programs simply didn’t need. There was the 2007 Women’s World Cup kerfuffle (when she was sent home after a rancid rant about not starting). There was the 2012 Olympic drama, a needless public spat with Brandi Chastain. More serious were domestic violence charges and thoughtless choices involving the official team van before Women’s World Cup 2015.
So here’s the deal: it’s time the United States moves on.
She’s 35, and her form is no longer anywhere near the “irreplaceable zone.” You could argue that her exalted place in the U.S. goalkeeping pool should never have been justification for keeping someone who was always a distraction waiting to happen, someone who didn’t always represent the best side of U.S. Soccer. You could argue the merits of winning at all costs in that way.
But that’s no longer a conversation worth having, simply because Solo no longer seems indispensable. That, in a nutshell, is the cold, hard reality. They don’t need her so badly anymore; U.S. Soccer has arrived at the point where they can replace her.
The U.S. women’s soccer staff had serious conversations about dropping Solo completely before the 2015 Women’s World Cup; trust me on this one. They decided she was worth the trouble, far and away better than her backups, and fair enough. Jill Ellis and her team won the WWC last summer in Canada, so perhaps you can make the case that keeping Solo was the correct call. Perhaps.
Now, having tumbled ingloriously out before the medal round in Rio, it’s harder to make a case that Solo is worth the trouble. Her disparaging, wrong-headed comments on Sweden dripped grossly of sour groups and sore loser … hardly what any of us want in programs that represent the United States to the world. As the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins put it so well: “The victories usually smoothed over her behavior. Not this time. This time she went pure loser and lout.”
How you win matters. How you represent your country most certainly matters.
With last week’s silly, obtuse comments about Sweden, she’s not representing her country nor her national team program very well. Considering her play and considering the long history of headaches, moving on seems like no-brainer.
4. Premier League bright lights – or the lower tier grind?
If you’re a US Soccer fan, you were probably excited to see Emerson Hyndman’s move from Fulham into the “bigs.” The young U.S. international, another member of an emerging group that seems blessed with so much promise, left the comfortable surroundings of Craven Cottage for a smaller stadium but much larger platform at Bournemouth.
Initial reaction: Hurray!
Second reaction: “Uh … hurray?”
Topic for discussion over icy cold lagers: For such a young player, is it better to be a squad man in the Premier League or a first-teamer in the meat grinder of a second tier?
Clearly Hyndman, as technically gifted a midfielder as there is in the U.S. national team developmental pipeline, can gain something from his days and nights along England’s south coast at Bournemouth. Even if he plays irregularly, the 20-year-old Texan will surely see professional growth. (Assuming he doesn’t pull a Brek Shea and completely disappear at his new “Prem” address.)
But do consider this: England’s Championship is an absolutely brutal haul. Fulham, Hyndman’s home since he was 15, has already played three times in England’s Championship (the country’s second tier) whereas the EPL clubs have seen one league match. Before it’s over teams in the Championship play 46 league matches, eight more than Premier League clubs.
Plus, they’ll probably go a couple of matches in the FA Cup and the League Cup. In fact, Fulham may just go as far as Bournemouth in those tournaments. Either way, the number of “cup” matches could be comparable.
The point is, grinding out another season in the second tier is a teaching tool, too – especially since Hyndman was in and out of favor last year in West London, with a relatively modest 24 appearances at Fulham.
Then again, maybe he’ll be a Bournemouth regular around the cozy little Vitality Stadium; that would be the best of both worlds. We’ll see.
Just some food for thought. If it’s Geoff Cameron or Brad Guzan or other vets, cashing the Premier League checks is clearly the preferred way to go. But for guys like Hyndman, Matt Miazga, Lynden Gooch, Gedion Zelalem and others in the younger set, it’s worth asking the question.
5. The Little Five
5a. Has any career fallen faster than Mix Diskerud’s? He has completely dropped off the edge of the earth, professional soccer wise. If I saw the man standing in line today at a Chipotle in Dallas, Texas, I wouldn’t be shocked. Because he certainly hasn’t been seen anywhere near a New York City FC lineup in weeks! His last appearance in a match was June 15, and that wasn’t even a league match. (It was a U.S. Open Cup contest.) It’s an amazing waste of a big salary, reported at $760,000.
5b. Professional sports are big boy stuff, as we know. And things certainly aren’t always fair. That said, it seems a shame that former (and longtime) Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid didn’t get a chance to sort out things with Nicolas Lodeiro in the lineup. The Uruguayan international, who literally arrived into Seattle on the day Schmid was fired, has three assists and one very sweet goal in his three contests.
5c. Drew Moor had a sketchy match Sunday night against Houston, a rare thing in 2016; he’s been an absolute rock in his first year around BMO Field. You hope for TFC’s sake that it’s just an anomaly and that he isn’t about to go through what Laurent Ciman went through last year at Montreal. Ciman (then 30) faded down the stretch after a sensational half-season at Stade Saputo. Ciman, a Belgian international, certainly wasn’t bad on the back half of 2015, but he certainly was not the same force. Moor, by the way, is 32.
5d. Does Jozy Altidore look like the proverbial “man on a mission” to anyone else? He was a handful for Toronto on Sunday in Houston. And there are U.S. World Cup qualifiers ahead; Altidore is surely desperate to regain some lost ground on Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart.
5e. Personally, I love the choice of RFK in the nation’s capital for a United States friendly against New Zealand. Is that faded glory of an athletic ground as old as the Hindenburg? Yeah, almost. And probably only a little bit more safe. Still, there’s history at RFK, and that counts for something. Plus, the atmosphere is good in that old broken down place when there are enough folks to create it. Finally, it is the nation’s capital, as mentioned. That means something, too.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.