The Left Back Crisis – The Candidates

It’s no secret that the United States is struggling to find the right fit at its left back slot. So far this year, we’ve given a shot to 3 guys – Heath Pearce, Jonathan Bornstein, and DeMarcus Beasley. For the purposes of this particular piece, I’ll give a bit of a rundown of the Top 4 candidates for starting at the left back slot, not just for the game against Egypt on Sunday, but for Qualifiers and World Cup 2010 as well.

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Carlos Bocanegra – 5’11.5, 172lbs – Stade Rennais (Ligue 1)

Bocanegra is the current starting left back for Rennes in the French top flight. He is also the captain and current starting center-half for the National Team. He’s a solidly-built, physical defender that relies on great technique, poise, and positioning to defend at the top levels. He didn’t miss a start for Rennes this season, scoring 1 goal.

The Positives

  • Bocanegra is arguably our most consistent and sound defender, providing strong leadership from the backline
  • He understands team defense better than any current US defender and rarely allows himself to be caught out of position
  • Solid, if unspectacular, at making plays going forward. He’s not a speedster, but he makes good decisions and typically makes quality passes and crosses
  • As one of the team’s leading scorers over the past few years, he’s proven that he’s a constant threat to score off set pieces

The Negatives

  • Not the best athlete we have in this pool for this position, as he relies more on strength and guile than speed and quickness
  • There is a small worry that he would not venture forward enough, causing the US to lose some of its width during play. I happen to think otherwise, as his defensive ability more than makes up for any lack of forward threat (and would also force our midfielders to space themselves better, but that’s another column…)

Jonathan Bornstein – 5’9, 145lbs – Chivas USA (MLS)

Bornstein is tiny, feisty left-back that relies on quickness and speed at the international level. He has started 86 of his 88 career MLS games for Chivas USA, scoring 9 goals and registering 8 assists in that span. Bornstein has been capped 14 times for the United States and scored 1 goal.

The Positives:

  • He gets forward well, using his speed and shiftiness hit the touchline and get crosses off
  • He has a cannon for a left foot, with a good ability to get his shots on target
  • Above-average tackler that makes some crunching plays despite his diminutive size

The Negatives

  • Not the best technical defender in that he struggles to keep his positioning against quality opposition, usually using his speed to cover his mistakes
  • Not a particularly accurate crosser, though if he gets to the byline he usually picks out a decent pass across the face of goal
  • He’s small on a team of small players. I’m not a big fan of fielding small teams at the international level, especially when there is the possibility of using a player with more size.
  • He’s arguably our worst left-back candidate in terms of skill out of the back. He resorts to playing kickball during most of National Team performances because  he struggles to “play” from the back. Whether it’s confidence or skill, Bornstein doesn’t have the poise to get out of a dangerous spot without simply booting the ball as hard and long as possible.

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Heath Pearce – 5’11.5, 175lbs – Hansa Rostock (Bundesliga)

Pearce had run through a string of qualifiers as the starter for the United States before a disastrous performance in Costa Rica saw him relegated to the bench. He’s strong, agile wingback with good pace and skill. He has played 31 games in 2 years at Hansa Rostock.

The Positives

  • He’s a fairly strong player that doesn’t often get muscled off the ball easily.
  • Like Bornstein above, Pearce possesses a bullet for a left foot, also with the capability to put it on frame at a decent rate.
  • Pearce comes in as somewhat of a cross between Bornstein and Bocanegra in that he’s not quite as speedy as Bornstein and not quite as tactically efficient as Bocanegra, possessing a little bit of both players’ attributes
  • While not a world-class crosser, he puts in a relatively consistent ball from the wing

The Negatives

  • His lack of amazing speed hurts him when he gets forward as its easier for him to get caught out of position up the pitch, and he likes to get forward much more than Bornstein and Bocanegra
  • He’s not a great tackler, often diving in quicker than he should and hanging himself out to dry against speedy dribblers
  • While he’s more technically gifted than Bornstein, he still struggles to play out from the back in a composed manner, usually resorting to heavy clearances

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Jonathan Spector – 6’1, 168lbs – West Ham United (Premier League)

Spector is finally getting some time on the field for the Nats after some battles with injuries. He began to play consistently for West Ham before suffering an injury mid-season, prompting new coach Gianfranco Zola to acknowledge Spector as part of his plans for West Ham’s future. A big, athletic defender, Spector is arguably the single most talented defensive player in the US pool.

The Positives

  • Spector is a fine athlete with good size, a combination that is altogether lacking in the defensive player pool
  • He is the most technically gifted defender we have, and is one of the precious few capable of playing out of the back with composed passes and elite decision-making
  • Not only does he get forward well with his technical ability and athleticism, but he makes great runs that no other defender on the team is capable of making. He really understands the offensive aspects of an outside back better than the rest
  • In terms of defending, he reads plays well and rarely gets caught out of position. He’s also a respectable tackler
  • All-around, he’s arguably the best candidate for any of the defensive positions

The Negatives

  • Probably the biggest negative is simply that he’s right-footed, making him naturally more suited to a right-sided position
  • Being one of our best overall defenders, we might need him at right back or center back even more than left back.
  • He does need to prove his health and ability to stay injury-free

All in all, the US left back candidates are a decent bunch if you include Jonathan Spector and Carlos Bocanegra. The lack of a truly gifted, natural left-sided defender means that eventually we might have to move some of our better defenders around in order to get the best defensive unit on the pitch.

Personally, I’d like to see Bocanegra moved to left back permanently, as the center-back position is fairly stacked with quality candidates and we probably we need Spector’s abilities on the right-hand side more than the left.

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4 Responses

  1. yo this is an ill blog

  2. I wouldn’t leave out Marvell Wynne. He’s a RB, but his crosses suck from the right anyway, so I imagine it wouldn’t be much worse (if at all) from the left. He has speed, he’s physical and strong, and he’s a pretty good defender right now and figures to improve in the future. I hope he gets a look at LB during the Gold Cup.

    • I’m not a fan of Marvell Wynne just yet. He’s just so incredibly raw as both a defender and a soccer player right now, that I think he’s still struggling to succeed at right back. I think moving him over to left back might be worse than putting Beasley there.

      I do hope Wynne gets to Holland sometime soon, as that'[d be the best place for him to get trained as a wingback.

  3. […] is yet another example of the quality of soccer blogging out there.  For example, check out his pre-tournament post on the U.S. left backs and his analysis of today’s Final.  When you’ve had your fill of statistics for the day […]

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