Brian McBride and the Era of the “Target Striker”

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13 Years. 96 Caps. 30 Goals.

For more more than a decade, Brian McBride was the iconic “target forward” for the US Men’s National Team.

Standing a solid 6’1, McBride was the central cog in the US attack for most of his thirteen years, using his physical presence to back down defenders and hold the ball up past midfield. McBride possessed a nose for goal, scoring in two separate World Cups, with his two goals in the 2002 World Cup being game-winners against Mexico and Portugal.

McBride embodied the principles of US Soccer – hard work, determination, and physical play. Never the most naturally gifted player on the field, McBride understood the game and used his tactical sense and physical presence to force his will onto opposing defenses. McBride’s presence and relentless work rate up top led an underdog American side to the quarterfinals of World Cup 2002.

Not only did McBride personify US Soccer, he also was the definition of a “Target Striker”. He had a gift for using his head, whether to knock down passes or pound home crosses. He could back down defenders with his strength, holding them off long enough to make a trap and play a pass. McBride wasn’t just a target striker, he was the target striker when it came to American soccer.

McBride’s success at the World Cup in Korea would eventually lead to him moving overseas to play for Fulham FC in England, where he would make 153 appearances and score 40 goals in league play. His strong play and leadership eventually landed him the captain’s armband at Fulham, an honor rarely bestowed upon an American in Europe.

Brian McBride’s success, both in Europe and in international play, is an important part of American soccer history, and one that has shaped the mindset of our national team since his career ended.

McBride’s success was the catalyst for the “target striker” to flourish in US Soccer.

Coaches across the nation began employing big, physical players as strikers, each hoping to capture in a player the unique blend of qualities that made McBride such a resounding success for US Soccer.

Where the tall, lumbering soccer players used to get turned into central defenders, coaches were instead training them as aerial predators and chest-trap artists. Big men weren’t being taught how to defend an oncoming striker, but rather how to back down an opposing defender and lay a short pass off for a supporting midfielder.

But this shift in philosophy didn’t stop with the big men, but also with the creative, speedy players. No longer were they used as goal-scoring forwards, but as quick-crossing wingers. The speedsters were no longer the end-game, they were a means to the end.

No longer were teams looking to pass through a defense, but rather out-flank it and bombard the box with curling crosses. Strikers across the country were being judged on how well they attacked the ball in the air, as aerial presence became a coveted asset.

If you stood 6’1, possessed moderate speed, and could head the ball hard and straight – you had a career as a striker ahead of you.

Now, obviously this philosophy didn’t enter into every coach’s mind, but the predominant mold for a quality striker was that of a big, physical aerial presence. Size mattered.

This certainly took form in MLS too, as McBride’s success also coincided with the emergence of the league.

Big strikers like Eric Wynalda, Ante Razov. Mamadou Diallo, Nate Jaqua, and Brian Ching have all been successful as big strikers in MLS.

While some of that philosophy has disappeared in MLS today, Ching, Jaqua, Kenny Cooper, Adam Cristman, Chris Pontius, and others are all scoring goals as “target strikers”.

Building on the success of the “target striker” in MLS and McBride’s success on the international stage, the USMNT has been in search of a “target striker” to replace McBride. This search has seen current coach Bob Bradley use a variety of big strikers like Nate Jaqua, Conor Casey, and Brian Ching – all big, back-to-the-goal strikers in the mold of McBride.

If there’s been one thing US fans agree on the most, it’s that they don’t agree on Brian Ching. Whether it’s his worth as a player or his usefulness in a specific system, an US Soccer fan is not going to be short of an opinion on the subject. Ching is easily one of the most divisive players the National Team has seen, as opinions on his play run the complete gamut, from “He should be nowhere near our team” to “Ching is easily the best striker we have”.

One thing that everyone can agree on about Ching, though, is that Bob Bradley prefers him.

Why? Well, Bradley wants to find the next Brian McBride. The US has succeeded for almost 20 full years now with the “target striker” setup, and right now Brian Ching is the best target we have. He’s big, strong, decent in the air, and despite what even the most ardent of detractors will tell you (believe me, I’m one of them) – he’s a useful target man.

The crux of the issue is best put into question form: “If Brian Ching is the best ‘target’ we have, then do we really need a ‘target striker’?”.

Of course, my answer is a resounding “NO”. With world football evolving around quick, speedy players, the lumbering #9 isn’t a necessity anymore, especially if your “target striker” isn’t as good as your other forward options.

The shining example right now is the United States’ eruption for 7 goals against Egypt, Spain, and Brazil, where the introduction of Charlie Davies and his speed completely changed the face of US Soccer.

With no lumbering center forward to slow down plays, the American squad used its blistering speed to counter-attack against some of the best teams in the world – and it worked. The lightning quick runs of Davies and Donovan, unhindered by the need to play through a target man, left more-talented defenders in the dust.

A mere week later, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the difference could be seen in reverse as Brian Ching was back in the squad to face Honduras. With a “target striker” up top, the US never looked to utilize its speed, but rather resorted to launching long balls up the field toward Ching. There were no Brazilian-like counter-attacks with speed and precision with Ching on the field.

The juxtaposition of these tournaments has put Bradley in a bit of a dilemma – does he appease his desire to have a target striker on the field? Or does he recognize the opportunity to shift American soccer principles for the better and leave Ching out of the lineup?

Charlie Davies is no longer a secret that Bradley can hide on the bench. The American soccer nation is now fully aware of what his speed did to 3 world class teams, all in the absence of our current target named Brian.

Bradley’s decisions in the upcoming months will shape the future of American soccer, whether it’s sticking with Brian Ching in the hopes of continuing the success of “target strikers” or making the momentous shift to speed and counter-attacks by sticking with Charlie Davies.

Whichever strategy Coach Bradley elects to pursue, we only know one thing for sure: Brian McBride isn’t walking through that door.

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11 Responses

  1. […] its opponents in shots on goal, the U.S. took only 10 shots against Honduras (when we utilized the target-striker attack).  And our possession dropped from a commanding 57% to a much more pedestrian 51%.  In other […]

  2. Common sense would say Davies should be in there, but as they say, common sense isn’t so common.

    The thing is when talking about the US team, the thing that jumped out at me, even in the Conf Cup, was the lack of creativity from the guys up front. I felt like our defense was close to the level of Brazil or Spain, but our midfield couldn’t get possession, let alone maintain or do something with it in the second half of the final.

    Now obviously, you can’t blame the “target striker” philosophy for that directly. But if our talent pool is being geared to develop players to play that style of soccer and then you are forced to switch to another style because you completely lack the player to play the way you’ve trained, then you’ll be at a disadvantage. In some respects, when a team is as geared to play a certain way as the US has, it’s amazing they were able to do what they did in the Conf. Cup. Makes you wonder what some of those players could do if they actually went away from trying to find the next Brian McBride.

    Great stuff though. Love the insight.

  3. […] U.S. Gold Cup Statistics 2009 July 11 by Michael Inspired by Ryan’s excellent post Brian McBride and the Era of the Target Striker, we’re taking a look back at the McBride era.  We’ll start with the U.S. team stats […]

  4. […] A Look Back 2009 July 11 by Michael Ryan’s new post over at The Post, “Brian McBride and the Era of the Target Striker,”  got me curious:  how did the 2002 U.S. team led by Brian McBride up top compare with […]

  5. Another nice post Ryan.

    I would disagree in part with the comment that the target-striker philosophy isn’t directly responsible for a lack of creativity on the attack.

    The U.S. has the creativity on the bench to run good, ball possession attacks but the strategy keeps them off the field or out of the attacking third. When you put Ching or Altidore on an island and send the ball directly to them, you both eliminate any passing opportunities and keep the ball off the feet of your creative midfielders.

    And if you’re playing 1-0-9-1 like we do most second halves, our creative guys probably aren’t the best players for that formation.

  6. Bottom line to me is if you are going to play a target forward he has to be more creative than Ching is. Its very predictable when we play the ball to Ching and he isn’t versatile enough (he’s not going to be able to turn his defender or check to and then spin out with speed for a long run) to keep his defender honest. Target forwards in the Premier League, La Liga, or Serie A are much more creative in what they can and will do when they receive the ball. Think about guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovic (almost 6’4″), Didier Drogba (6’2″), Thierry Henry (6’2″), or Emmanuel Adebayor (6’3″.) They are not only able to play the role of a target striker being tall (-er than Ching) and strong but they are all known as very creative players with great footwork, speed, and exceptional passing. Which one of those do we get out of Ching? I don’t think the target forward is a broken system because with the right forward (one that can distribute to speedy players like Adu or Davies) it can be quite dangerous, but Ching only possesses the qualities of a pedestrian target forward. With him we are too one dimensional to be dangerous. With Jozy on the other hand we have a young kid who is as tall as Ching, uses his body well and is a much faster more dangerous striker whose defenders can’t just front him until he drops the ball. The decision should be fairly obvious to B. Bradley.

  7. espn should hire you. no. i am serious. you’re sick and their writers suck

  8. There is another reason Bradley uses Ching. He has 38 caps and 10 goals. The ten goals came in 9 wins and 1 draw. Only two of those games were friendlies. Ching is reasonably productive and his goals per game ratio is only a bit less than McBride’s. It’s a bit misleading to say having a good target man means only long balls out of the defense. The US has always been best with the quick counters either right down the middle or with a layoff from a cross on a breakaway down the wings. A good target man will draw coverage away from others and will wear down the central defenders. Ching does a lot of dirty work.

  9. Of those 10 goals, 40% were against Barbados or Trinidad, the rest were against Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, El Salvador, Cuba, and Venezuela – not exactly a who’s who of world soccer, is it?

    It should be noted, too, that most of those matches weren’t just wins, they were runaway blowouts. In fact, his 2 goals against Barbados were the 4th and 8th goals of the match.

    I think the misconception with Ching is that most of the soccer media here are pushing this idea that “Ching does the dirty work” and “Ching links up well with Donovan”, when in fact they’re just searching for something to say about him.

    Yes, he does some dirty work, but so do most strikers in the USA pool (ok, Conor Casey does not).

    Is that really what we’re happy to get from our starting forward: “Well, he does the dirty work”.

    One of my pet peeves right now is people trying to paint Ching is some incredible passer and this striker that is able to help launch counter-attacks in a USA shirt – he’s not either of those things.

    He’s a decent passer, yes, but everyone (at least everyone defending Ching) went overboard about the 1-2 pass with Feilhaber against Honduras. It was nice, but let’s not act like Ching turned into Paul Scholes there.

    It’s very evident that, when Ching is in the game, we play long ball. Just watch the games against Spain, Brazil, and Egypt, then watch games recently where Ching starts – the team plays markedly different. Instead of quick counter plays with the wings, we loft balls up to Ching.

    John, thanks for bringing a different viewpoint and writing a response. I appreciate it.

  10. Once again, spot on Ryan!

    Ching is just slightly better than Conor casey (who is in my definition a douchbag…I hate the fact he walks around for 80% of his time on the pitch).

  11. […] Brian McBride and the Era of the Target Striker — An excellent analysis of what McBride meant to the U.S. team and our quest to replace him.  Its author has now moved from his blog onto bigger and better venues. […]

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