By Jon Levy
The following is the second in a four part series comparing the 2011 Gold Cup rosters of the two “giants of CONCACAF.”
The Yanks: Carlos Bocanegra (St. Etienne), Jonathan Bornstein (Tigres), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Oguchi Onyewu (Twente), Tim Ream (Red Bulls), Jonathan Spector (West Ham)
El Tri: Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls), Carlos Salcido (Fulham), Héctor Moreno (AZ Alkmaar), Francisco Javier Rodríguez (PSV Eindhoven), Ricardo Osorio (Monterrey), Edgar Dueñas (Toluca), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres)… and sometimes Efraín Juárez (Celtic)
This was a tough position set to break down, since neither the US nor Mexico fields a settled back line that consistently plays together. They don’t even field a pair of center backs that have a cohesive and effective understanding of each other, unless you want to hearken back to Gooch and Boca in 2007/08.
Furthermore, each team’s distinctive style of play creates different responsibilities for its backs. The US let’s defenders get set up; it’s then on them if they want to have a major defensive lapse, which happens too frequently. The Mexican style has defenders sprinting back towards the ball more often than they’d like, but the El Tri D-men on a whole haven’t exactly shown themselves to be decision-making world beaters when they’re back in their own zone anyway.
In the end, the result for Mexico boiled down to El Tri’s edge at one position being larger than the Yanks edge at the other.
Center Backs: A quick glance at both rosters gives the US the edge in this category, four quality center backs to three. I wish we could just close the book there. But then I’d open myself up to all these pessimistic detractors who’d point out “harsh realities” like the fact that neither team plays a five man backline; therefore, only two center backs get to play at any given time. Naysayers, always nay saying!
Fair enough. The numbers themselves do not give the Yanks the advantage, and the news gets worse. Even at this stage in his career, Rafa Márquez is probably the best central defender on either team. He’s certainly playing Darth Vader to Tim Ream’s Luke Skywalker on the Red Bulls, but the two haven’t quite progressed to the final scene in Jedi just yet. I just hope Ream doesn’t have to lose an arm in this tournament to get there.
The Marquez news isn’t all bad for the USA though. Rafa is now 32 and coming off a groin strain. He’s proven to be injury prone in the second half of his career (as many players do), and a hobbled capitan would prove a major liability for Mexico. American fans saw Oguchi Onyewu perform below his usual level at last summer’s World Cup whilst still recovering from an injury, and even this season he’s been oft injured and rarely 100% healthy. The difference is, one can make an argument that even a healthy Gooch isn’t in the Yanks’ starting lineup; no such argument can be made about Mexico’s former Barca man.
Marquez’s possible partners, or the go-to defensive pairing in the event of a Rafa injury or midfield deployment, are still in their twenties but are already Eredivisie veterans. Francisco Rodríguez plays for PSV Eindhoven, and was a starter at the 2010 World Cup. Meanwhile, 23 year old Héctor Moreno already has 80 appearances for AZ Alkmaar and 18 Mexico caps, including one start in the World Cup. The Netherlands based pair gives El Tri better CB options than in previous Gold Cups, but then again, the Dutch league isn’t known for hardened and responsible defenders. Mexico boss De La Torre knows what he’s got in Rodríguez, and the jury’s still out on Moreno’s upside, but it doesn’t look like the next Rafa Marquez is walking through the Azteca doors anytime soon.
The American view on the central defense is a bit rosier, if you can look past the lack of top level international experience between Ream and Clarence Goodson. US Captain Carlos Bocanegra is always an option in the middle, but could be deployed out wide, and Gooch’s fitness remains in question. So one or both of the less experienced center halves will probably be called on to start in the Gold Cup. Ream has three caps, and while Goodson has 17, his only tournament experience was with the B team (actually a C team) in the 2009 Gold Cup. USMNT fans will take heart in the fact that the inexperienced defenders have both been in good form with their club teams, and have thus far done the job for the stars and stripes when called upon.
Despite having the best North American center back (when healthy) on the roster, El Tri is going to lose the CB battle in our book, but only by the slimmest of margins.
Fullbacks: The American defensive flanks will once again tell the same old left and right, rags and riches story we here at The Yanks Are Coming have had the burden of chronicling since the blog’s inception in 2008. Right back is a paragon of strength. The Mayor of Hannover, Steven Cherundolo, is probably the best side back in the tournament. Behind him, Jonathan Spector has played his best USMNT matches as a right back, and speed demon Eric Lichaj seems primed to take the RB reins when Stevie retires (or battle with Timmy Chandler at the very least). A mere 50 yards away, the left back position is a question mark at best, and a glaring weakness at its worst. Captain Carlos is a responsible option, but he provides little to no offensive threat in the run of play, and a start at LB means he can’t marshal the central defense. Bob Bradley and Honduras favorite Jonathan Bornstein is always an adventure in his own defensive end, and despite possessing great speed, his forward runs rarely create offensive opportunities or culminate in good service. Bobbo did allude to Lichaj’s recent spell on the left at club level, but having watched Spector play the position wrong footed two years ago with West Ham, I’m naturally approaching the idea with skepticism about everything from his defending, to his dribbling and service. Here’s hoping he turns out to be the second coming of Phillip Lahm.
The Mexicans have no such talent discrepancy between there flanks. They have a couple solid side back specialists in their early 30’s, and two exciting players in their early 20’s who are capable of taking over either now or later. The elder statesmen, Carlos Salcido and Ricardo Osorio, provide El Tri with defensive stability on the left and right wings respectively. They’re also both pacey for their age, and could facilitate ignition-level ball movement for the Mexico offense in their sleep. Meanwhile, Salcido’s 23 year old successor to be, Jorge Torres Nilo, just scored his first goal for the national team and is successfully keeping Jon Bornstein on the bench at Tigres. On the right, Celtic midfielder Efraín Juárez proved his right back pedigree by starting every game in the 2009 Gold Cup, and playing every minute of the tournament. That excellent display catapulted Juárez to a starting role on the right side of Mexico’s midfield in the 2010 World Cup, but manager De La Torre will remember the job that Efraín can do at wing back should El Tri need more offense.
As with our analysis of the central defenders, the advantage at fullback counter-intuitively swings away from the team in possession of the best defender in the group. Sorry Stevie C, blame the left flank. Mexico gets the point.
As always, we at The Yanks Are Coming encourage your comments and discussion! Check back soon for the third in our four part series, “Stuck In the Middle With You?”
Jon Levy is Associate Editor and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.
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