Home Guard Metrics: 3 Weeks and Counting
With just under three weeks to go before United States Men's National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must submit his preliminary World Cup roster to FIFA, the key members of the MLS Home Guard are beginning to round into form.
Clint Dempsey returned from his two-game suspension with fire in his belly and TNT in his boots. The USMNT front man has notched five goals and two assists in the Seattle Sounders' last three games to finally curb USMNT fans' anxieties.
Michael Bradley sat out Toronto FC's 0-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids but returned to put in a full 90-minute shift in a losing effort at FC Dallas. It does not appear that Bradley's knee knock will hinder his World Cup preparations.
We'll look at all of Major League Soccer's World Cup hopefuls in this edition of the Home Guard by focusing on the players' metrics from the early stages of the 2014 MLS campaign.
Each World Cup candidate is categorized by the position he plays in Klinsmann's base 4-2-3-1 system: forwards (including the "withdrawn" forward), central midfielders, center backs, wing-backs (full backs/outside backs) and wing-forwards (outside midfielders). Bear in mind that some of the Home Guard play different positions for Klinsmann than they do for their MLS club, and we'll use each player's projected first position with the USMNT.
Different groups of metrics are given for each position. The list of all reported metrics includes:
- MP: Minutes Played
- SC%: Scoring Chances converted (Shots/Goals)
- G/90: Goals per 90 minutes played
- S/90: Shots per 90 minutes played (Shots and Shots on Goal)
- A/90: Assists per 90 minutes played
- Pass%: Passing Percentage (Completed Passes/Total Passes)
- Cross%: Crossing Percentage (Successful Crosses/Total Crosses)
- Tch/TO: Ratio of Total Touches to Turnovers
- Def/90: Defensive Plays per 90 minutes played (Tackles, Blocks, Interceptions, Clearances, Recoveries)
All of the raw data for the computed metrics come from the MLS game "Chalkboards" published by MLSSoccer.com.
The introduction of young gun Julian Green to the Nats' player pool could very well mean that only one MLS forward makes the final World Cup roster. We might expect two or even three MLS forwards on the preliminary 30-man World Cup roster, but it's a safe bet that Klinsmann will only take in-form strikers with him to Brazil.
Eddie Johnson leads the stable of forwards in minutes, played but these minutes have not translated into goals, assists or even shots. It's not as if the DC United forward isn't getting service as he also leads the group in total touches with 434.
Chris Wondolowski has made the most of his 316 touches by doubling Johnson's shot-rate. His overall production is superior to Johnson's but lags behind the torrid form of Klinsmann's captain, Dempsey.
Wondolowski is still making Klinsmann's decision difficult and if Klinsmann is going to take a second MLS striker, the metrics say that Wondo is in more effective form than EJ.
There is a lot of speculation of where Landon Donovan will line up for Klinsmann in Brazil. He's been used mostly as a winger when Klinsmann has other options, though Donovan did start and play every game at the withdrawn forward in last summer's Gold Cup.
A look at Donovan's metrics reveals that his crossing ability is currently utilized by the LA Galaxy. Donovan has attempted 32 crosses this season while the top crossing forward listed on the previous page is Wondolowski with a meager five attempts.
Donovan's crossing percentage is also comparable to "natural" winger Graham Zusi, only without the turnovers and poor passing percentage. Both players are producing on the scoreboard, but Zusi's poor possession metrics suggest a poor fit with Klinsmann's possession tactics.
Zusi's pace and scoring production will still earn him a trip to Brazil, likely in a late-sub role.
Brad Davis is well-known for accurate deliveries from the wing, but he has missed the last two games for the Houston Dynamo, putting his already slim World Cup hopes at risk.
Klinsmann's preferred tandem for the two holding midfielders has been Michael Bradley and European-based Jermaine Jones. The two usually pivot off of each other with one going forward and the other dropping back.
In the recent friendly against Mexico, however, Klinsmann tried a diamond midfield with a dedicated lone defensive midfielder and Michael Bradley as a lone attacking midfielder. The combination worked well as Bradley has considerable distribution skills combined with his ability to break up plays before they even reach the Nats' defense.
Kyle Beckerman appeared to play well as the lone d-mid, but if you look closely at replays of the two Mexican goals you will see that Beckerman errors contributed to both. On the first goal center back Omar Gonzalez was picked off the goal scorer; it was Beckerman's man who set the pick, and Beckerman didn't switch or even show off of the screen to help his obstructed teammate.
The second Mexican goal was scored by a late runner with the center backs contending with the primary runs. The defensive midfielder is responsible for tracking the late runs but Beckerman was positioned with the back-four on the front line and could not react in time to stop the pulled-back pass or the cross-goal shot.
Goals are never a single player's fault, however, and Beckerman is still one of Klinsmann's favorites because of his work rate. Still, Klinsmann will probably take only one dedicated defensive midfielder and one dedicated attacking midfielder to back up his preferred duo of Bradley and Jones with utility man Geoff Cameron adding depth.
Norwegian-based Mix Diskerud will most likely get the nod as the dedicated a-mid, so that leaves one midfielder spot, and Beckerman is currently top of that depth chart.
Demonstrating the total depth of the U.S. player pool, Philadelphia Union's Maurice Edu is pushing Beckerman for that last central midfield spot. Edu's metrics are comparable with both Beckerman and Bradley, and Edu adds the versatility to play center back if necessary. He moved back to MLS to get more playing time and has played every minute of every game for Philly.
In Klinsmann's system the two outside defenders are expected to make significant contributions to the offense. They overlap with the wing-forwards providing width and service from the flanks.
For this reason Klinsmann converted two outside midfielders to wing-back—Brad Evans and DaMarcus Beasley. Even with these additions the wing-back pool is the shallowest of any position for the Nats, and recent injuries to Evans and Beasley make the situation even more tenuous.
This means that there is still a possibility for a Home Guard wing-back to sneak onto the Brazilian-bound plane.
Michael Parkhurst plays more of a traditional defensive full-back for the Columbus Crew, where he moved specifically to gain more playing time in the hopes of impressing Klinsmann and his coaching staff. Parkhurst is an excellent passer in the possession game and is very active defensively.
With the U.S. facing three teams in the group phase with outstanding attacking wingers, it is conceivable that Klinsmann will select a couple of more defensive minded wing-backs for his final roster.
Seattle Sounders' DeAndre Yedlin is a young talent with good speed and decent crossing skills. With recent success in his last two national team call-ups, Yedlin has moved into consideration for a World Cup roster spot. His deliveries are on par with Evans, and he is more active defensively than Evans.
Evans' metrics come with the caveat that he doesn't play on the back line for the Sounders and thus would not have as many opportunities as Parkhurst and Yedlin to make defensive plays. He also missed several games through injury returning just last weekend as a late substitute.
Klinsmann could take as few as three regular center backs to Brazil and all of them will come from the Home Guard.
England-based Geoff Cameron will add depth, and Klinsmann may include another player, like Maurice Edu, who can play in the central defense in addition to their regular position.
The European-based center backs did not impress against Ukraine. It is a bit unfair to judge them on that one performance, particularly since they have never played together before.
Unit cohesiveness, however, is one of the primary reasons that all three center backs could come from MLS. Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Clarence Goodson have all participated in several USMNT camps together in addition to playing in some combination for most of the Nats' World Cup qualifiers.
Besler appears to be the top of the depth chart, but who he pairs with may not be answered until the starting lineups are released an hour before each group game. Each player brings something slightly different to the central defense, so Klinsmann's decision could be based as much on the particular game's matchups as it does on their playing form.
Besides, all three players are having pretty good MLS seasons thus far.