San Francisco 49ers: Building a World Cup Team from the Starting Lineup
For this month, at least, American football has taken a backseat to actual football—soccer, if you’d prefer. The World Cup is in full swing down in Brazil, with the US Men’s National Team topping Ghana on Monday in a thrilling 2-1 finish.
With the beginning of the NFL season still months away, the World Cup is whetting my appetite for competition. Soccer features some of the best conditioned athletes on the planet, and it’s fun to imagine what they would do in other sports.
Could Italy’s Mario Balotelli fit in on Seattle’s Legion of Boom? How would England’s Wayne Rooney serve as a slot receiver? Brazil’s Hulk could turn into a linebacker, right? Great athletes could excel in many sports if they had started playing them rather than soccer as kids.
Similarly, if soccer was as big in the US as it is elsewhere in the world, you’d see top NFL stars plying their trade on the soccer pitch. There’s nothing stopping an athlete like Larry Fitzgerald or Rob Gronkowski from being excellent soccer stars if they had the same years of training at that sport as they do in the NFL.
In this slideshow, we’re going to take a tongue-in-cheek look at how a soccer squad made up of San Francisco 49ers would shake out. If the 49ers played in MLS rather than the NFL, how would they configure their starting lineup?
We’re only considering offensive and defensive starters for this list. That means Andy Lee and Phil Dawson, though obvious choices because they work with their feet for a living, will not make the lineup. By only considering starters, we’re also avoiding a lineup consisting of five receivers, five running backs and a tight end—this allows a little more variety in the starting lineup, even if it’s not as “ideal” for a soccer team.
Let’s see who coach Jim Harbaugh would send out in his starting XI.
Goalie: Anquan Boldin
With only one player on the pitch actually able to use his hands, it makes sense to send out the player with the surest hands on the roster.
Anquan Boldin’s getting up there in age, and his speed’s not what it used to be. That’s fine in goal, as he won’t exactly be required to run up and down the pitch. Instead, imagine him on corner kicks, leaping up in traffic to pull down crosses and deflect the ball away from leaping forwards. There’s not a better player on the team catching balls in traffic; Boldin’s going to out-leap strikers and keep goals on set pieces down to a minimum.
Great goalies are all about positioning themselves in the box, and ensuring they’re in the right place at the right time. That fits Boldin’s game to a tee. He has the coolness to handle the pressure of penalty kicks, too. This is the easiest decision to make on the roster.
Center-Backs: Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks
The primary responsibilities of the center-backs are to simply stop opposing players from scoring and to push the ball back upfield. They’re the ones making the last-gasp saving tackles to prevent scoring runs and maintaining the defensive composure.
Do you want to run into the box and find Patrick Willis standing there? The 49ers’ heart and soul on defense would find the shift to a soccer mindset rather simple—only now, he’s responsible for stopping 180-pound forwards instead of 250-pound tight ends.
Willis excels in both man-to-man coverage and zone coverage, and the center-back position requires both skills: either man-marking or zonal defending. His combination of strength and concentration makes him an ideal candidate.
At only 6’1”, he’s not the ideal height for the position, and that’s where Ahmad Brooks comes in. At 6’4”, Brooks is the tallest of San Francisco’s linebackers. He also proved he had some aerial ability by leaping over Carolina’s offensive line last season.
All in all, a formidable duo.
Full-Backs: Chris Culliver and Eric Reid
At the outside defensive positions, you’re looking for a lot of the same attributes you want in your center-backs, but with an added emphasis on playmaking ability. You’ll often see the best full-backs making runs down into the offensive side of the field on the overlap.
Still, the primary role is to physically obstruct opposing offensive players, marking them in coverage and jockeying for position. That sounds like a job for the defensive backs.
Chris Culliver is one of the fastest players the 49ers have, as he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the combine in 2011, with a 38-inch vertical jump. He should be able to keep up with the top strikers that come his way. On the other side, Eric Reid is more of a physical player, but he also showed good coverage ability in his rookie season.
Both players can be threats too when they get the ball, so they have the offensive oomph to play as a modern full-back, coming to join in on the counterattack when they strip possession from the other team.
Defensive Midfielder: NaVorro Bowman
Lining up in front of the duo of Willis and Brooks will be arguably the best player on San Francisco’s defense, NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman has great anticipation, and that’s key for a defensive midfielder. He’s responsible for the zone right in front of the defense and shutting down runs before they become scoring threats. Bowman has sideline-to-sideline speed to track down opposing players and close them out.
The defensive midfielder is often the backbone of the team, and that’s a responsibility Bowman’s more than equipped to take on. Sitting him in the back of a diamond means he doesn’t need to be quite as explosive as a typical midfielder, so his tenacity, toughness and ability to diagnose and shut down plays before they begin can shine.
Wide Midfielders: Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore
Ideally, we’d have quick, shifty players to take over these positions—think Bruce Ellington or LaMichael James. Since we’re limiting ourselves to starters, however, we’re at a little bit of a handicap. The 49ers don’t really have a speedy starter to take the top off the defense, making finding midfielders a difficult task.
We’re looking for players who will beat the full-backs one-on-one in the offensive half of the field, so we’ll take Michael Crabtree and let him work on them as he’d work on a cornerback, angling for position and using double-moves to slip into open areas of the field.
We’re also looking for players with the toughness and tenacity to be the first line of defense and prevent counterattacks, so we’ll start the aging Frank Gore out on the other side in a slightly more defensive position. Coach Harbaugh would probably take him off the pitch late in the game for a more dynamic attacker, but Gore’s got the toughness to roam the field, drift wide and find holes in the defense.
Attacking Midfielder: Colin Kaepernick
Did you see Colin Kaepernick shredding the Green Bay Packers’ defense with his legs the past two seasons? That’s what we’re looking for here. We’re looking for fast players who can cover lots of ground without tiring and become a threat with possession of the ball. That fits Kaepernick to a tee.
Our attacking midfielder needs the skill to slip past people in a one-on-one situation, as well as good pace and composure to handle the pressure put on by the oncoming defenders. Kaepernick’s scrambling ability would translate well to the pitch, weaving through defending players and making quick passes to find holes in the defense.
On the US squad, this position is held down by Michael Bradley, and it’s the lynchpin of the entire US squad. Similarly, Kaepernick’s playmaking ability and creativity with the ball will allow him to orchestrate San Francisco’s offense and create havoc in the box.
Forwards: Vernon Davis and Stevie Johnson
Vernon Davis is a wild card, as he’s a freak of a physical athlete. He could be slotted almost anywhere in the lineup without too much of a stretch. With his back to the goal, Davis can box out opposing center-backs and become a huge target for passes into the middle of the defense. He’s also strong enough to hold on to the ball in the box, allowing his teammates to move up the field and bring more weapons into the attack.
Stevie Johnson was brought in to the 49ers to add another offensive weapon, and that’s just what he would do on the soccer pitch, as well. He’s responsible for peeling off of defenders with good moves and getting himself into goal-scoring position. Again, this would be more ideal for a faster player, but Johnson’s the best the 49ers have. He’s got an eye for touchdowns, and hopefully, that translates into an eye for goals.
With Jozy Altidore going down with a hamstring injury against Ghana, perhaps there's still time! Vernon, if you're going to skip minicamp, fly down to Brazil and save the US Men's National Team!
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.