Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Red Pill or the Blue?

I am sliding my Top 5'er to the morning, so we can get everyone introduced to the new NSC hand, Johannes de Jong. As you've probably guessed by the name, he's half-Dutch. He plays left back and he discusses things at length. And now, the floor is his for the first time...


No, (unfortunately) I’m not sitting down in conversation with Lawrence Fishburne; I don’t have special powers; and I’m not mankind’s last and only hope. Like that famous scene from the Matrix, however, I am arched back in my burgundy leather armchair cheap mesh office chair, confronted by a dilemma: How will José Francisco Torres figure into Bob Bradley's team? And what will that say about US soccer?

Fresh off of a stellar showing for the US in the 2-1 win over Turkey, Torres has aroused significant hype. His technical play awoke the easily excited Big Soccer monster, and has led to numerous calls across the board for a prominent role in the finals. Of course, this is a very welcome headache – one that US soccer isn’t used to. It signifies a level of depth like never before.

The Torres selection question, however, registers on many more levels than merely a decision of personnel. The tiny (5ft5”) Mexican-based playmaker has been schooled in a football culture that doesn’t discriminate as intensely on frame size. Manchester United recently plucked Javier Hernandez from the Mexican Leagues – the striker nicknamed, of all things, “the little pea” (El Chicharito); and some of the biggest names to hail from south of the border – like Giovani Dos Santos, Andrés Guardado and Pavel Pardo – have barely towered above the mid 5ft range.

Small stature doesn’t have to be a limitation, just look at the roughly 5ft7” Barcelona midfield/attack! But, talking about Torres as a starter treads into a question about style and soccer identity. He’s a very Spanish player in his approach, who likes to play the ball along the ground and accent his passing and close control with an element of flair and individualism. For a US team born out of well-drilled college programs and modeled largely after the Northern European styles – where the game is more tactical, machinated, physical and collective in its approach, a pint-sized flair player is an unusual inclusion. This is a team that used to hoof and hope, and bank on brute to get results. In South Africa, it stands at a crossroads.

Past and perhaps future USMNT managerial candidate Jürgen Klinsmann recently discussed the need of the country to find its own identity and voice as a soccer nation. In some sense, Torres might force the issue... but most likely as the fulcrum of the next cycle.

Including Torres in the current starting XI would be a signal of intent for more reckless attack. There is nothing to say that it couldn't be successful. An Everton side featuring Landon Donovan out wide and Steven Pienaar playing in a central role - who is somewhat similar to Torres in build and style - coolly grabbed results against Arsenal and both Manchester powerhouses. But with major concerns over the form and fitness of the US back-line overhanging team preparations, and opponents like England brimming full of goal threat - particularly from midfield, the more conservative approach is not without its merit.

After four years of patiently crafting a team around balance, work ethic and a defensively postured 4-4-2, accommodating a tactic-altering player at such a late stage is unlikely to happen. Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu fit more seamlessly as the prime candidates to pair Michael Bradley in the middle. Both are blessed with athleticism and physical presence, and would afford wide players like Dempsey and Donovan greater freedom to move forward on the counter - again in keeping with Bradley's approach. On the other hand, Torres - who boasts less versatility than a player like Stuart Holden - will likely figure in as a game-changing option off the bench.

South Africa could prove to be the perfect test drive for the man called El Gringo, and the dividing line for the national team as it carves out its own identity from within its melting pot of styles and players.


Johannes de Jong

11 comments:

strago said...

It's a tough question especially with the World Cup this close. But…

I would argue Torres doesn't change our style, which unlike Klinsy, I think is absorbing pressure and then counter attacking or attacking from set pieces. I think El Gringo allows us to play closer to our true identity so in that sense I agree with you. Look at we did when we were so successful last summer. We absorbed pressure from Spain and Brazil and then we were off to the races. The USA doesn’t have the personnel to play a possession style and you very well may say that Torres posses the skills to do that. He certainly does, but he has also adapted his game from a left midfielder to a deep lying playmaker. He has a calming influence on the team and settles everyone down. For the past 2 years, I have been saying he is one of the most talented players on the squad. His problem, Bob’s problem, has always been how to fit him into Bob’s system. Based on the past 2 matches, I would say we have the answer to that problem.

Torres is so quick to see passing angles to relieve the pressure on our defense. I re-watched every touch he had (and the 2nd half of the game) to see the difference he made. Even his little 1-2 touches with Bradley opened space for the rest of the team and to relieve the pressure. His touch also allows Bradley to also go marauding into the box and play the position he does for Borussia. Torres played an excellent defensive half and if he is showing this way in practice, I can’t see how you can put Edu or Clark in over him.

Welcome aboard Johannes de Jong and can you fill in for us at left back during the cup? 

doorworker said...

nice.
Like strago's take better, though.

Carr said...

Nice insight, great to have you aboard.

Matt said...

Welcome aboard. Interesting analysis. Can you ask your brother to apologize for breaking stuart's leg? That was not nice of him...

Chad said...

Looking forward to reading more from you Johannes. Great first piece.

over there said...

I think Torres might get roughed by a physical team like England, and Edu is a better choice for the opener. Against Algeria, where we need to settle, focus, and control the tempo, he would be an inspired choice. I look forward to seeing him mesh with the rest of theam. He has the potential to really positively change the dynamics of the team.

chrisa said...

It's too bad that Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna were pint-sized flair players and unusual inclusions in the past 4 US World Cup teams. We would have had much better results if it wasn't for them. After all, if they were taller and physical and cornfed, Tab wouldn't have been elbowed in the head, Reyna wouldn't have disappeared against Germany in 98 or been dispossessed against Ghana. I know this is your first piece but really?

Greg Seltzer said...

Heh. Welcome to NSC, Johannes! Better watch what you say, sucka! :D

To be fair, chrisa, I'd hardly consider Reyna to be pint-sized, and both those guys played a more physical game than does Torres.

Patrick said...

If the question is, "do you change your entire game plan for a player that doesn't even play in a major league," then the answer is obviously no. But if the question is, "is the US better with Torres than Clark?" then the answer is more debatable. I'm not sure the US has a game plan to change. I'd also stop worrying about matching up with England, we don't. We should be more fixated on getting 6 points from the other two games.

andu said...

And here, I thought from the introduction that Greg had gone off and found a late inclusion to solve our left back "problem"....

Johannes said...

@ Chrisa: Reyna has a significantly more robust build, tops over Torres by nearly 4 inches, and cultured his game in three highly physical top leagues. I'd quite comfortably maintain that they offer a very different proposition ---> a bit like contrasting Luka Modric and Wilson Palacios at Spurs.

@ Matt: Nigel and I are about as related as are all of the Smiths of the world. ;)