Run of Play: You Want Me to Play Where?

Chelsey Bush April 26, 2017 12
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Kelley O’Hara is one of the most versatile players in NWSL (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Versatility. It’s the latest buzzword in soccer, heard over and over in commentary. Now more than ever, players are expected to be jacks of all trades. A forward can be a fullback can be a central midfielder. And on the 20-person NWSL rosters, versatility is a very valuable asset indeed. A few injuries coupled with an international absence or two, and suddenly depth is an issue. So you need those players who can fill a variety of holes.

Let’s talk about Kelley O’Hara. A forward in college, the Hermann Trophy winner set the record for goals scored at Stanford (to be broken the next year by Christen Press). Although called up to the national team as such, it became apparent that she wasn’t going to break into the Alex Morgan-Abby Wambach-Amy Rodriguez-Lauren Cheney (at that time) group, and she was already on her way into being converted into an outside back when injuries propelled her into the starting lineup at that spot, where she helped the team win gold at the 2012 Olympics. O’Hara has since spent much of her time in the NWSL at the same position.

You probably can’t find a better example of versatility than O’Hara’s role on Sky Blue last Sunday against Boston. She began the game as a forward alongside Sam Kerr, shifted back into the midfield, and then, when Kayla Mills was subbed off, dropped further into the backline. Now, I would argue that was the wrong move for a team that was down by a goal and struggling to form quality chances, and judging by her on-field reaction, O’Hara agreed. But the point is, she is perfectly capable of playing at any of those spots in this league.

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However, not all forwards have proven quite so adaptable.

Seattle’s Merritt Mathias was moved from forward to right back late last season and has continued to start in that position for both games this year. Though she contributes well to the attack and has the pace to return on defense, she has already given up two penalties in five games. It’s a poor rate within a short time span that one could argue has cost Seattle points. For other options, Laura Harvey now has Rebekah Stott on the bench, as well as Rachel Corsie, whose insertion could push Lauren Barnes out wide.

Forward Jamia Fields has lined up at right back for Orlando for the last two games, and it’s been an uphill battle. What makes this move particularly baffling is that Tom Sermanni has Ali Krieger, once known the best right back in the world, in central defense, while center backs Laura Alleway and Toni Pressley ride the bench. Unfortunately for Fields, she had to be subbed off late in the first half of last weekend’s game against Washington due to injury, shifting Krieger to outside back and subbing Alleway in her place. Despite the ill circumstances, the change in the game was almost instantaneously palpable on both sides of the field. Krieger was visibly more comfortable on defense and boosted the offense as well. While it may be unfair to compare someone brand new to the position with someone who has nearly a decade of international experience, the question remains as to why attempt the conversion in the first place.

Margaret Purce got an Ivy League education at Harvard and also became a 1st round pick in NWSL.

Margaret Purce was a goal-scoring machine at Harvard but made her NWSL debut in defense.

Rookie Margaret Purce, another forward, started the season at outside back in Boston’s first game and was immediately in over her head. To be fair, many would struggle against Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, and she certainly did. Fast forward one week, and Purce subbed in the second half as a striker. Right away, she juked Christie Pearce, of all people, and smacked a rocket off the crossbar, inches from doubling Boston’s lead. Boston’s backline was markedly better in the second game, proving that it helps to have actual defenders on defense. Julie King was still recovering from injury last week, so Purce was clearly not intended as a long-term defender, but it must be noted that even with a slew of draft picks, Matt Beard failed to build defensive depth and it shows.

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Converting a player is always tricky. Instincts have been honed for years, and it’s rare that they are ever truly overcome. Even in a successful case such as O’Hara, you can still see her tendency to go for goal (which is not a bad trait in a defender, at the right time). That said, sometimes it’s a matter of necessity – after all, there are only so many players, and someone has to be there. It’s early in the season yet, and for the next few weeks we’ll continue to see coaches experiment and tweak. Hopefully (for the sake of the goalkeepers who are performing so well) the defensive conversions go more smoothly than they have thus far.

  • AlexH

    The value of versatility varies inversely with your roster size. On a 23 you have the luxury of a 1 to 1 replacement for every position. You don’t need somebody that can play FWD, MF and CB on a team. However, the fewer people on the roster the more positions each player has to cover.
    The kind of versatility that is really important are from players that can respond to an in game emergency and make more stepwise adjustments (e.g., left mid to right mid, right back to right mid, CAM to withdrawn forward, etc.).

    • Steglitz49

      The Ajax and Dutch men’s teams of 45 years ago played what became known as Total Football. They also gave us the off-side-trap.

      Some say that Total Football was already played by the Great Turin team that perished in the aircraft crash in 1949.

      The fact that Total Football has not caught on, illustrates the difficulties of creating and melding together such a shape of soccer. Maybe the Golden Generation got the nearest too it in WoSo but I am far from persuaded.

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  • FawcettFan14

    Really good article. Like in nature, adaptation is sometimes necessary in order to stick around.

    As the author notes, players like Fields and Purce haven’t played fullback much if at all in their careers before now. O’Hara was given plenty of time to learn the position so of course she is better at it right now. She still isn’t an excellent defender positioning-wise (you can see a difference between her and Ali Krieger in that Krieger has a true defender’s mentality, knows how to close down angles, etc). But KO has improved a lot and she makes up for shortcomings with excellent fitness and hustle. And the attacking qualities are a plus.

    As for Mathias, she is way too much of a liability to play on defense. Her best NWSL play happened in KC, where she was the right midfielder in the 4-2-3-1. She could use her pace and power down the flank without the risk of giving away dangerous fouls. The center striker role in Seattle last year didn’t work either; she basically just took up space.

    • Steglitz49

      KO’s problem is that her club has not let her play in her left back position. If she cared enough, I guess KO could have signed for some team around the world to play LB. She’s got her WC winners medal, so why should she care in the twilight of her career, not least when her endorsement contracts depend on visibility in the USA.

  • Steglitz49

    When I saw the headline, I thought the “where” referred to which NWSL team a player was asked to go and play for and, as a corollary, which foreign club might hire her instead.

    Instead we walk over old ground, well trodden into a quagmire. Good grief!

  • #1Fan

    Is OB a defensive position in the modern game ?

    • Steglitz49

      It depends …

      The Nadeshiko outside backs King and Shark Island Girl used come up in attack and quite far up the field. German teams play that way a lot.

      If you chose that strategy, then the defence must be thoroughly disciplined. In Germany and Japan, usually, the 2 CBs move out and 2 MFs fall back, thus maintaining the 4 player backline. When the OBs return, the players sort themselves out.

      As Sweden proved in OG-16, a highly organised defence is key, however you use your OBs. Iceland’s men under Lagerbäck made the same point in the Euros.

      • AlexH

        Your explanation is why I think fullbacks are more trouble than they are worth in woso. Pushing up the FB requires a lot of moving parts to do so safely and the payoff is usually an overlapping run where the FB is near the end line. In broso the FB is in a position to drive in a hard cross but few in woso have that in their arsenal. Better to have a back 3 with a libero that can step into the attack when she deems the odds to be in her favor.

        • Steglitz49

          A 3 back line is too few in WoSo. The ladies need to be 4 to cover a standard soccer field.

          With attacking OB, you must configure your midfield so that the transitions become natural.

          How many NWSL clubs play on standard soccer sized fields?Grid-iron fields tend to be slightly narrower and a little bit shorter than soccer standard.
          — The reason I ask is that a difference between play in the NWSL and the various European leagues is the speed of play, judging by the videos. The players in the NWSL run a lot faster. At least it seems that way. If the field is narrower, then maybe you can get away with a 3-player back line.

    • DNG

      I would say that it still is a defensive position but attacking qualities are almost equally valuable and probably more so in certain teams.

    • ARED

      Haha, a good question. In the men’s game many teams can “defend” through possession -and from scoring enough goals to be worth conceding a few more also. I think the best still can defend, say Marcelo (I know some will say he cannot, but I disagree), but many teams value speed and attacking instincts more than traditional defenders (especially if they are slow).

      In WoSo it all varies, but the top teams are a bit similar I’d say….