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The Lowdown: What’s in a defensive midfielder?

Desiree Scott, Canada

Many consider Shannon Boxx the best defensive midfielder in NWSL, but injuries have limited her play this season. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti | http://www.printroom.com/pro/psgiobetti)

Early in the Western New York Flash’s win over Sky Blue FC on Sunday, Angela Salem stepped in front of a lazy ball from Christie Rampone and quickly sent it back upfield, where Abby Wambach ran on and eventually passed to Carli Lloyd for the first of three Flash goals.  It was another goal with the fingerprints of the stars on it — goal for Lloyd, assist to Wambach.  But the genesis of the goal was the aggressive play by Salem, who has spent the season patrolling the defensive midfield for Aaran Lines’ Flash squad.

“I saw Abby peel out,” Salem said.  “She’s so good at making the right runs.”

Salem may have been deflecting praise to Wambach, but the midfield play of Salem, who turns 26 on Wednesday, has been an underappreciated element of the Flash’s success this season.  The play also represented what many agree is part of an evolution of the most inconspicuous position on a soccer pitch: Defensive midfielder.

“I guess in the past when people think of defensive mids they think of us as more of a physical presence,” Salem said.  “I think the modern day defensive mid now is more of a playmaker and pretty technical.”

Rory Dames coaches the Chicago Red Stars and also runs Eclipse Select Soccer Club in the Chicago area. He sees this changing even in the younger ranks.

“The game at the youth level has evolved a lot,” Dames said.  “A lot of teams now are playing with three in the center of the midfield and the three are pretty versatile.   There is a lot of interchanging at the youth level.  The top teams have three that can do both and based on where the ball is they interchange.  I think that’s probably the next evolution of where the game is going to go.”

Some NWSL clubs have gone with rotating midfields in 2013.  Sky Blue looked like they would use Sophie Schmidt and Brittany Bock interchangeably, but Bock got hurt and Schmidt stayed in an attacking role while Manya Makoski became the holding midfielder.  Recently the Reign have used a midfield of Christine Nairn, Keelin Winters, and Jessica Fishlock with the three alternating roles and the latter two especially acting as defensive midfielders.

“It’s like the engine,” said Desiree Scott, who shares holding midfield duties in Kansas City with Jen Buczkowski.  “It’s the further behind the scenes work that no one really notices you do.  You see the back line and you see your attacking midfielders and strikers but (defensive midfield) is sort of that position in between that gets mixed in the mix and doesn’t usually get a lot of recognition.”

Scott and Buczkowski have teamed up to help make FC Kansas City one of the better defensive teams in the league.  A few times when the team has needed central defense help Buczkowski has dropped back, leaving Scott as the lone defensive mid.

“It’s a lot more work,” Scott laughed, agreeing with a comparison that playing two holding midfielders is somewhat akin to a center back pairing.  “Playing with two, it sort of cuts that in half.  You know when you can’t get there you know the other defensive midfielder will be there with you.  It’s more of a partnership.  I enjoy it.”

In Boston, Lisa Cole has used veteran Joanna Lohman and rookie Mariah Nogueira together much of the season.  But against Sky Blue two weeks ago she pulled Nogueira from the starting lineup and left Lohman alone.  The new shape frustrated Sky Blue, especially early.

“I think it depends on the quality of the player playing that position and their mobility because it is a lot of work,” Cole said.  “And if you want to be able to rotate forward or start with more players high or attacking.  Against Sky Blue we wanted to go ahead and go after them.  Against other teams, especially when they have two quality center forwards we want to make sure we clog that space a little bit more.”

Dames believes defensive midfield is the second most crucial spot on the field after goalkeeper.  Cole is not so sure, deferring to outside back.

“I think you can have a holding midfielder than can play on one side of the ball or the other and get away with it,” she said.  “I don’t know that you can do that at outside back.”

Cole is on board with Dames when it comes to the position evolving.  Where most of them are refugees from elsewhere on the field, that trend is slowly starting to change.

“I don’t think it’s a position players appreciate yet, but I think it’s getting there.”

One player who enjoys the position is Scott, who is recognized as the best in NWSL, especially in the absence of Shannon Boxx.  Says the Canadian:  “I love the position that I play.”

Dames, who signed Leslie Osborne as a free agent to play with Boxx only to see the latter spend most of the season injured, said all of his best youth teams have been aided by top defensive midfielders.

“I can tell you on the youth teams that I’ve had in the Eclipse Club that have been able to win national championships, every one of them we’ve had a legitimate, big-time holding midfielder.”

Playoff races

The table tightened at the top over the weekend while the Breakers suffered a devastating defeat that crippled their playoff chances.  They stand better than the Spirit though, the first team officially eliminated from contention.  FC Kansas City stand an outside chance of locking up the first playoff berth by the end of the weekend.  Here is a closer look:

Sky Blue FC (9-4-4, 31 pts)
Max points:  46
This Week: vs. Kansas City (Sun)

Sky Blue have now suffered three of their four losses to the Flash, who drubbed them 3-0 on Sunday afternoon in Rochester.  Jim Gabarra shook up the lineup and the results were not there.  Now the month-long leaders could be out of the penthouse by the time they take the field again, and they concede a match in hand to the 2nd-place Thorns.  Their midfield has struggled in the last two games, and this weekend’s opponent is firing on all cylinders there.

Portland Thorns FC (9-4-3, 30 pts)
Max points:  48
This Week: vs. Red Stars (Sun)

Meleana Shim, who signed with the Thorns after being passed over in the draft, has now scored the team’s two most important goals of the season.  She secured a point against the Flash two weeks ago with the equalizer that snapped a 331-minute drought for the team.  Sunday in Boston, Shim connected on the 86th minute game-winner to snap the club’s four-match winless run.  The Thorns now have a higher max point potential than any of their competitors.

FC Kansas City (8-4-5, 29 pts)
Max points:  44
This Week: vs. Breakers (Wed); at Sky Blue (Sun)

Master class performances from Lauren Holiday (nee Cheney) and Erika Tymrak guided the Blues to a 2-0 win over in-form Seattle.  Both teams arrived with six-match unbeaten streaks, the Blues’ now at seven with some of the bad taste from blowing the late lead in Chicago wiped away.  A win over Boston on Wednesday will send them to New Jersey in 1st place.   A trip to Portland looms in early August.  Though they sit 3rd, FC Kansas City control their own path to the top.  And they can be the first team to clinch if they win both matches this week, if the Breakers lose in Washington, and the Red Stars lose in Portland.

Western New York Flash (7-3-6, 27 pts)
Max points:  42
This Week:  idle

The Flash returned home after playing eight of 10 on the road and looked rejuvenated in their dismantling of Sky Blue.  More home cooking lies ahead with only one more road game—a short trip to Boston—remaining during the regular season.  Aaran Lines’ squads have peaked late to win league titles the last three seasons so don’t be surprised if this one does something similar.

Chicago Red Stars (6-6-4, 22 pts)
Max points:  40
This Week:  at Reign (Thu); at Thorns (Sun)

Once 0-4-2, the Red Stars are 6-2-2 in their last 10 and are at .500 for the first time.  Their head coach, Rory Dames, insists they are just trying to get better and win games and not worrying about the table.  If they were it might have been deflating that the Thorns, Blues, and Flash all won on the weekend, keeping them five points off the pace.  The good news is they passed the Breakers so the Red Stars are now the lead chasers.  The Pacific Northwest double looms.

Boston Breakers (5-6-5, 20 pts)
Max points:  38
This Week:  at Kansas City (Wed); at Spirit (Sat)

Lisa Cole admitted that, “nothing went well for us this weekend.”  That includes a poor performance and result at home to the Thorns and the other three results all going the wrong way for them.  The dust will settled with the Breakers 7 pts. adrift of the Flash, which means they will need help to catch them even if they win both head-to-head contests next month.

Seattle Reign FC (4-10-3, 15 pts)
Max points:  30
This Week:  at Kansas City (Sat)

Looking for a different performance against FC Kansas City, the revamped Reign were shutout for the 4th time in as many tries, halting their six-game unbeaten streak and quieting many of the overzealous whispers about the team making a late surge to reach the playoffs.  They can’t be officially eliminated this weekend, but they have one foot out of the door.

Washington Spirit (1-11-4, 7 pts – eliminated from playoff contention)
Max points:  25
This Week:  vs Breakers (Sat)

With Ali Krieger unavailable due to concussion symptoms, Mark Parsons tried out Tiffany McCarty at right back.  The experiment took a cruel turn when McCarty’s own goal stood as the only score in a 1-0 loss to the Red Stars.  The Spirit are now 0-4-1 under Parsons and officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Where are the goals coming from?

No midweek action but everyone played on the weekend with the four games producing nine goals. Here’s how the goals break down, with Week 15 totals in parenthesis:

Allocated players – 82 (3)*
United States – 49 (3)*; Canada – 20* ; Mexico – 13
College Draft – 16 (1)
Free Agent – 43 (3) *
Supplemental Draft – 14
Discovery et al. 13 (1)
Own Goals – 3 (1)

*-Includes goals scored by players who have joined other teams since originally joining the league

Note:  Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

— Jill Loyden made her NWSL debut as part of the Sky Blue lineup changes Sunday.  Though Loyden gave up three goals in a loss, she made several big saves, an indicator that she may be ready to take the load heading to postseason.  Brittany Cameron had started every game before Sunday, first ascending to the job when Loyden broke her hand in pre-season.

— Pamela Tajonar made her NWSL debut in goal in the same game when she replaced Adrianna Franch in the 88th minute.  Tajonar is a Mexican allocation but lost out to Franch, who had played every minute up to that point.

— With Franch dropping out of the perfect attendance club it leaves seven players yet to miss a minute:  Leigh Ann Robinson (KC), Jen Buczkowki (KC), Kathryn Williamson (POR), CoCo Goodson (SBFC), Estelle Johnson (WNY), Alex Sahlen (WNY), and Brittany Taylor (WNY).

— The only allocated player training with an NWSL team who has yet to play is Anisa Guajardo in Boston.  Everyone else has either played, retired, or been declared out for the season due to injury, pregnancy, or arrangement with the Federation of Mexican Football.

— Lauren Holiday’s 10th goal of the season on Saturday moved her level with Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux for the league lead.  Should be a fun battle the rest of the way.

— Sunday’s FOX broadcast was a step backwards from the opener a week earlier.  Not complaining, though.  They’re still off to a good start.

— Emily Van Egmond, the newest Reign, was part of the WPSL Elite championship side in Western New York last summer.  The final went to penalties and Van Egmond played a prominent role.  “I had four takers and I asked for the fifth, I didn’t allocate,” Flash coach Lines said during the celebration.  “I asked who wants to be that fifth player and Emily Van Egmond, at 19, she just put her hand up straight away, very confident.  So go ahead kid, take it.  She did well.”

— Shannon Boxx and Zakiya Bywaters are both in light training with the Red Stars but there is no timetable for their return to game action.  Another injured Red Star, Taryn Hemmings, is seeking alternate opinions on her torn ACL.

— Sky Blue expect to hear Wednesday about Lisa De Vanna and Caitlin Foord, both of whom left Sunday’s loss to the Flash injured during the first half.

— The Breakers are in Kansas City, where they will play the makeup of the April 21 match that was postponed after the bombings at the Boston Marathon.  The crux of that postponement was Kia McNeill, who was locked down for an entire day in her apartment, which is less than a mile from where Dzhokar Tsarnaev was apprehended.  The team discussed it some on Monday and joked with McNeill about making sure she was on the bus this time.  “That feels like a lifetime ago,” Cole said.

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