Defensive Miscues in MLS

MLS clubs struggling to decide on passive or aggressive defensive style
by Wes Brown   |   Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Technically Speaking - column on player development, coaching & youth soccer

One of the keys to defending is patience. Anyone that’s ever attended a youth soccer match has witnessed a defender rushing headlong towards the opposing ball-carrier, haplessly kicking towards the ball, only to get beaten by simple dribbling.

The best result for the defending team is usually a missed scoring chance with the impatient defender thanking the soccer gods for his teammates; the worst result is said defender sitting on his rump in humiliation as he sees the ball hit the back of his own goal.

It’s no secret why this sort of mistake is usually seen at younger age levels: inexperience and lack of resolve in clutch moments.

Conversely, it’s why goalkeepers are sometimes compared to fine wines; why Oscar Wilde’s characters were so captivating; and why, despite his death, Dick Clarke is still considered by some to be “aging well.”

Experience. Resolve. Two things Mr. Clarke, Cecil Graham, and arguably Kasey Keller had from the start. That, and the uncanny ability not to make any mistakes. But, like Mr. Dumby says, “Life would be very dull without [mistakes].”So, too, with soccer.

Enter into ‘Exhibit A’:  Carlos Salcedo, Real Salt Lake central defender in July 3’s 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union.

Salcedo has arguably been solid for RSL as the 19-year-old has filled in for injured teammates Chris Schuler and Kwame Watson-Siriboe in 2013. Apart from a sloppy performance in Montreal a few weeks back, he’s looked surprisingly developed during his limited playing time, and he seems to be well beyond his years in a position usually dominated by players almost 10 years older.

But 2 moments of impatience cost his team a goal right before halftime in July 3’s game.

Sheanon Williams sees Salcedo pushed high on his marking of Conor Casey. As Williams initiates his pass down the touch line to an already-sprinting Casey, Salcedo recognizes his mistake of over-commitment and begins his recovery. He manages to catch the aging Casey at the end line, supported by his central partner, Nat Borchers, and both his outside backs in the center of the box. It’s a 4-on-4 situation, and all Salcedo needs to do is contain Casey, hopefully resulting in a forced turnover or a stoppage in play (ie, corner kick).

Instead, Salcedo immediately assumes a shot or low cross by Casey once the striker reaches the end line. Down goes Salcedo into a pre-emptive slide tackle in hopes of blocking the shot/cross, virtually eliminating himself from the play. Casey (aged but wise) remains calm and simply cuts back away from the path of the sprawling Salcedo, now creating a 4-on-3 scenario. Casey even has the ability to read Salcedo’s telegraphed tackle and cuts before the defender hits the ground. All of this opens up time and space for a centering pass to Sebastien Le Toux, resulting in the night’s first goal.

Salcedo’s aggressive slide tackle was a response to fix the original predicament he made further up the field – aggressively pressuring the ball-carrier. Why Salcedo was even pressing so high in the first place (and a good 5 yards in front of the man he was supposed to be defending) is unknown to me.

Despite the initial mistake of simple marking and pressing, Salcedo’s recovery run may make me change my mind on the defender’s speed. Yet his leaping tackle tells me that his resolve in clutch moments might be a place for RSL manager Jason Kreis to focus on in upcoming practice sessions.

Remaining calm in times of severe pressure and practicing patience even after making an earlier mistake is crucial to preserving the integrity of defensive shape. That’s one thing that separates a veteran from a rookie. But there’s another side of the coin, too:  remaining overly-passive can do you in just as easily as being too aggressive.

This can be illustrated in ‘Exhibit B’, AJ DeLaGarza in LA’s 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew on July 4. In the 88th minute, Columbus defender Chad Barson takes a long throw from the left touch line in LA’s defensive third. He seems to be attempting to pick out Dominic Oduro’s run into the box, and, despite Oduro never receiving the ball, the throw creates havoc for the Galaxy’s backline.

This is due to DeLaGarza’s passive approach towards defending both Oduro’s run and reading the ball. Posed with a critical choice, DeLaGarza ends up compromising himself by assuming a position between the two, failing to really make a decision at all.

As the ball takes its first hit on the pitch, DeLaGarza realizes he’s misjudged it and attempts to rectify himself by attacking the ball directly. Unfortunately, it’s another wrong decision as the ball is on its way over his head and towards goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, who’s now feeling Oduro’s pressure. Cudicini manages a desperate punch before the Crew striker is able to make contact with it. The ball is still on its way to goal, however, only being stymied by a goal line save thanks to Todd Dunivant.

Players at a very early age are taught to anticipate the ball’s movement as to better judge and respond to it. Coaches emphasize ball-reading throughout a player’s development, and it’s one of the fundamentals of any soccer coaching program, from recreational through competitive.

So what should have DeLaGarza done instead? He had 2 very good options right from the start – stay with his mark and pressure Oduro for the 2nd bounce, hoping it would cause Oduro enough of a slip to allow Cudicini to get possession; or, better yet, anticipate the initial bounce and attack it. This latter option would’ve resulted in a rather easy clearance as Oduro’s run continued him away from the play.

DeLaGarza would’ve had the time and space to calmly distribute to his midfielders. But reality was that DeLaGarza’s passive play was cleaned up only by the awareness of Dunivant to recover to the goal line (like all good defenders should do when their team is in a scramble).

Defending, like many things in life, is about balance – knowing when to play aggressive and when to play passive. Having a complete package in a defender, though, is difficult. Experience and ability to pull it off really is the icing on the cake.

As an example of stellar defending, take a look at Jamison Olave’s 55th minute tackle of DeShorn Brown (New York’s July 4th match against Colorado) as the striker bears down on Luis Robles on a breakaway.

Olave may have been pulled out of position by Brown’s cutting run and Edson Buddle’s great one-touch give-and-go pass, but the 2 things that have exemplified Olave’s play over the past several seasons saved the day: sheer speed, and brutal tackles. Without these attributes, the hulking defender is left 20 yards up-field with no chance on the young, blazing rookie.

The only way to destroy the play is with a tackle from behind. It’s obviously a dangerous move as it’s in the penalty area and, if timed wrongly, could result in not only a penalty kick, but more than likely a red card as well.

But notice Olave’s timing on the challenge. Knowing he’s on Brown’s right side, he waits to go to ground until the striker’s left foot is extended, effectively opening a chance to take all-ball with the tackle. And that’s exactly what happens as the tackle manages to clear the ball wide, despite the follow through taking Brown down with it. A hard tackle, for sure, but a clean one that all defenders should look to emulate when in a similar situation.

Defending is tricky business. Over-commit and you risk humiliation and a potential goal conceded. Remain too passive and you can eliminate yourself from the play entirely while forcing your teammates to clean up in your absence. It’s why criticisms of defenders are always so extreme. We either praise them for their genius, or ridicule them for their ineptness.

All of the examples above were reactions to botched defense, and that leaves us with a nagging question: How do we prevent scramble situations from even happening in the first place? 


Harrisburg Area CC
Club Domestic:
Real Salt Lake
Club Foreign:
1899 Hoffenheim
USSF Licensed youth coach. Founder and manager of Scalliwags United. On-field utility man. Tactics geek. Book worm. Member of the United Church of Kreis with a t-shirt to prove it. Keystone native, future Beehive resident. Proud husband and father of two.