That’s not a badass nickname for the our newest defender. It’s the USMNT’s biggest biggest problem, and we’ve been trying to solve it for decades.
By Brian Sciaretta
There’s no position on the field that has troubled the U.S. national team as doggedly as left back. Just look at the list of names who have filled in at the position in recent years: Carlos Bocanegra, Heath Pearce, Jonathan Bornstein, Timmy Chandler, Jonathan Spector, Eric Lichaj, DaMarcus Beasley, Edgar Castillo, and Fabian Johnson. With only a few weeks to go before the World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann is facing the same dilemma that has confronted every national team coach since the U.S. reemerged on the international stage 25 years ago: how to shore up the left.
The U.S. hasn’t had a true left back at any point in its recent World Cup history; the position has been a revolving door since qualification for Italia ’90. Paul Caligiuri, whose famous goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 qualified the U.S. for the 1990 World Cup, was the first to wear the mantle. But Caligiuri was not a natural left back. He grew up playing forward and moved to the back line only when he attended UCLA. From then on he floated between left back and midfield, where coaches tried to take advantage of his proficiency with both feet despite his being right-footed.
Most teams find left back a difficult position to fill because players who specialize in it are rare. There have been only a handful of world-class left backs: Nilton Santos, Giacinto Facchetti, Jose Antonio Camacho, Paul Breitner, Paolo Maldini, Frank de Boer, Roberto Carlos, and Philip Lahm are some of the most prominent. The best of the modern breed are fast, athletic, skilled with their left foot — and, most important, accustomed to the position from years of development and on-field experience. Now working as a youth coach in California, Caligiuri has a unique view into why the U.S. continues to fail to develop quality left backs: The battle is typically lost at early ages in the United States. Few young players have the ability to switch the point of attack or receive the ball with their left foot. And if you put a naturally right-footed player in at left back, he tends to want to cut into the middle of the field as he brings the ball forward.
Bornstein was maligned by fans, but he often seemed to be simply a scapegoat for general frustration with the team’s perpetual weakness at the position.
But the biggest problem is an absence of positional development from a young age. Youth coaches tend to put their most talented players in attacking roles, and by the time players begin to specialize into positions, it’s often too late to adapt to playing in the back. “I would say, in the United States, people start introducing the tactical element at 13 years old,” Caligiuri says. “By then, you’ve passed some critical age limit. You’re now asking a left-footed player — which is maybe only one or two players on your team — who has been playing midfield or forward to go to defense. It can be a letdown.” Caligiuri suggests that perhaps the U.S. lags “behind how Europe and South America develops such players.”
Perhaps the best moment the U.S. team has ever had at left back came in 2002 when head coach Bruce Arena decided to play Frankie Hejduk in the spot. It was a gutsy decision. Hejduk, normally a midfielder or right back, had never played left back before. His first time at the position came in the send-off series just before the team traveled to South Korea. Though Hedjuk is right-footed, he was a stout and tireless defender on the left, and he had an important piece of support in front of him: a young DaMarcus Beasley at left midfield. The speed and athleticism of Hejduk and Beasley on the left side were major factors in the U.S. team’s run to the quarterfinals in ’02. “I look at it as the statement of my career,” Hejduk says. “I got asked to play in a position I did not usually play — for the World Cup. But for me it was a genius move from Bruce, just because of the consequences of what could have happened. Bruce knew I didn’t have a left foot, but he also knew I was going to defend like no other and make it tough for Figo or Rui Costa.”
Since ’02, though, the failure to find a steady presence at left back has been an Achilles’ heel for the U.S. squad. Midfielders Eddie Lewis and Bobby Convey never worked out. Bornstein was maligned by fans, but he often seemed to be simply a scapegoat for general frustration with the team’s perpetual weakness at the position. Like many of his predecessors, Bornstein became a left back only once he turned pro. He had two decent games at the 2010 World Cup but hasn’t played for the national team since a dismal performance in the 2011 Gold Cup final loss to Mexico.
“Wherever I’m playing — left back, left-mid, forward, right-mid — as long as I’m on the field, I’m happy,” Beasley said last summer. “I’m a player, and I want to play.”
If you want to understand just how bad the situation is, consider that Eric Wynalda, one of the most prolific goal scorers in the history of American soccer, was tried at left back early in his national team days. During the 1990 World Cup, he stood in at left back and earned the only red card of his international career in a lopsided 5–1 loss to Czechoslovakia. Today, as a coach, Wynalda realizes the importance of the position and knows the benefits of having a left back who can both defend and get forward in attack.
He insists that a strong left back is one of the first things he looks for when building a team because that player provides the backbone for how Wynalda wants the team to perform. “There are four or five times in every game when the left back will be in position to compromise the defense,” Wynalda said. “I know as a forward that you would look for it — the left back having the ability to bend it around anybody who’s in front of them and get it to a forward. That’s just not something that a right-footed player will be able to do with the kind of consistency the position demands.” Soon, in Brazil, we’ll know how the latest chapter to this sad saga ends. Beasley has played left back for most of the team’s games during the past year, despite his long history as a pure attacking midfielder.
His attitude echoes most of his predecessors who have accepted the assignment as a way to get onto the field. “Wherever I’m playing — left back, left-mid, forward, right-mid — as long as I’m on the field, I’m happy,” Beasley said last summer. “I’m a player, and I want to play. It doesn’t matter what position he puts me in. Jurgen knows that. Wherever I’m needed, I’ll play. That’s more important to me than playing one position.” If it’s not the veteran Beasley, chances are it’ll be Johnson — who’s also more comfortable in the midfield. In other words, it’ll be another World Cup of make-do. And beyond? It is impossible at this point to say whether 2018 will be the year the U.S. finally finds its Paolo Maldini, but at this year’s January training camp, Klinsmann tested out Kansas City’s Seth Sinovic and Colorado’s Chris Klute.
That they both play left back for their clubs is a promising first step. “It should be a hell of a lot easier to find somebody to lock into that position,” says Wynalda. “But for whatever reason it has eluded us. If somebody plays the position properly, it’s such a great asset. Everything just looks better. It’s just appealing to the eye.” And, perhaps most important to fans of the U.S. national team, it’s appealing to the score line, too.