When the highlight worthy flick is the least impressive part
The flick made our jaws drop. It’s a play we seldom see executed, less by an American, and less still on a play that leads to a goal. More often than not, we see players try tricky touches and the ball rolls harmlessly to the feet of the defender and everyone gets pissed. So when Benny Feilhaber let the ball roll between his legs before deftly touching it to his teammate without looking, our hearts fluttered. Of the key plays that lead to the only goal in the U.S.’s 1–0 win against Jamaica, though, the flick was the easiest part.
The play started with the ball at Jorge Villafana’s feet on the left sideline. Jamaica got 11 players behind the ball. Lacking options forward, Villafana chose to play it diagonally backwards to Dax McCarty. Dax took a touch forward, picked up his head, and sliced a pass into Feilhaber. It looked like a simple pass from Dax, though it was anything but.
In the position that Dax picked up the ball, he had a tricky paradox. He absolutely could not give the ball away. His team felt comfortable in possession and had pushed players forward. His number one priority was to keep possession. At the same time, he had a rare opportunity that the team needed him to capitalize on. He had time and space on the ball and the defense was in the midst of a sideways shift in front of him. The point of possession is to get the defense to have to move side to side and, in the process, leave gaps as everyone tries to get to the right position.
So when Villafana made the pass horizontally it forced the Jamaican players to move sideways as well, and it presented an opportunity to get through them. At the top international level, the opportunities are rare when you can cut through a defense. Teams play for 90 minutes waiting for a single window to hit. For Dax to show he deserves to play at the international level, he needs to be able to hit a pass like that every now and then. Of course, if you try to capitalize and miss it, the other team is sprinting down your throat and you look like an idiot.
Dax, then, had a decision to make. Play it safe and connect, or capitalize on the opening? He surveyed his options and chose to go forward. With execution being paramount, he needed to demonstrate a bit of ingenuity. He was dribbling slightly to the right, his hips were facing towards the right corner flag. It’d be natural for a defender to assume he would then pass to the right side; when you sit and wait as a defender and try to block a passing lane, you watch the player’s eyes and body position. But when Dax saw Feilhaber open down the middle, he made the pass without changing his hips or body. He made the pass across his body. It happened so fast and without giving a tell with his body that the defense couldn’t react. Dax did exactly what a good defensive midfielder or center back is asked to do: bypass lines with the pass.
The task was then on Feilhaber. As the defensive mid gets the ball, it’s the attacking midfielder’s job to find space. He needed to get into a dangerous position where if he got the ball, he can create a chance. It’s a specific skill to be able to identify those spaces and then get into them without getting noticed or marked. It’s horrible to be a defensive midfielder playing with an attacking mid that doesn’t present good options. You work your ass off and you get left hanging.
But at the international level, it’s just the average attacking midfielder than only finds place. He or she also needs to capitalize on the moment. I think it’s the toughest part of the game to receive the ball in tight spaces with players closing in all around like that. In the one second the ball is traveling to you, so many things are taking place, so many defenders and attackers are moving positions around you that it’s nearly impossible to get a reliable snapshot.
It’s something that Feilhaber did perfectly in the play. As the ball moved from Dax, Benny looked over his shoulder. He took in the information around him, so when the ball arrived he could make an informed decision. At that point, the flick handled itself. His brain had the information, and his body acted on muscle memory. Any average player can flick the ball like that, but it’s a unique skill to be able to have the composure and courage to look around you as a ball is rolling towards you and take in the surroundings.
Finally, both Benny and Morris showed composure around the goal. Each could have panicked and tried to get a shot off as soon as they saw the goal. But they each surveyed the options and decided they could connect a couple passes to get a better look. Too many players rush shots. The chances of scoring on a shot decrease rapidly the farther you get away from goal, so it’s often advantageous to assume the probability of connecting a pass in order to increase the chance of finishing a shot.
While the flick was fantastic, it wasn’t the part of the goal that we should get caught up in. If we build a country of players that can evaluate options on the ball and feel comfortable receiving the ball in tight spaces and feel composed in pressure moments, we will get much farther than breeding a bunch of guys who can tap a flick or two. Feilhaber showed his quality in the game, and it extends much farther than mere playground skills.