Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Scott Caldwell, the Thoroughly Modern Midfielder, and A Promised Land

Box-to-box? Pure No. 6? He's tough to peg, but best let him pick his spot.
This is going to wander a little, so bear with me.

During last weekend's sour draw between the New England and the Montreal Impact, my attention drifted to Scott Caldwell. Generally, the only players on the Revs' roster less likely to draw attention than Caldwell are the guys on the bench. And brings me to my point.

I started watching Caldwell because, time and again, I saw the Revs' outside backs struggling to find a passing outlet while, at the same time, overlooking Caldwell. There he was, smack in the middle of the field, just outside the center circle on New England's side of the field with no one from Montreal particularly close to him; sometimes Caldwell raised his arms in a bid to catch their attention, but the Revolution stuck with Plan A – e.g. attempting to stuff the ball up the flanks in spite of Montreal's generally effective response of pinning them against the sideline.

Caldwell got more of the ball as the game progressed, but he never struck me as anyone's first option. This formed the impression that, 1) Caldwell's teammates don't trust him implicitly on the ball, or 2) they insist that he earns the ball – presumably by prying it off the foot of some opposition player.

All the above got me wondering (plenty of time for it in a game like that) about what Caldwell does when he gets the ball. Generally, he does what most No. 6's do: dish it to other players, most often with longer or shorter lateral passes; when he's feeling really nutty, he drops it back to defense. OK, yes, I did see Caldwell push the ball forward – it was even a decent pass, if I recall – but it's pretty clear that Caldwell's job is to find, say, Kelyn Rowe who (on a better day) will do something great with the ball, or Diego Fagundez who will (on a better day, in 2013) get dangerous, or, of course, Lee Fucking Nguyen. (I tried to dig up Caldwell's day via Opta, which only shows that I don't know how that works, or who gets access to it.)

I'm not crapping on Caldwell. He offers a particular set of skills, like most players (and Liam Neeson) and, for me, he plays his given role pretty well. It is limited, though, that role. Caldwell's like a lot of No. 6's in MLS. Most of them, actually. In fact, once you say, "Kyle Beckerman," the search for a unique, high-upside No. 6 pretty much peters out. That's not to say there aren't other guys who come close, but, even among the guys whose role focuses on defense and destroying, most of them get filed under some other job description – say, a "box-to-box" midfielder like the Portland Timbers' Diego Chara or New York Red Bull's Dax McCarty. And that’s probably a fair appellation in the end. (And did I use that word correctly? Yessss...)

In case the above paragraph didn't make it clear, I'm a fan of Beckerman's. But there's some greater, ideal midfielder in my head that I'd love to see the United States produce. What I really want to see is the first American Andrea Pirlo.

I do see this being attempted in some places, even in MLS. For starters, Michael Bradley picked up what few accolades fell to earth for the U.S. Men in today's (fucking maddening!) friendly loss to Denmark. And, with him, the point gets made time and again that he and the U.S. both benefit most when he's left to play a little deeper (I can't find an article right now; look, just check Twitter; it's lousy with this line of commentary). I'd argue the Colorado Rapids Dillon Powers rows in the same boat, at least as often as Pablo Mastroeni lets him. (Note to Pablo: can we please, please, never repeat the experiment of having him play off the striker? Let the man learn to excel at his strongest, natural position. Wait a minute...I read something today about...that's where Jurgen Klinsmann played Michael Bradley in the World Cup...after Jozy Altidore went down...did...did Jurgen get to...Pablo?) (NOTE: The previous parenthetical contains rife speculation and a barely-plausible conspiracy theory; it is posted for, oh, let's call it satirical purposes.)

If there's a punchline in all this blathering, it lurks somewhere in the fact that I don't really know what position Pirlo plays, or how anyone who cares to name it would name it. I just know that he's a great passer and those two words, when combined, for me, well, it's not an anagram or anything, but it spells "damp nethers." People keep asking when the U.S. will produce its first Messi or its Cristiano Ronaldo, just plain Ronaldo. Me, I'm waiting for our first Pirlo.

I'm also more hopeful that we'll get our Pirlo before we get our Messi. The U.S. has, as a rule, built players from back-to-front. We started with goalkeepers – and the assembly line's still good there – then moved on to defenders (mmm...less good lately) and then we continued to solid defensive midfielders. I think we're currently in the box-to-box phase, and that beats a kick in the head, certainly. But a consistently brilliant passer: just think of it. Take a guy like Chris Wondolowski. He's not going to create his own goal all that often, but he can finish the crap out of a chance when it's set up just so (except in Brazil, against Belgium; let's re-live that again...ahhh...). And that's the Pirlo masterpiece: the idiot-proof pass. Guys like that bring upside to everyone around like great big gift baskets at the Oscars.

Anyway, I'll leave it someone else to explain how I got from Caldwell's limitations to discussing Bradley and Powers and ending up in a personal mash-note to Pirlo. My short version is this: we produce a lot of Caldwells; maybe it's time for the sink-or-swim moment where we force him to learn the forward pass, starting with his club team, or force him to find a new job. And, no, I don't know how to teach that shit either.

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