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The MLS Grinder: The Walking Shea

Written by Will Parchman

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I stuck with the Walking Dead as long as I could.

Even as I watched the series stumble through strained, stunted plot twits until finally burying itself beneath thick layers of story fatigue, I convinced myself (and my watch group) the show was still worth the emotional capital. Don’t you remember the first season? I reasoned. A good storyteller doesn’t just forget how to tell a story. Does he?

So I chained myself to Rick’s deepening neurosis, which became less and less creditable as it descended into glorified shtick. I stuck it out through that damned farm house, the annoying kid who most of us hoped would take a walker bite to the neck by the end of the second season, that damned prison, a gormless parade of secondary characters, the cloying over-the-top drama, the risible figure of The Mayor. But there was promise in it because I remembered what I’d seen. The initial fear of the hospital. The surprise of the tank. Those memories are hard to kick. Impossible, even.

And then I just stopped watching. There was no catharsis or final blow. I just drifted away from it. I was done. Not harboring anger or frustration, even, just a resigned understanding that I’d move on to other things. I’m not sure if the kid’s kicked the bucket yet, but I’m rooting for you, America.

The least surprising secondary character choice I can possibly imagine for The Walking Dead involves casting Brek Shea into one of its later seasons as a quick-to-die crony. Shea’s career basically is The Walking Dead. Entire asteroid belts of promise clouded by a swift, painful deterioration. Shea’s heat maps at Barnsley, where he made his most appearances in England, revealed a player so far removed from his unfiltered 2011-era promise that he was nearly indistinguishable. The guns and lash-outs at his own fans were merely tired plot twists for a show that by now most were cringe-watching.

So let’s say this now: Shea is playing at reviving himself at Orlando City. He’s only played two matches in the purple, so we can’t yet make any grand pronouncements about his improvement. We can’t do anything, in fact, but meagerly point to a few moments and figures. But at least based on the glimpses we managed to steal of Shea over the past couple years in England, this is an improvement. A marked one, mind you, in a league that isn’t any easier than where he was before.

Orlando picked up its first MLS win in franchise history Friday night with a 1-0 victory over stubborn Houston. The night’s largest headline went to Houston’s Tyler Deric, whose howler shamed all howlers before it in its breathtaking scope, clarity and vision. I’m going to include it here because it needs to be spread, like a virus.

To me, though, the bigger story (or at least the one with deeper implications) was Shea’s impact from left back. And it was sizable.

Shea attempted 38 passes against Houston. He completed 86 percent of them, and he managed to go 12-for-12 in the attacking half. That’s 100 percent, for those of us who carried C’s in Ideas in Mathematics. Historically, Shea’s biggest problem has been a lack of discipline. This often leads to moments like these, but in far greater measure it pulls him away from spaces he needs to occupy. That’s why most recoiled when Orlando City announced Shea’s move to left back was semi-permanent. He’d never shown any inclination for tactical discipline. After wondering aimlessly in the forest for two years, there was no reason for anyone to believe he’d decided to start now.

Well.

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Adrian Heath has done smart work with Shea. If the ultimate plan is to employ a raiding left back with a primary history as a midfielder, Heath (either knowingly or not) ripped a page directly from Bruce Arena’s playbook. Landon Donovan was probably the primary external reason Robbie Rogers succeeded as he did in 2014. With Donovan so often “out of his room,” gone to roam inside as a secondary playmaker, Rogers had license to make the leftover free space his own.

Lewis Neal is hardly Donovan, but his role isn’t dissimilar in that he spends little time sitting on the flank. When Shea attacks, which is often but perhaps not quite as often as many of us expected so far, Neal is gone, dragging as many as he can off the bow in his net.

But it’s his defending that intrigued me most. And surprisingly enough it’s actually been pretty good. We’ll take this sequence in the first half in two chunks.

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Shea has two options here: either step past Leonel Miranda directly to his fore to challenge Kofi Sarkodie on ball, or drop behind Miranda to force Sarkodie over the top. We watched Shea make the former decision almost every time in his most recent wingback/left back appearances in a U.S. jersey, and the USMNT was ripped apart by proxy. Shea is eager and has the heart of a midfielder. He’s never had to live with the lead ball of discipline attached to his left ankle.

So I expected Shea to take the overeager door. He usually does. Instead, though, Shea abruptly stops his forward motion and steps back with Miranda.

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Shea kept a few yards on Miranda throughout the entire movement, which forced Sarkodie to attempt a speculative leading ball to Boniek over the top that was easily cleared away to flip the attack. There was nothing flashy or indelible about this, but in most ways that’s why you never see good defenders on highlight reels. At their best, they are shadow people.

“But that’s Defending 101,” you might thoughtfully ponder. “I was taught that at the U13 level.” Fair point. But Shea wasn’t. It’s easy to get lost in his status as a professional soccer player and bulldoze the fact that the fullback is the most difficult position to nail down in modern soccer. In every progressive formation, the fullback is asked to be the flank, both existentially and physically. Shea is woozily stumbling into it now. So you have to notice the improvements, remedial as they may seem.

Here’s the thing about Shea. You’ll never give up on him. Never. His first season was too compelling, too unique, too other than. You may tune out for a season or two, but that glossy trailer is back on again and damn if it doesn’t look like it rediscovered its compelling sweet spot. Shea simply offers too much, even if the reality and idealistic nodes aren’t touching (or never really were).

I challenge you to spend this season watching Shea through new eyes understandably burdened by past experiences. Like most everybody, I am an eternal skeptic when it comes to Shea’s revitalization. But unlike The Walking Dead, I’m willing to keep the TV warm here.

The Sounders are a mess at the back

Somebody should probably check on Brad Evans.

Seattle managed to lose 3-2 at home to San Jose on Saturday, and Evans was either directly or indirectly at fault for all three goals. If you’ll remember, Evans started his first MLS match at center back in a shutout win over Lee Nguyen-less New England last weekend. This. This was not that.

One. Poor aerial tracking and a whiffed header with one of the league’s most dangerous scorers in history right on his back.

Two. Evans chests a ball to himself and does some kind of headless dolphin dance with said dangerous goal scorer crawling up his back.

Three. The humanity. My god. The humanity.

This will come as no shock, but the Sounders play direct. Sigi Schmid’s 4-4-2 looks something like a deformed empty bucket, with Gonzalo Pineda picking his moments to get forward to combine and Clint Dempsey divining a purpose apparently known only to the Cumaean Sybil. What’s most important to know about direct teams is not that they’re evil. My point is actually something quite opposite.

Straight back-to-front play is the butter of the modern age. Used since the game existed, direct soccer is not in itself bad for you. In moderate quantities, it even contributes to your body’s general performance. Is it great for you? No. It isn’t kale. But it isn’t intrinsically bad, either. But modernity’s sweeping reform of centuries-old food has singled out butter as a no-no because… I’ve got nothing here.

As Matt Doyle expertly pointed out earlier this month, reports of the long ball’s demise have long been exaggerated. But I’d like to refine his position even further: it isn’t long balls themselves we’re after, it’s diagonal switches and 35-yard diamond-cutters from midfielders that move the aesthetic needle. It’s not along-the-turf ball, but it works in the absence of technicians.

Seattle leans on this as much as anyone in the league. They can just mask it because Dempsey, Oba and Pappa play so intricately on the other end of the switch. The good thing about this from Seattle’s perspective is it circumvents the lack of a No. 10 and allows them to cut out the middleman to go directly to their unbelievable front line. The bad thing drives at the heart of the general falling out the public’s had with more direct approaches. It’s more unpredictable.

Seattle doesn’t build as much as it blitzes. This plays directly into the hands of its attack and utterly screws its back line, which sports an average age north of 31. Seattle’s approach often leaves it open to quick strikes and counters that force the defense into heavy, quick moments of transition. This is not its strong suit, and borne out over an entire season it’s almost impossible that it won’t get one or more of its aging defenders injured. You understand why they’ve taken this tack, because it’ll produce goals. But it may give up more in critical matches.

Turns out, though, that poor Brad Evans might not make it long enough to find out.

Caleb Porter is changing

About 16 minutes into Sunday’s Timbers-Galaxy game, there was an instructive moment of interchange between John Strong and Alexi Lalas on the Fox broadcast on Caleb Porter and possession soccer. This came after the Timbers coughed up another quick burst of possession on the near sideline.

Lalas: “We’ve also mentioned three or four times the direct play of the Portland Timbers. In talking to Caleb Porter, it’s a very different type of Caleb Porter than we’ve seen in the past. The way that he thinks about this team and how this team is going to get results this year. Very pragmatic. Almost humbled, if you will. I’m not sure I like that type of Caleb Porter.”

Strong: “You two had quite the conversation about that idea, of the way the Timbers want to play. And Porter, his philosophy right now is basically whatever gets us to win games is the way we want to play.”

Lalas: “We had a long conversation about possession and just possession for possession or purposeful possession and all the things people talk about when they talk about possession. I think he’s recognized that being direct right now is the way to go. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to possess the ball. It doesn’t matter how much possession you do or don’t have, you still have to do the little things right. Like defend set pieces.”

Sad words, all of them.

If we’ve established already that the “long ball” (aka “diagonal ball”) is not in itself bad, then we also acknowledge that Porter playing for wins through the conduit of any means necessary (and not an aesthetic one) isn’t itself a negative. But Porter isn’t that kind of coach. The sadness in it revolves around the fact that over the top ball and playing your most dangerous soccer on the break isn’t who Porter is. He wants to dazzle through the midfield. With this team, on turf (I SAID THOSE WORDS) it isn’t possible to do it and win in MLS.

So he’s adapted. As good coaches do. We’ll touch on exactly what the Timbers are doing differently in later Grinders. But as you saw in Portland’s wild 2-2 draw with LA, the Timbers got almost all of their most dangerous attacking moments through quick-burst soccer. Porter will play this way as long as he has to, but wow… I want the old Caleb back. At Peak Porter, there’s nobody in American soccer coaching quite like him.

Columbus is great and everything is awesome

The Cathedral of American Soccer hosted its first MLS match of 2015 on Saturday. The Crew were bouncing off an undeserved 1-0 loss to Houston, while Toronto had mashed up Vancouver 3-1. The game served the narrative well. Toronto had a man improperly sent off. Popular preseason MLS Cup pick Columbus sic’d the dogs in the second half and won 2-0. Order restored.

We could talk about the red card, or the desultory state of MLS refereeing, or Wil Trapp’s pass map which at 88 percent looked like alright we’ll take a quick pit-stop after all.

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Quick side note: through two matches Emanuel Pogatetz leads all MLS defenders in passes and has completed 84 percent of them. I love you Gregg Berhalter.

No, intrepid MLS person. The moment of this match, nay, of any match ever played, was as follows. Happy soccering, world.

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2 Comments
  • jcrothermich

    Great work Will. Insightful Shea breakdown and appropriate note of mourning for pragmatic Porter. Guess I’ll need to start watching more Crew games.

  • Adrian Garza

    Great stuff Will! I would have never imagined Shea “willingly” playing LB and I’m not sure where this will lead him but consider this… we have as of right now at minimum 2 possible USMNT LB options that most would consider in Fabian Johnson and Greg Garza. After those two, its a list of possible players but many are likely better as wing backs than true LBs like Castillo, Rogers, and Shea. It should be interesting to see what happens in the next 2 years at this position. Also, will Johnson stay in midfield?
    OhEvans… those clips are some pretty ugly defending or ball watching.

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