Coming Back

steve zakuani tribute, seattle sounders, mls

By Dario Camacho – MIAMI, FL (Jan 13, 2012) US Soccer Players — Last year’s Major League Soccer season probably had two of the worst injuries I’ve ever seen.  The first I happen to catch on replay, was Steve Zakuani’s broken leg.  The physical revulsion of watching a pro athlete’s leg dangling, swinging in all improper directions, was an unnecessary reminder of the brutal side of the sport.

The second injury I saw live on TV, when Real Salt Lake lost Javier Morales to a tackle from behind.  The thing that I remembered the most was the stunned faces of the crowd as the camera panned. 

What increased the pain for the MLS faithful was that these two players are key figures for their teams as well as the League.  Considering the depth of teams in MLS, coaches are left scrambling.  Normally, that sentence would end with 'for a solution,' but that's simply not the reality due to MLS  budgetary strains.

In all, four teams last year lost key players. The immediate result was a change in tactics and expectations.  Dallas, Seattle, Salt Lake and D.C. lost players due to a broken foot, a broken leg, torn ankle ligaments and a torn ACL, respectively.  Not to mention the talent provided by the services of David Ferreira, Zakuani, Morales, and DC United’s designated player Branko Boskovic.  

Now that the 2012 season is less than 60 days away, most of these players are back in playing form, but that leaves a bigger issue for the coaches.  Mainly, where do these stalwarts fit into the current  configuration?

Let’s leave out Javier Morales, since RSL did just fine after his return.  This is mostly due to Jason Kreis’ & Co. building the team around a system that players plug into and execute.  The real problems become more apparent in Dallas, DC, and Seattle.

David Ferreira comes back to a team he carried to the 2010 MLS Cup Final.  His loss early in 2011 seemed to doom the Hoops.  Eventually, Schellas Hyndman figured out a way without the engine that is Ferreira.  That's mostly due to an emerging Brek Shea taking some of the duties of Ferreira, as well as utilizing the speed demons in Marvin Chavez, and utility man Jackson along the wings. Without Ferreira, FC Dallas faltered a little at the beginning of the season, but by mid-July they patched it up well and Shea delivered an MVP-caliber season.

Now the challenge becomes integrating Ferreira back into the fold of a team that ultimately became Shea’s by the end of 2012.  How well Ferreira and Shea demand the ball now that they have two All-Star players running the game will be crucial.  On paper, they have one of the strongest midfields in the League, yet in practical terms they're a team in transition.

In Seattle, Sigi Schmidt has the tough task of integrating Steve Zakuani back into the starting line up.  The problem with Zakuani’s return poses a problem along the left wing where designated player Alvaro Fernandez resided in 2011 taking over for Zakuani.  This year, with Mauro Rosales getting a contract extension and taking the right midfielder spot and a center midfield occupied by Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans, that leaves Zakuani and Fernandez fighting for a spot.

Zakuani could be moved up top with Fredy Montero opening up space and allowing Montero to maneuver.  Or Seattle could employ a 4-5-1 formation letting Montero hold the ball up, yet Montero’s game is best served as a withdrawn forward with a target man in the middle of the box.  What happens then is up to Schmid to figure out, yet it’s not easy to see a player of Zakuani’s or Fernandez’ caliber benched due to a lack of spots.  Harder still after Seattle produced the second best record in the League without Zakuani.

Which brings us to DC, a team that now has an MVP in Dwayne De Rosario and the return of DP Branko Boskovic potentially filling the same role of a creative MF that De Rosario covets.  Having De Rosario brings a few wrinkles, mainly because he is a player that demands attention and the spotlight.  When he is given the reigns he shines and produces, even at 33 years of age.

Here the problem might be a little easier to solve for coach Ben Olsen, just by the simple fact that DC United have two, yes two, forwards listed in the roster sheet.  Those four legs belong to Josh Wolf (34 years old) and Blake Brettshneider (22).  Having De Rosario continue playing up top as a withdrawn forward transforms an option into an asset.  That leaves room for Boskovic to conduct the midfield along with Andy Najar and Chris Pontius.

Of course, it’s easy for those looking in from the outside to figure out fantasy soccer solutions.  It's the coaches figuring out team chemistry and cohesion on the field as well as the locker room.  When dealing with talent, the balancing act between a player's playing time in correlation to his happiness is something that nobody can manage without actually being there. 

With that in mind, having star players return after devastating injuries is often as hard as losing them in the first place.

Dario Camacho made the move from regular commentator as Pesmerga7 to columnist.  He writes weekly for US Soccer Players. Follow him on twitter at DarCam7.

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2 Responses to Coming Back

  1. DarCam7 says:

    Good points. I wanted to include O’Brian White in the article, but stuck to Zakuani for brevity. Yes, the three (plus friendlies) competitions should give enough competitive minutes for everyone in Seattle.

    Although I think ultimately Zakuani does come back into the fold much quicker, especially when Evans eventually succumbs to some sort of injury, they’ll be time for all of those guys to play on the field.

    I just don’t see Fernandez tucking into the MF, I think his wing play is much more threatening (like Zakuani’s) and efficient, plus the off field personal situation with his family having to relocate them from Uruguay to Seattle was a stress on its own, and something that Fernandez admitted affected him early last year, hence why he was coming off the bench. I don’t think he’d like to repeat that process once again after one year, which I see him staying put for a couple of seasons for those same personal reasons.

    For practical reasons, I see Zakuani sitting up top with Montero, and having Fernandez staying put at LW. They don’t have a solid FW to link with Montero, and just in pure skill, I see Zakuani causing problems for defenders, even if he did lose a step.

    The biggest factor is his psychological behavior, i.e. can he take a hit and get up without destroying his confidence.

  2. Justin L. Shaffer says:

    I’m really hoping Zakuani can make a successful return early on in the season, especially if he can bring that game-changing speed. But I always say, “hope for the best, plan for the worst” :-)

    Fernandez often pinched in from the wing, taking up a central role last year, so I don’t think it’s a matter of him not being able to do it or not having the creativity. As an inverted winger, that was probably more natural for him. Really I just think it gives Seattle another tactical option to adjust to different match-ups if he can play in an advanced central mid role. Of course, there’s the question of whether his slight frame can hold up there. I’m interested in seeing Zakuani play up top as well, making runs behind the defense with Montero dropping a little deeper in a sort of false nine role (something he and Fucito were starting to do more of in the latter part of the year).

    And, with the loss of Friberg, I don’t really see any other central mid option (in the event of an Evans injury) unless Seattle thinks that Carrasco, Sanyang, or Seamon are ready to play alongside Alonso at the MLS level. Carrasco and Sanyang are both defensive mids and would be more or less redundant in a lineup with Alonso. Also, I think Carrasco needs to take a significant step forward for that to happen (primarily in his distribution, positioning, and judgement). Sivebaek’s been a winger throughout his career, so I don’t think he’s the answer (despite his massive size – 6’3″!) centrally.

    I do keep hearing people talk about how there’s no one to play up top. Sammy Ochoa joined the team late in the year but only managed to get a few games in as he was getting his fitness back up after a long layoff. But he showed a lot of promise and I came away impressed. He makes good runs off the ball, holds up the ball well, and seems to have a nose for goal. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do with a full season.