By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 18, 2016) US Soccer Players – For a competition that has seen lots of goals this season, you would think playing defense was optional in Major League Soccer. Whether it’s signing Designated Players or finding a video clip of a great goal to highlight on its website, MLS likes to hype goals (the Spanish word golazo is thrown around a lot to describe spectacular ones) and heap lots of praise on the players who score them. While goals do win games, it’s a strong backline that often determines a champion.
Take last season and the MLS Cup winning Portland Timbers. The team gave up just 1.14 goals-per-game. That tied for third overall in the league. The Western Conference champion FC Dallas had the same goals against average as the 3rd-place Timbers. Over in the Eastern Conference, the New York Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield while giving up 1.26 goals-per-game. By contrast, this season, the struggling Red Bulls have a 2.14 GAA – and just one win – while the Timbers, who also have one victory, have a similarly disappointing 1.75 GAA. Real Salt Lake, the only undefeated team in the league, has a goals against of just 1.0.
It’s easy in soccer to gauge the success of an attacking player by goals and assists or a goalkeeper by saves, goals against, and shutouts. Defenders are harder to rate. One way would be to invent categories such as blocked shots, clearances, and tackles won – but coming up with NHL-style categories just to insert more statistics into a game that has a lot of nuance would be hard for soccer purists to accept. For a league like MLS that’s still growing, it remains a real conundrum. Do you stress the goals and the highlight reel aspect of the game, or the work that goes into stopping those goals?
Overall, having a strong defense does win teams MLS Cup. In fact, eight of 20 MLS champions allowed the fewest goals of any other team during the regular season. While that trend could change going forward as teams focus on offense and the league markets itself to a broader audience, there is no denying the importance of a strong defense. When the Red Bulls excelled last year, it was defender Matt Miazga who deserved a lot of the credit. His performance eventually turned into a contract with Chelsea in England’s Premier League. This season, his absence along with a series of injuries to various Red Bulls defenders has the team rooted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The league’s opening weekend set a tone this year. Ten games produced 36 goals and not an ounce of decent defending. It was a goal-scoring paradise that earned universal praise. Not one match ended scoreless as teams piled on the goals. In one game, New York City FC defeated Chicago 4-3. It’s no coincidence these were two of the worst teams last year. But thanks to DPs and Targeted Allocation Money, teams are encouraged to spend on players who will make an impact. That usually means strikers, playmakers, and attacking midfielders. The incentive is for a more offensive, free-wheeling approach. Who cares of you give up two goals when you can score three?
Not all teams are following that rule. The Colorado Rapids signed Tim Howard to a DP contract, a rare move by a team to put cash behind a goalkeeper. Under the league’s existing salary cap structure, one could argue that paying Howard an estimated $2 million a season could be a waste of money when you can get a good goalkeeper in this league for $150,000. That’s the amount the Red Bulls’ Luis Robles made last year.
Last season, the Los Angeles Galaxy seemed destined to win the title. As the season wore on, poor defending hurt them. Over the course of the last two months of the regular season, the team won just one of seven games and plummeted from first in the Western Conference to fifth. Giving up sloppy goals off set pieces and crosses in the box hurt them, something that led to the Galaxy’s early playoff elimination to the Seattle Sounders. In its 3-2 loss to Seattle, all three goals LA surrendered resulted from a defensive error. The third, scored by Erik Friberg, came when defender AJ DeLaGarza failed to clear a harmless looking cross.
This season, DC United has suffered a similar fate. Giving up goals early in a game and off set pieces has been an issue in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League. On Saturday, a defensive lapse in just the first minute cost DC United the match as Toronto FC won 1-0. Toronto, a team that knows how to defend this season (giving up just five goals in six games), hunkered down as DC United spent the next 89 minutes chasing the game and ultimately failing to score. There’s the biggest problem for teams that made defensive mistakes. Giving up a goal or two doesn’t always mean you can score enough to grab a draw. Teams that defend well will employ the counterattack effectively or sit back and make sure they don’t concede. That’s especially true on the road.
We know that defenders are hard to market in soccer. That’s true even when a strong backline equals victories during the season and a trophy in the fall. That Galaxy loss to Seattle last season remains a prototype for the way teams have been playing in MLS. The reality is you shouldn’t have to score three goals to win a game when you should’ve never given up two to begin with.
Based in New York City, Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He covers all topics relating to American soccer, including Major League Soccer. He has covered the last two World Cups for the site. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Clemente began writing for our site in July 2007. Find him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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