Hold the Line
De-Fense!: Age Is Just a Number Until It's a Concern
ASN defensive specialist talks to Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas about the future of the United States back four. Can Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo keep pace?
BY Andrew Lewellen PostedEditor's note: Hold the Line runs every Tuesday on ASN. I’ve written about this play each of the past three weeks. Maybe I’m overdoing it, but I can’t let it go. It was the goal the U.S. gave up against Guatemala in the fifth minute of the October 16th World Cup Qualifier in Kansas City. Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron got caught out of position, and 33-year-old Carlos Ruiz beat Bocanegra with speed, then dribbled around Tim Howard for the game’s first goal. It’s weighed on my mind. In person, from my seat at the edge of the U.S. penalty box, it was baffling: watching, in this World Cup Qualifier, Bocanegra slow up, trotting behind Ruiz while he beat Howard. It was one of those rare moments in sports when the sad truth about a player’s decline emerges. Bocanegra has been one of the few consistencies in the national team going back to the 2006 World Cup. His 109 caps place him seventh all-time. In the match against Guatemala, when he scored the equalizer five minutes after his defensive error, he became the highest-scoring American defender of all time with 14 goals. He is one of only four starters—the others are Steve Cherundolo, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey—from the 2006 World Cup who still hold regular starting positions on the national team. But the guy is 33. He’s aged, a bit slower. Get out a calculator, do a little math, and you realize that not only is he 33 today but in two years, when Brazil 2014 rolls around, he’ll be 35. Sounds kind of ancient for a field player in the World Cup. But does his age really matter? Are the years since his day of birth enough to handicap him in his role as one of team USA’s reliable, starting defenders? The play of one of his partners in the U.S. back line might be enough to answer “no” to those questions: Steve Cherundolo, the man who has owned the right back position for nearly a decade, is also 33. He plays for Hanover in the Bundesliga, often wearing the captain armband for his club. In the September 11th qualifier against Jamaica, he was one of the United States’ best offensive threats. And in the match against Guatemala, it was his deft pass around a defender up the flank to Eddie Johnson that sprung the attack that led to Clint Dempsey’s game-winner. But Marcelo Balboa doesn’t see Cherundolo as a great example of a 33-year-old. The defender is an anomaly. “He doesn’t play his age,” Balboa says. Alexi Lalas agrees. "The tools that Steve Cherundolo has will not erode as quickly as others. There’s such a level of consistency [with him]," he says. Cherundolo might have an engine and physical traits that defy his years, but a number of top defenders have played key roles on top teams into their mid-30s. A brief list: Paolo Maldini, the legendary Italian left back, was 34 when he played in the 2002 World Cup, and he was a month shy of his 41st birthday when he played his final match for AC Milan in 2009. Another Italian legend, Franco Baresi, was 34—and just a few weeks out from knee surgery—when he played in the 1994 World Cup Final against Brazil. Yet another Italian, center back Fabio Cannavaro, was 32 when he captained Italy to the 2006 World Cup title. Four years later, he was still a starting defender for the Azurri when they made their disappointing exit in the first round of the 2010 World Cup. Cannavaro’s opponent in the 2006 World Cup Final, Frenchmen Lillian Thuram, was 34 at the time. Of course, those guys were world-class players, the best of the best. And, as Lalas says, “You also have to factor in the reality that they were playing for very, very good teams. They were the elite club team or national team.” Their ability to continue to play well into their 30s was, in Lalas’ opinion, “a hundred percent (because of) the players around them.” But Lalas sees another issue that might be affecting Bocanegra: “Jurgen has asked specifically for the players to play in a specific way, and that is in a much higher line.” “A Maldini …he played in the same style and the same type of position his whole career,” Lalas continues. In contrast, when players are asked to tactically change the way they play, particularly late in their careers, it can be difficult for them to adjust, and those changes can expose weaknesses in their game. Which is exactly what happened when Ruiz scored in the Guatemala game. Bocanegra was trying to compensate for his decrease in speed with the simplest strategy: he dropped back. The problem with dropping back, of course, is that it gives attackers more space. Balboa, though, believes that those types of adjustments are ones defenders make throughout their careers, no matter what their age. “The important thing is to be able to read the game, to try to anticipate the play, [to] not get caught in a one-on-one race,” he says. He also feels an aging player can make up for his physical decline with “more communication. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses. You’ve got to be smarter, and you’ve got to be able to cover each other better.” And sometimes, says Balboa, a back line in which a veteran player is paired with a younger, more athletic one can benefit a team because the older man can keep the squad organized while the younger player bears the brunt of the physical work. This is the very partnership Klinsmann has utilized lately, often playing Bocanegra as a left back or center back alongside the younger players Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, or Clarence Goodson. The reality for Bocanegra and for the U.S. is that Jurgen Klinsmann has important and difficult decisions to make regarding some of the team’s older players. “Jurgen has a real delicate but important decision and conversation with some of these older players," Lalas says. "If he feels that they have enough to make an impact as starters, that’s fine.” But if he feels that they can’t, then he needs to find a new role for them in the team. And that might mean having no role at all. “We all have our egos and our arrogance that have fueled us in a good a way,” the former U.S. center back continues. “If [Klinsmann] comes to the decision that Carlos is not going to play a role in terms of the starter, in terms of being the captain...he really needs to find out if Carlos is sincere and genuine…on board with this new role and take it to heart.” Balboa sees a place for Bocanegra in this U.S. team through World Cup qualifying: “Bocanegra’s the captain. You need players with experience in World Cup Qualifying. These are tough places to go and play. The important thing is getting through qualifying. You have to put the best players out there that are going to give you the best chance to win.” For six years, over 100 matches, Carlos Bocanegra has been one of those players for the U.S. national team. But from my spot in the press box in Livestrong Stadium, watching Bocanegra pull up while chasing Ruiz, I really question whether he’ll be one of those players over the next two years. Andrew Lewellen (@AndyHLew), a former college soccer player and youth coach, is now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of his soccer writing on his blog, Andy’s Pitch.
October 30, 2012
October 30, 2012