[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] The knee cap tendon that Oguchi Onyewu ruptured back in October has dominated coverage of the U.S. back line, yet his partner, Jay DeMerit, has rather quietly played two very solid games. The DeMerit-Onyewu pairing in the middle of the U.S. back line is, on paper, an ideal melding of the smaller, quicker defender with a bigger, stronger counterpart. Their personalities are as different as their physiques.
DeMerit's quickness and tenacity enables him to step forward out of the back line and nick balls away before they reach the intended target or get in an early challenge as the receiver tries to collect or turn with the ball. In this manner he can break up plays and kill off attacks before shots are generated, but he can also give away free kicks or leave a big hole if his timing is off.
England scored against the USA in the fourth minute when DeMerit pushed out to square up with Emile Heskey, who instead of trapping the ball simply cut it diagonally into space for Steven Gerrard to collect. In this situation, communication between the two central defenders broke down; when Onyewu also pushed out to challenge Wayne Rooney, who let the ball run to Heskey and left Onyewu stranded, there wasn’t any cover in the middle.
Heskey occasionally caused the Americans problems by drifting out of the middle and pulling Onyewu with him. DeMerit would provide cover if possible but also had to keep an eye out for Rooney or someone else making a run into the goalmouth. Rooney dropped back into midfield during much of the second half not only to escape DeMerit, but also find the ball earlier and more often. After scoring his goal, Gerrard only sporadically got into attacking positions, and not until late in the match did Frank Lampard emerge as an offensive force.
Though he’s three inches shorter than Onyewu, DeMerit – honed by many seasons in the English game – is adept at either winning balls in the air or jarring an opponent as they challenge. DeMerit narrowly missed scoring his first U.S. goal with a header from the edge of the penalty area against Slovenia; that’s a play that draws notice, but more important are the duels he wins in the air or on the ground.
Milijove Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic gave the U.S. back line problems with their movement and interchanging of positions. DeMerit tangled frequently with Ljubijankic; he blocked a cross by the forward near the goal line, and fouled him with a push well outside the box. In the second half, he knifed into a perfect tackle that stripped Novakovic of the ball as he collected a cross from Andraz Kirm.
Midway through the second half against England, Rooney came back into midfield to play a ball for Heskey, and Onyewu’s late arrival resulted in a foul. Nothing came of the free kick from about 30 yards out, yet it is in this part of the field where DeMerit’s aggressiveness can be either a valuable asset or a risk.
In the normal U.S. back line, DeMerit plays the right-central position, between Onyewu and right back Steve Cherundolo. While the connection between Onyewu and DeMerit in the middle is often discussed, DeMerit and Cherundolo also need to be in sync to fend off attacks down that flank. If there isn’t support from midfielders, those two defenders are sometimes confronted by two or three attackers in a very critical area of the field.
DeMerit covers for Cherundolo when he goes forward to produce the runs and crosses that are an important facet of the U.S. attack. While the U.S. defenders are often criticized for lumping too many long balls forward, such passes are often hit to relieve pressure as much as start attacks. DeMerit has a ready outlet in Cherundolo, who is one of the best U.S. players on the ball, and whichever wide midfielder – Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan – is playing on his side of the field.
On Wednesday, Algeria’s attacking array that includes balls played along the ground and combination play will seriously test the ability of DeMerit and his teammates to track patiently and time their tackles and double-teams well. The security of the back line will depend in part on how wisely DeMerit decides when to step up, and how cleanly he tackles.