By Ridge Mahoney
Eddie Johnson's few performances for the national team at left mid illustrate how varied are the options for Coach Jurgen Klinsmann at this position. A strong showing in his return to MLS – he left after the 2008 season and labored in Europe before a dramatic bounce-back last year – puts Johnson on top heading into 2013.
There are truly left-footed options, such as Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, but though Klinsmann has done a lot of experimentation – i.e. Johnson, normally a forward – at this position, he’s preferred more rugged types, such as Johnson and Brek Shea, or connecting players like Jose Torres and Brad Evans.
Creative influences, a la Joe Corona and Chris Pontius, could get long looks this year, perhaps in the Gold Cup. In tinkering with his formations, Klinsmann has used alignments with three, four, and five midfielders. Will he go with Pontius or Shea with instructions to stay wide, or send Johnson into the left channel, or tuck Torres inside?
The rankings, which will be updated during the year, are based on national-team performances, future prospects, and other factors, such as club team form.
Soccer America's Top 6 U.S. Left Midfielders
1. Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders), 44.
2. Joe Corona (Tijuana), 3.
2. Jose Torres (Tigres), 20.
4. Chris Pontius (D.C. United), 0.
5. Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), 6.
5. Brek Shea (FC Dallas), 15.
Also considered: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Mike Magee (Los Angeles).
A teenager when he debuted for the national team and a somewhat naïve 22-year-old when he left for Europe, Johnson came back to MLS psychologically and tactically matured. At Fulham, former manager Roy Hodgson taught him the value of going at defenders through the channels; Klinsmann has played him in midfield with instructions to do just that. If Johnson can handle the defensive workload and keep his concentration, he’ll be hard to dislodge, at least in the short term.
A TV scriptwriter would be jeered for naming an American who excelled with a Tijuana soccer club "Joe Corona." USA fans marveled at his consistent, incisive play during Xolos’ incredible run to the Liga MX Apertura title that pushed him up the U.S. ladder. Games this year with the U.S. and in the Libertadores Cup can speed his development and sharpen his confidence. At a wide-open slot on the U.S. squad, especially if Johnson gets pushed up top, his prospects are intriguing.
Torres, a linking midfielder with clean feet and good vision who nonetheless hasn’t made dramatic impact in most of his U.S. appearances, has left Pachuca. How his role might change could affect his U.S. status, but he’s definitely not the playmaker many fans and journalists wished him to be. He is, however, a smart, heady, popular player capable of competing for a spot if he can toughen his game in the middle third.
Another bothersome injury knocked Pontius out of contention for the January camp. He can spin defenders with his changes of direction and pace, and possesses a keen sense of whether to cross, shoot, or take another touch. He can also be used on the right, and very much needs appearances this year to prove he can carry his form onto the national team and compete for a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster.
Evans just does a good job. He’s a strong tackler and hard worker, and versatile enough that the Sounders have played him in several midfield spots as well as up top and at right back. He’s also a handful in the air and though his touch isn’t world-class he sees the field well. Playing on a top MLS club might be his ceiling, or he could knock out a few surprising displays.
Shea, the only player to be called in for each of Klinsmann’s first 10 matches in charge, labored through most of 2012, scoring just three goals and two assists as FCD missed the playoffs. A run of poor games and two separate suspensions from league play prompted Klinsmann to drop him, but his physical problems have been corrected by offseason foot surgery and he seems have regained the trust of FCD head coach Schellas Hyndman. He played the final dozen minutes of the 1-0 win in Azteca, and once healthy can re-start the process of honing that height (6-foot-4), strength, and speed.