CHESTER, Pa. — It is pretty rare to have a soccer match headlined by a pair of defensive midfielders. However, in a World Cup year, with roster spots in play, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman were always going to be portrayed as adversaries as they took the field at PPL Park on Saturday.
Whether true or not, Edu and Beckerman are seen as two men vying for the same spot on the U.S. World Cup spot. If you subscribe to the belief that Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to bring two defensive midfielders to Brazil, and Jermaine Jones is going to be one of them, then in theory, that leaves one spot up for grabs for Beckerman and Edu (and Reading's Danny Williams for that matter).
If Klinsmann was indeed watching the proceedings at PPL Park, what he saw was two central midfielders in top form. Two players showing real confidence and exhibiting leadership roles on two of the more impressive teams of the early 2014 season. (Philaldephia's penchant for surrendering late goals might leave some questioning that label, but there's little denying the fact that the Union are playing some quality soccer.)
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Asked about the matchup, and whether either sensed extra pressure facing someone they could be seen as competing against for a place at the World Cup, both Edu and Beckerman downplayed the notion, stating similarly that their main focus is on playing well.
"I knew a lot was going to be made out of that but I don’t focus on that kind of stuff," Edu told Goal USA. "In my mind, If I play with the mentality that I want to win, I want to help this team win, I’m going to be at my best. If I focus on small things, and individual matchups, then you can get distracted from what’s really important, which is this team being successful.
"Having that competition from (Beckerman's) team, and him from my team, is going to bring out the best in him and me, and make for an enjoyable game, which I think it was for people watching.
For Beckerman's part, he pointed to Edu's return to MLS as part of a trend of increased talent in the league that is making each week a challenging experience.
"It just shows you the league’s getting a lot better," Beckerman told Goal USA. "The first game we get (Landon) Donovan and (Robbie) Keane, the second game we get (Chris) Wondolowski, the third game Donovan and Keane again, then we saw (Michael) Bradley and (Jermain) Defoe, then (Graham) Zusi and (Matt) Besler, and now Mo.
"It’s fun. I think the league’s taken another level up. It’s fun playing against good players every week."
Trying to differentiate between Beckerman and Edu on Saturday wasn't easy. They each scored key late goals, and the rest of their statistics were eerily similar. Both had 12 recoveries, three tackles won, and they finished with nearly identical 80.4 percent pass completion percentages.
There were diferences of course. Beckerman plays a more true defensive-minded role for RSL, and therefore spent more time deployed deep in the Real Salt Lake midfield. Edu has the benefit of playing alongside Brian Carroll in a 4-3-3, and has more freedom to get forward, as evidenced by heat maps showing him spending more time in the attacking half of the field than Beckerman.
These differences aren't just a product of their teams' systems. This is the fundamental difference between the two, and why trying to draw direct comparisons isn't always easy. Beckerman is better-suited to play a disciplined stay-at-home defensive midfield anchored in front of the defense, though he does contribute to the attack with his smart passes from deep.
Edu is more of a two-way midfielder, capable of handling the defensive duties of a deep-lying role, but also adept at taking on a more advanced position. In the 2010 World Cup, Edu was used as an option off the bench to help the U.S. team when it needed goals. He could provide a similar option in 2014.
The differences between the two raise the very real question of whether Klinsmann might simply bring both to Brazil.
"I think we can both make the team," Beckerman said. "I look at him as an opponent today but a teammate with the national team. I want to see him do well. I don’t wish any bad for him or anything.
"I just hope all the national team guys are healthy and in form for when the team comes together. That’s just going to make us better."
As we saw Saturday, Edu and Beckerman are both hitting good levels of play as we count down to a month before Klinsmann will call in the final pre-World Cup training camp. If the two midfielders continue to play like they have, they very well could be on the plane to Brazil together, rather than fighting for one seat.
TIMBERS AND RED BULLS STILL WINLESS
Conference winners in 2013, the New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers are still searching for their first victories of 2014. It's a development few could have seen coming, and one that has two of the league's most promising young coaches working feverishly to straighten things out.
The Timbers have been their own worst enemy, committing defensive blunders that have cost them results on several occasions this season. Portland's attack also started the season slowly, but it has been the defensive breakdowns, including the shaky play of newcomer Norberto Papparatto, that have left Caleb Porter exasperated.
Portland's defensive frailities were covered up last year in large part by the outstanding work of Donovan Ricketts, who took home Goalkeeper of the Year honors for his efforts. In 2014, Ricketts has not been nearly as good, and without him donning a Superman cape, Portland's miscuses have cost the Timbers more often than not.
Does this mean the Timbers are doomed? Not so fast. Porter has turned to the tandem of Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso in central defense, and while the pairing doesn't provide Porter with the type of distribution out of the back that he would prefer, and that Papparatto was supposed to provide, at least the Gambian tandem can do a decent job minimizing mistakes. Once the Timbers' attack starts firing on a consistent basis, which it should given the team's weapons, Portland should start finding the win column.
Things aren't quite as simple for the Red Bulls, who have endured injuries and poor finishing on the way to an 0-2-4 start. New York's problems can be blamed on an offseason that saw the team tread water rather than truly improve. Fabian Espindola, Markus Holgersson and Brandon Barklage were replaced by Armando, Richard Eckersley and Bobby Convey, and the tradeoff hasn't been all that impressive, leaving the team's bench looking lackluster.
That has spelled doom for a team with so many aging key players, like Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave, who have already missed two games each in order to avoid playing on artificial turf.
So how has the reigning Supporters' Shield winner endured such a poor start? It's pretty simple. As a group, the Red Bulls overachieved in 2013, squeezing everything out of a top-heavy team led by an inspired Tim Cahill. The team needed to reinforce its bench, but rather than get deeper, the Red Bulls made lackluster additions and are now paying the price.
Now the Red Bulls face the very real possibility of their season going down the tubes if Cahill, Henry and Olave don't play at their very best. That trio has done it before, though, and with Luis Robles and Lloyd Sam playing extremely well amid the disappointing start, the Red Bulls could still be a factor this season. It's also important to remember that the team has a designated player slot it could still use to bring in an impact player.
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
PLAYER OF THE WEEK- Clint Dempsey. The U.S. national team star had a hand in every Sounders goal. He scored a beautiful free kick, forced an own goal, then delivered the winner on a give-and-go.
TEAM OF THE WEEK- Seattle Sounders. Coming from behind to hand FC Dallas its first loss of the season, and doing it on the road no less, makes Seattle the easy pick this week.
ROOKIE OF THE WEEK- Tommy McNamara. The Chivas USA midfielder has been one of the best rookies in the league in the early season, and he was enjoying another stellar showing Saturday before suffering a non-contact knee injury in the 63rd minute of Chivas USA's 1-1 tie against Portland. McNamara completed 32 of 33 passes before collapsing on the Providence Park turf.
PASS OF THE WEEK- Vincent Nogueira and Darlington Nagbe. It was tough to choose between the works of art delivered by the Philadelphia midfielder and Portland speedster, so they'll both get credit for beautiful assists. Nogueira's floating dish on Andrew Wenger's goal was perfect, while Nagbe's slipped pass to a streaking Will Johnson showed off his impressive soccer IQ.
- Sports & Recreation
- Kyle Beckerman
- Jurgen Klinsmann
- Maurice Edu
- Jermaine Jones