By Kyle McCarthy
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Colorado coach Gary Smith knows how to frame an argument.
As the manager of one of a handful of forwards seeking a spot in the U.S. squad for the World Cup, Smith tracks the latest rumblings and wonders where his forward, Conor Casey, falls in the pecking order. The recent buzz doesn't favor the Rapids target man. Public sentiment has coalesced around currently prolific forwards Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez in recent weeks as all interested parties wait Bob Bradley's proposed resolution to his attacking conundrum.
When prompted to assess Casey's chances for a spot in Bradley's 23-man squad, Smith acknowledges Buddle's surge to prominence and lays the foundation for why he thinks Casey should feature prominently in the discussion.
“Listen, people like Edson are going to get all of the headlines because they've scored seven goals in four games,” Smith said. “The reality is that it depends on what the manager is after.”
And if Bradley is in the market for a target forward who has already shown he can score goals in key moments on the international level, Smith said he coaches a guy who fits the bill.
Fitting into the mold matters for potential American international strikers. Bradley's reign as U.S. manager indicates a preference for four types of forwards: (1) whippet-quick strikers with the pace to stretch defenses; (2) target men with the ability to bring goalscoring midfielders into the play and hold up the ball; (3) Jozy Altidore and (4) goalscoring midfielders who can play up top when the first three categories offer inadequate choices.
One look at Casey reveals he falls squarely into the second category. The former Mainz striker looks like the prototypical target man with his shaved head, his beefy frame and his combative deportment. He was born to rumble with defenders for 90 minutes and it shows in how he plays the game. Casey extracts a pound of flesh from his marker every time he steps onto the pitch, a fact that often obscures his facility with the ball at his feet.
All of those qualities surfaced during Casey's shift as a lone forward in Colorado's 2-1 win at New England on Saturday night. Casey occupied New England central defenders Darrius Barnes and Cory Gibbs for most of the night, displayed an ability to turn frequently and hold up the ball regularly and distributed service time and again into the generous space consistently allotted to the Colorado central midfielders on the edge of the New England penalty area.
Casey's contribution to Pablo Mastroeni's matchwinner typified his efforts on the night. Omar Cummings crossed in from the left wing and located Casey just above the penalty spot. Casey corralled the cross on the bounce, held off Barnes and Gibbs for several seconds and placed a perfectly weighed pass into space for Mastroeni to lash home first time off the near post to decide the match after 73 minutes.
“He was great again,” Smith said. “When he's in that sort of form, he's extremely difficult to play against. For a big guy, he's got very good quality and he brings people into the game well. That's a difficult role up there on your own, but he's the perfect man for it.”
The lingering concern about Casey's World Cup future centers on whether he can provide the perfect option in front of goal. Casey's past six MLS goals have arrived from the penalty spot, a symptom of Colorado's indifferent wide play to end 2009 and start 2010 and a problem for a player expected to improve upon his current return of two goals in 19 international appearances.
As much as Casey offered another display to buttress his credentials as the best target option behind the currently hamstrung Brian Ching, he underlined the continuing concerns about his goalscoring form. Casey should have broken his duck from the run of play in the 33rd minute after Mehdi Ballouchy rang the far post with a bicycle kick. He reacted first to locate the rebound at the far post, but directed his effort from a couple of yards into the chest of recovering New England goalkeeper Preston Burpo instead of into the back of the net. The miss constituted the type of chance a striker simply can't afford to spurn at the international level.
“I think on another day, he might have had a chance or two himself,” Smith said. “The one that hit the upright and came down fell at his feet nicely, but Preston made a good save. There have been two or three good opportunities from him, but on the day, he's been a supplier today more than he's been a goalscorer.”
In order to take Casey to South Africa, Bradley must accept the fact that the Colorado forward – even with his 16 goals in MLS play last season – will fill that role more often than not. Whether Bradley believes the argument that Casey offers a better option in his squad than Buddle or Gomez remains undetermined.
Week Five – Questions, Thoughts and Answers
Star Man – Donovan Ricketts, Los Angeles goalkeeper
The Jamaican international made more stops in Kansas City (six) than he made in the previous four matches combined (five) to allow the Galaxy to claim a 0-0 draw at CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
The Weekend XI
1. New York forward Salou Ibrahim drew plenty of criticism for a rather ineffective full debut last weekend, but he improved considerably during his second start in the Red Bulls' 2-1 victory over Philadelphia. Ibrahim's movement on the opening goal provided the best evidence of his growth from week-to-week. The Ghanaian striker started the move by collecting and laying the ball off to Jeremy Hall and continued his involvement in the play by making a smart diagonal run to the back stick. The work reaped dividends as Ibrahim nodded home Hall's floated cross after Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz couldn't punch clear.
2. Philly continues to show flashes of quality play in fits and starts, but the consistency simply isn't there yet to grind out points. The positives – particularly the budding relationship between Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno – bode well for progress as the Union continues its first campaign, but the negatives – the porous defense (eight goals in four games) chief among them – show success remains an object for the medium- and the long-term.
3. While journalists spilled plenty of ink this weekend over the budding rivalry between New York and Philadelphia (let the two sides play a few close, heated games first, eh?), Columbus and Real Salt Lake spent the weekend developing a rancorous relationship started when the Claret-and-Cobalt unceremoniously dumped the defending champs out of the playoffs last season. The repartee commenced on Friday when Columbus coach Robert Warzycha told MLSsoccer.com that RSL “wasn't the best team last year” and noted “[t]hey got hot at the end and won it.” Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer – a strong candidate for a place in the MLS Most Quotable XI – added fuel to the fire in the aftermath of the Crew's 1-0 win over RSL at a rainy Crew Stadium on Saturday night. “They're walking around as a champion, saying they're the champion,” Hesmer told the Columbus Dispatch. "They were sub-.500 last year. That doesn't sit well with us. We clearly think we've been the class of the league the past two years, and we wanted to prove it.” RSL coach Jason Kreis offered a withering response to the home team's claims after the Crew picked up all three points without hitting top gear. “I thought they played very well,” Kreis said. “I think it was the best match they played this season. I watched their first two and by a large way this was their best match of the season.”
4. RSL may have stumbled out of the gate with a meager four points through five matches, but the season isn't a lost cause quite yet. The champs have already faced three of their toughest away fixtures – Columbus, Houston and Los Angeles – of the campaign and have submitted a string of solid performances. A couple of decisions here or there – the suspect offside call on Will Johnson to negate the late equalizer, for example – could have earned RSL a deserved point at Crew Stadium. The good news: RSL should bank six points over the next two weekends with Toronto FC and Philadelphia heading to Utah.
5. New England coach Steve Nicol grabbed headlines in the aftermath of Colorado's 2-1 win at Gillette Stadium with strong comments about how referees fail to adequately protect Sainey Nyassi, but the winger's treatment didn't tell the story of the evening. Once again, the Revolution failed to maintain any semblance of possession in midfield with Shalrie Joseph (right hip flexor strain) unavailable and paid dearly for it. Colorado coach Gary Smith's tactics played a role in continuing the emerging pattern as he inserted Mehdi Ballouchy into the starting XI to add a third central midfielder. New England struggles when presented with a two-versus-two battle in the engine room sans Joseph, so it's little wonder then that both Rapids goals – plus two further efforts off the woodwork – came from Colorado's central midfield trio of Ballouchy, Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni.
6. It would take a miss of epic proportions to top Kei Kamara's 16th minute blunder from six inches out in Kansas City's 0-0 draw with Los Angeles. Davy Arnaud's drive rang the left post and the rebound skittered along the goal line begging for a final touch. As Kamara lunged to vault the Wizards ahead, he slipped on the wet CommunityAmerica Ballpark surface, fell to the ground and bumped the ball into the net with his right arm. One can only hope Kamara's subsequent protestations after the referee – with considerable help from his assistant referee – ruled out the goal for handball stemmed from embarrassment rather than honest disagreement. “It was unbelievable,” Los Angeles defender Gregg Berhalter offered. “It was one of the most unbelievable things I've seen in soccer. It was unfortunate for Kamara, but it was a handball and credit the linesman for seeing it.”
7. Los Angeles coach (and former Kansas City color commentator) Bruce Arena reduced the size of the Galaxy's training field at the Home Depot Center last week to prepare for his side's trip to CommunityAmerica Ballpark. The preparations netted a point, but Arena suggested he wasn't much of a fan of the intimate stadium. “It was a very ugly game in a difficult venue,” Arena said after the rainswept draw. “No surprise that it was going to look like that. I think the conditions were magnified (because of the field). It was a difficult, ugly game. We knew that coming in, and we knew that when [we will leave].”
8. Chicago has presented problems for the opposition in its past two matches by deploying a five-man midfield and encouraging its midfielders to dart forward to supplement the lone forward in attack. Case in point: the deepest of those five midfielders – Baggio Husidic and Peter Lowry – each tallied as the Fire picked up its second win on the trot with a 2-0 victory over Houston at Toyota Park.
9. Three goals of considerable quality highlighted an entertaining affair as Chivas USA produced its best performance of the campaign to defeat San Jose 3-2 at the Home Depot Center. Sacha Kljestan's thumping opener from distance – aided by an inch-perfect diagonal feed from Blair Gavin – whetted the appetite in the early stages and an impressive passing sequence, Mariano Trujillo's teasing cross and Justin Braun's glancing header off the far post upped the ante in the second half. The final goal, however, emerged as the tally of the night as San Jose rookie defender Steven Beitashour adjusted to a spinning rebound from a half-cleared corner kick, stretched out to connect with the ball as it ducked away from him and sidevolleyed home from the edge of the penalty area to grab a consolation goal for the visitors in second-half stoppage time.
10. "I thought they played really well, to be honest,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop told ESPN Los Angeles after his Earthquakes extended their winless streak at the HDC to six matches. “Sometimes you have to say, 'We were outplayed today.' We didn't play great, and we thought they played well.”
11. “Sometimes, unfortunately you make mistakes,” Seattle midfielder Freddie Ljungberg told the Seattle Times after gaffes by Osvaldo Alonso and Tyrone Marshall precipitated Sounders FC's 2-0 defeat at Toronto FC on Sunday afternoon. “We had two mistakes, it happens to everybody, and they killed the game for us.”
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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