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Jul 13, 2013

Polarizing Beckerman in big role for U.S.

In its last two games, the U.S. men's national team has had things entirely its own way. The Americans have dominated possession, scored goals by the truckload and rarely have been troubled defensively. Yet there will come a time during this Gold Cup when the U.S. will need Kyle Beckerman.

Yes, you read that correctly. Need. Granted, such sentiment will not sit well with some segments of the U.S. fan base. Whenever Beckerman dons a U.S. shirt, it seems that he becomes a lightning rod for whatever angst U.S. fans might be feeling about a particular game. Like no other U.S. player of late, every misplaced pass is proof that Beckerman can't cut it at the international level, while his merits are routinely ignored. It's almost as if Beckerman has become this cycle's Ricardo Clark.

"It's the nature of the business, I think," said ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman, who as a player had a bit of experience taking grief from U.S. fans. "Some players have a bad reputation, some don't. In Beckerman's case, do I think it's unfair? Yeah, I do.

"Tuesday's 6-1 hammering of Belize was another example. At one point, a tweet (since deleted) appeared, asking: "What does [U.S. manager Jurgen] Klinsmann see in Beckerman?" It sparked a litany of complaints towards the midfielder, among them his unwillingness to play the ball forward and his penchant for giving the ball away.

- Another six-spot shows U.S. firepower

The numbers told a different story. Beckerman, who was not made available by U.S. Soccer to be interviewed for this story, completed 51 of 55 passes in 45 minutes of work, 37 of which were played forward. One of those passes was put on a platter for Chris Wondolowski to head home for his second goal of the evening. Another telling ball was played to Jose Torres a short while later, only for the Tigres midfielder to hit his shot straight at Belize goalkeeper Shane Orio.

Belize is littered with amateur players, so the performance has to be put in context. But it was also a night where Beckerman didn't do a whole lot wrong. The fact that the last two matches have opened up in the second half doesn't change that, even as players like Stuart Holden impressed, making Beckerman's performance suffer a bit by comparison.

"Playing in the second half of these kinds of games, it's so much easier," Twellman said. "Everyone goes into a Guatemala game or a Belize game thinking they're going to score a hat trick. Everyone's going 1,000 miles an hour trying to get the first goal, and then the game changes."This isn't to say that Beckerman is perfect or that he deserves more minutes with the A-team.

His limited range at the international level means he'll never displace the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron, or perhaps even Maurice Edu when he returns to health. Defensive spot duty at the World Cup looks to be the upper limit of his role with the A-team.Yet that still doesn't explain how Beckerman is the target of so much ire. Without question, certain games stick in the memory more than others, and the away World Cup qualifier against Jamaica in the semifinal round of qualifying wasn't Beckerman's finest hour. He not only committed the foul that led to the home side's equalizer, but the ball deflected off him and past Tim Howard. He was also caught in possession several times.

"I think fans tend to pick on that [performance], even though Jermaine Jones didn't have a good game that night either," Twellman said.

But there is still value to what Beckerman brings to the field. Klinsmann has lauded Beckerman's influence in the locker room, repeatedly referring to the midfielder as "a giver" who also helps maintain the group's intensity in training. And the reality is when it comes to this tournament, the games will at some point get much more difficult, the U.S. will be put under pressure and the midfield battles will become more intense. It is at that point that Beckerman's grit, tackling, and yes, his passing will be needed.

Some will point to the fact that Holden was leading the EPL in tackles at the time of his unfortunate injury in March of 2011 as proof that he can man the No. 6 role. But Holden, while an excellent two-way player, wasn't providing the bulk of the defensive midfield presence in that side. That role was occupied by Fabrice Muamba. A more defensive-minded player will be needed alongside him.

Of course, in the last two U.S. games, Beckerman's defensive qualities haven't been in much demand. The U.S. has been allowed to possess the ball practically at will. The extent to which that will be the case in Saturday's match against Cuba is an open question given the way that Cuba played against Costa Rica. Holden and Beckerman weren't paired up in the two most recent matches, but as the games get more difficult, that combination might provide the right mixture of defensive grit and creativity.

If that pairing proves successful, perhaps then Beckerman will come in for some praise.

 

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