I love football because I can do things like write a serious story about the best fouler I ever faced.
My first two years in MLS, I watched a lot of film of other teams and players. I wanted to learn everything that I could, mostly about veteran defensive midfielders. I watched dozens of games involving Ozzie Alonso, Jeff Larentowics, Daniel Hernandez, and Kyle Beckerman. Each player taught me something specific. And my biggest takeaway from Beckerman was how to foul.
Yes, how to foul.
Exhibit A in the U.S. game against Germany: In the middle of the first half, Germany won the ball near the center circle and countered toward the U.S. goal. Ozil drove the ball down the middle, Müller peeling to his right and Schweinsteiger to his left. It was going to be a German three-on-two. Then Beckerman tugged on Schweinsteiger's jersey and pulled him to the ground. A German three-on-two had become a U.S. three-on-two. So sexy. Fouling at its best.
Beckerman is a lot of things as a player—a smooth passer, clean in possession, even the occasional goalscorer in MLS—but more than anything, he is a damn pest. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. He's always there, floating around at the same speed, talking trash, making himself known. He's the little gnat buzzing around your head. What the hell, just leave me alone. (Beckerman once spent 90 minutes telling me, "Young cock, you fucking suck." He has a special place in my heart.)
It doesn't really do Beckerman justice to talk only about his fouling ability. He is a tremendous player in several respects, maybe the most important player in MLS. He's probably the best passing defensive midfielder in the league—he is always near the top in passes completed and possession rate—and he is a fantastic leader.
But considering how good he is at fouling, we don't talk about his fouling ability enough. It's a game changer. Silly, maybe. But not irrelevant. He keeps other teams from building momentum. Not your day, man, not today. He's the best in MLS at both building rhythm and destroying it. He always knows when to make a foul to mess up the other team's progress.
Defensive midfielders have a tough job. They are often stuck between two crucial assignments. Beckerman's primary role is to sit in front of the back four and protect the center backs. He cannot not let anyone float free in the danger zone: Job 1A. But he also needs to support his team when they press: Job 1B.
Defensive midfielders often need to be the last ones to finish the press. They close up the pocket to win the ball. Players hate when they press to the ball and their teammates don't join with them. There are few things worse than sprinting forward to put pressure on a player, then feel like you've got him, at which point he makes a simple pass to an open man beyond you. It's fair game to throw your arms up and lay into the guys behind you. And as a defensive midfielder, it's a horrible feeling to sit back and let your teammates down as they work hard to win the ball. Sometimes you need to vacate your zone to move forward to pick up a different player and not let the opponent pass out of pressure.
The cost, of course, is that you leave your zone. You leave the most critical part of the field unmanned. It's a dangerous trade-off. Solving this problem is where Beckerman thrives.
He is excellent at the "win it or kill it" mentality (a phrase I made up just now): either win the ball or kill the play. Beckerman is excellent at winning tackles—he has good anticipation and balance—but he is a master at killing the play if he doesn't. Whatever happens, you cannot let the ball get out of this pocket. If the ball gets out, the player better not.
When he thinks you might gain an advantage or start to get a flow, he breaks it up right away. In the modern game, it's not easy to take fouls to disrupt play. It's the most obvious and frequent yellow card. Beckerman, though, somehow manages to do it slyly enough to avoid cautions. He nicks your leg so it looks as if you'd gotten tangled, or he falls over into your back so it looks like an accident. Oh, my bad. Sorry man, he says, as he taps you on the shoulder or helps you up.
He can do it four or five times in a game and never get a yellow. Those are four or five times the opponent could have been flying toward goal. At the top level, that's a score or two. But Beckerman inserts himself into the rhythm of the other team's buildup, saving goals with minor little fouls in the middle of the field. It's a small skill that means so much.
We always talk about a player's ability to pass or shoot or dribble. Beckerman can do all of those things extraordinarily well. He is one of the most skilled players in MLS. But let's not forget the art of annoyance and disruption and generally being an impossible little shit. Of that, Beckerman is a master.
Bobby Warshaw graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, and then was drafted in the 1st round (17th overall) by FC Dallas in 2011. Bobby currently plays for GAIS in Sweden, and sometimes contributes stories to his hometown newspaper, the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, PA. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @bwarshaw14.
Photo Credit: Getty