Power play up top
Quite important in soccer
Think Keyshawn Johnson
Since soccer is not as well known by American athletic enthusiasts as are other sports, from time to time I’ll devote this space to going a little more in depth on some of the positions and strategies of the game. After all, it is execution in these areas that separate the bottom feeders in The Power Rank from the top teams. This week I’ll be talking about hold-up forward play, as demonstrated by Steven Lenhart of the San Jose Earthquakes this week (and yes, I’m from the bay area, of course I’m a ‘Quakes supporter).
After starting the season at the bottom of the The Power Rank, San Jose has risen to 8th riding a 6-game unbeaten streak. The past two games they have had to make do without last year’s Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski, currently on duty with the US national team. In these two games, they’ve outscored their opponents 6-2 to finally bring both their goal differential and Power Rank score into positive territory. A big part of the reason has been the play of Lenhart in his role as the hold-up forward. This particular position is easy to understand because of the many similarities it shares with a position in football: the possession receiver.
The possession receiver distinguishes himself from other types of receivers by trading speed for size, and usually having the softest hands on the team. Keyshawn Johnson, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is always who I think of in this role. His big body allowed him to screen defensive backs and make plays when oriented towards the inside of the field. Possession receivers aren’t going to blow by a corner and score, but by keeping a drive going, they can put other players in the position to do just that.
In a similar way, a hold-up forward will use his body to screen defenders. While soft hands obviously don’t come into the picture, the same basic idea of being able to trap an incoming ball, either with feet or chest, does. This allows the forward to possess the ball and keep it away from the defense while his back faces the opponent’s goal. By holding up the ball, the forward gives his supporting players a chance to get forward, which is particularly important in transitioning from defense to offense as the midfielders and outside backs need time to run up the pitch. After they arrive, the forward can distribute the ball to them.
Of course, this being soccer the analogy isn’t perfect. After distributing the ball back to his teammates, the hold-up forward is still a forward, so it’s his responsibility to get into the other team’s 18-yard box and put the ball in the back of the net. Lenhart’s second goal of the match exemplified this style perfectly. He was able to gently one-touch a ball into the path of fellow forward Khari Stephenson. This let Stephenson strike the ball with both precision and power, so the goalkeeper could only punch the ball away rather than holding onto it. But Lenhart had already pushed forward and was rewarded with an easy finish by being the first player to the loose ball.
I’ll conclude with a programming note. The US Men’s National Team is currently playing the North American Gold Cup. This is the most important tournament the USMNT will play in until the 2014 World Cup, so do yourself a favor and check it out on Fox Soccer Channel.