Okay, so a completely hypothetical and cliched post about how I would deploy current and former Cal football players if they chose to play soccer all their lives instead of football. Based on the skills and abilities they demonstrate on the grid iron I tried to extrapolate who would be the best soccerers, where they should play, and how I would deploy them. Note: I only chose players I saw since I became a Cal fan, hence the Tedford-centric roster.
FYI, I never had any tactical training in soccer, rather gathered all my knowledge playing in for-fun leagues for about 15-20 years. If my plan and evaluations seem to be the basketball equivalent of YMCA tactics, that would be why. Anyway, on to the soccerers!
My first objective was to collect a pool of players to choose from. Soccer players require touch, vision, speed, endurance, and size roughly in that order. Difficulty lays in trying to evaluate 'touch', potential on the ball skill is horribly reflected in american football, and I pretty much assumed everyone's touch would be similar (though I have a hunch if Desean Jackson played soccer all his life, he might have excellent touch). Vision is also difficult to evaluate, particularly since in football only one player passes, while everyone has to pass in soccer. There is also limited room to showcase the spontaneous creativity required for soccer. Yes, some sponaneous creativity does arise in football, and players like Barry Sanders and Desean Jackson are testiment to this, but on the whole, the set plays employed by football deems spontaneous creativity a lesser requirement, where as in soccer it is essential for anyone not on defense.
Evaluating the roster of past Cal football teams, some positions are easily removed. I appreaciate linemen and they are vitaly important in football, but when transitioning to a different sport their skill set becomes rather useless. In football they are meant to be big and strong pushing other giant people around, there is no place in soccer for this skill, thus none were considered. That leaves linebackers, defensive backs, running backs, quarterbacks, and wide receivers. My initial pool of applicants considered were: Desean Jackson, Jahvid Best, Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, Lavelle Hawkins, Geoff Macarthur, Justin Forsett, Shane Vereen, Syd'Quan Thompson, Joe Ayoob, Zack Follet, Dante (Damyeon) Hughes, Thomas Decoud, Robert Jordan, and Cameron Morrah. Before, I evaluate each of these players, here are some basic stats about the key players of the current US Men's National Team:
GK: Tim Howard, 6'-3" 210 lbs
CB (center back): Carlos Bocanegro, 6'-0" 170 lbs
CB: Jay Demerit, 6'-0" 185
CB: Onyewu Oguchi, 6'-4" 210
SB (side back): Jonathon Bornstein, 5'-9" 145
SB: Steve Cherundolo, 5'-6" 145
MF (midfield): Michael Bradley, 6'-2" 175
MF: Maurice Edu, 6'-0" 170
MF: Landon Donovan, 5'-8" 158
MF: Clint Dempsey, 6'-1" 170
CF (center forward): Jozy Altidore, 6'-1" 175
CF: Robbie Findley, 5'-9" 165
Looking at the relative heights and weights, typical prototypes for each position arise. Center backs are big and tall, side backs are short and fast, midfielders are around 6'-0" 170, the target forward is 6'-1" 175, and speed forward is 5'-9" 165. Reflecting upon the world cup, Altidore was a rock at the top, outmuscling nearly every opponent he played, he is listed at 6'-1" 175 (though 175 seems a bit light to me), remember this as I evaluate each former Cal football player.
To reiterate, based on simple memory this is the list of players I chose to consider: Desean Jackson, Jahvid Best, Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, Lavelle Hawkins, Geoff Macarthur, Justin Forsett, Shane Vereen, Syd'Quan Thompson, Joe Ayoob, Zack Follet, Dante (Damyeon) Hughes, Thomas Decoud, Robert Jordan, and Cameron Morrah.
Desean Jackson, 5'-10" 175: Evaluating all the players, I think Jackson as a forward is the easiest decision to make. Jackson has great speed and quickness to terrorize any opponent's back line. Furthermore, the kid has vision. Looking at his extraordinary ability to return punts, he can glance upfield at 21 players running in all directions, and decipher running lanes, blocking lanes, holes in the defense, and also has the agility and speed to exploit these gaps. His ability to navigate clusters of players, finding small open spaces in football should translate incredibly well to navigating the clusters of players that develop in front of goal creating windows for shots. This vision should also allow him to abuse defensive lines on the break. Jackson has also shown the ability to not only exploit his speed and agility to burn defenders, but an ability to be elusive, making opponents miss. The ability to fake opponents, may translate well to on-the ball feints in soccer. Although, the physical mechanics required to fake an opponent in football is completely different than an on-ball feint, this is a dream scenario and I don't believe they are completely unrelated. Furthermore, it should be noted that Jackson is the same weight as Altidore, and three inches shorter. Its hard to imagine Jackson as a possession receiver in football, but he may be a much more physical presence in soccer. (Though if he did actually give up football for soccer he would probably loose 5-10 lbs of muscle as football requires more anaerobic fitness, while soccer is more of an aerobic fitness [this is true of all players]).
Jahvid Best, 5'-10" 195: Again, top end speed, and excellent accelleration and playing speed within football lends itself to burning opponents back lines. Jahvid would also be a giant in terms of weight (therefore, stength), only Tim Howard and Oguchi would outweigh Best on the US men's team. The thought of Jahvid up high, banging bodies with someone 10-15 lbs lighter only to spin and sprint towards the goal seems like a tantalizing prospect. Jahvid again has good vision. In football, he was great at being patient and waiting for his blockers to set up the play, then exploit it. Similarly, he could read the play in soccer, and exploit the temporary gaps. Both in 08 and 09 Jahvid had touchdown runs which illustrate his ability spontaneously create. In comparing Jahvid to Desean, where Desean has better agility in moving side-to-side, Jahvid seems to have better straight line speed, therefore Jahvid may also be effective on the sides as either a side midfielder or a winger.
Aaron Rodgers, 6'-2" 220: Compared to the other players evaluated, Rodgers is not an overwhelming athlete. But, he is a tremendous passer, both on the run, and in the pocket. He can drop the ball slightly over the head of a defender 40 yards downfield or in between a db and a linebacker 5 yards apart. He can make every type of pass needed in the NFL, and can do so with ease and efficiently. Assuming the ability to read defenses and the anticipation to complete the passes translates into good passing in soccer, Rodgers may be an excellent qb in soccer. Initially I thought his lack of speed may require more space to release his passing, but in realizing he would be a mammoth 220 lbs, his size would make him incredibly difficult to dispossess. Possession skills plus passing skills make him a natural for center midfield.
Marshawn Lynch, 5'-11" 215: Beastmode. Honestly, I think he would be effective anywhere. If Jozy Altidore had power, Beastmode would have POWER!!!!!!! I can't imagine any scenario a player dispossesses Lynch from behind. He also has very good speed to complement his power. The question becomes how do you deploy this power. Clearly, he would be more effective somewhere in the middle of the field, but do you use him as a target up top, a possession midfielder, or a defensive enforcer at center back.
Lavelle Hawkins, 5'-11" 190: Not too much analyses required, in football he had great speed, good route-running, the courage to go over the middle, and solid running skills after the catch. He'd be a good all around soccer prospect, preferably using his speed on the outside of the field.
Geoff Macarthur, 6'-1" 200: He was a great receiver, but unlike Jackson or Hawkins, he was not an extreme talent. Instead he combined great route-running, and beautifully amazing hands to become extremely effective. At first, I had no idea where I would put Macarthur because none of his physical skills really stood out, except for his hands. So, I thought, and thought, and kept thinking about his hands, those beautiful hands. Then it hit me, what position requires great hands. Goalkeeper. At 6'-1" 200, he definitely has the frame to be an imposing presence in goal, and the ability to react to passes quickly, and use those hands pluck the ball, should translate to anticipating opponents shots, and either catching or deflecting the ball away. Goalie is also a hard position to evaluate because reaction time and positioning are the most important skills required. Neither of which are readily apparent in offensive football.
Justin Forsett, 5'-8" 194: Short, stout, fast, and again has great vision. His 194 lbs on a 5'-8" frame means he should have good possession skills. His vision should lend itself to reading defenses. His speed makes him great in space. His lack of height means he should not play center forward, this becomes evident when compared with other prospective soccer players. Therefore, Forsett seems to have the skill set of a side player. Fast, strong, vision, should translate to pace, possession, and passing. Those are three traits required of a side midfielder.
Shane Vereen, 5'-10" 198: Much like Jahvid and Justin, he exhibits good speed, vision, and compared to other soccer players, size. Unlike Jahvid and Justin, he has a certain toughness and fight that begs to be deployed in the midfield as a player to do the dirty work. Usually the grunt work falls to players that aren't particularly physically gifted. Vereen would be the exception and a tenacious mindset combined with speed and size can be a very dangerous combination, as they appear to be everywhere, covering large amounts of space. I feel Vereen would excel in this role, as well as be able to exploit openings in front of him with his speed, or effectively track back if the opponent is breaking.
Syd'Quan Thompson, 5'-9" 186: What about Syd on offense? Thompson was the second easiest player to place. He has good speed, great technique, an excellent ability to read and break on a pass. Syd is also a sure-fire tackler, rarely being beat and demonstrating good timing and anticipation. He also has the ability to be effective on offense. His read and intercept skills lend itself to defense, but his lack of height push him to the side. Fortunately, as a side back he would be given ample opportunity to exploit opposing defenses with his speed and offensive capabilities, while his tackling ability ensures limited breakdowns for the center backs to cover.
Joe Ayoob, 6'-3" 223: I know what you are thinking, Joe Ayoob!?!?! Really? But consider this, as a center back he would be 6'-3" 220, he was the most athletic quarterback of the Tedford era, and what other Cal player has so effectively shut down an aerial passing attack?
Zack Follet, 6'-1" 232: I had difficult time evaluating linebackers in general, simply because I rarely seem them in space. Therefore, I don't know what their speed and agility is like, but from seeing Follet close on quarterbacks, I think it is safe to say he has good straight line speed. As a linebacker I would assume he would have play-diagnosing skills. Most of all, Follet is intimidating. Follet as a center back would be terrifying. He isn't particularly tall, and I don't think his speed would be above average in soccer, but he does command 230 lbs, and has a knack for um..... physical play. I played with a former high school fullback, the kid was about 5'-10" 220, all he had to do to stop the opponent was get his foot in front of the ball. The strength and weight of his legs would send the opponent flying. His strong, wide frame also made it extremely difficult to circumvent as an offensive player. I fully believe Follet would be similar.
Dante Hughes, 5'-10" 190: Shares many of the same attributes as Syd. Great anticipation, great break on the pass, great technique, excellent agility, superb speed. Again, these would translate well to playing defense in soccer. He would be slightly short for a center back, but I have a hunch he'd be able to play any defensive position.
Thomas DeCoud, 6'-2" 205: An amazing tackler with a knack for being around the ball, DeCoud adds legit size to good speed and agility. With three interceptions last year in the NFL, and multiple pass break-ups he should be good at defending the longball in soccer, as well as disrupting short and intermediate passing. Combine the ability to play the pass well, with his excellent tackling ability, plus his size and speed, and DeCoud becomes the first natural center back.
Robert Jordan, 5'-11" 171: Great all-around athlete, lived most of his Berkeley days in the shadows of bigger stars. Jordan's most apparent strength was his consistency, he doesn't have the speed of Desean or the hands of Macarthur, but he showed good speed, agility, and body control to adapt to errant passes. Jordan wasn't the star, instead, he was a role player, and a damn fine role player he was.
Cameron Morrah, 6'-4" 230: Excellent height, excellent weight, also never lacked athleticism. Morrah's Cal career might never have reached its full potential, but the athletic tools Morrah had at his disposal were not the problem. Instead, slippery fingers and lack luster blocking limited his potential. Fortunately for Morrah, soccer doesn't require hands, and blocking is illegal. Based on his athletic skills, Morrah should be a good center back. He has the height and athleticism to clear aerial balls, he has the bulk to shield the ball, and battle target men. He also has the above average speed and agility.
Now that I have my team, how would I deploy them? First, I simply plugged the players into the system deployed by Bradley, as that is the system most people are familiar with. A 4-4-2 is quite common and features 2 center backs, 2 side backs, 4 midfielders, and 2 center forwards. Desean and Jahvid would play up top. Vereen and Forsett would play left and right midfield, with Rodgers and Lynch in the midfield. My back line would feature Hughes and Syd on the sides, and DeCoud and Morrah in the center. Macarthur would be goalie.
For my personal formation used to maximize the talent, I would employ what most closely resembles a 4-4-2, with a diamond in the middle. The top piece of the diamond is off-center to the left.
Marshawn would play a deep striker. Though he lacks 2 or 3 inches to be an ideal target man, his strength would still allow him to be great at getting position and receiving long balls. He also has the speed challenge back lines off the dribble, and had reasonable vision which hopefully would translate to solid passing skills. He would be paired with Desean, who plays a withdrawn striker role. Although, his speed and fluidness is incredible, I think it is best employed moving him into space. With Marshawn pressing and holding the back line deep, hopefully that would create space for Desean to operate in, as well a barrier between him and the offside line. If the ball is played through the air to Marshawn, Desean would run in behind to collect the balls Marshawn knocks down. Furthermore, with Marshawn and Desean staggered, if the ball is played to the feet of Desean, he could utilize Marshawn as a wall, for a nice give and go pattern. Jahvid would play behind Marshawn as an offensive midfielder. Again, Marshawn could receive longballs from the defense and midfield, knocking them down for a streaking Jahvid, who (in theory) would be moving vertically at pace on either side of Marshawn. Jahvid also has a great work ethic, and team concept, therefore he would be likely to consistently track back on defense, when the situation calls. His added bulk also makes him better suited than Desean to play in the midfield.
The rest of the midfield consists of Vereen, Rodgers, and Forsett. With three offensive players, all three would play slightly more defensive roles, though Vereen and Forsett would occassionally overlap on offense. A lot of pressure would be placed on Rodgers to both initiate the offense and defend the center of the field, which is why it is vital for Best to track back on D. With Rodgers alone in the middle, Vereen, Forsett, and Best would all be required to cover ground to provide proper support. Fortunately, they have he speed cover ground, and the weight to get physical. The advantage hopefully lays in better attacking, and creating space for speed players to capitalize on. Although, Vereen and Forsett would both play slightly more defensive roles, the space created by Jackson, promotes Forsett moving forward, moreso than Vereen. This also allows for Syd to move into the space vacated by Forsett more.
Defensively, as I mentioned earlier, Syd and Hughes seem like natural side backs. DeCoud also seems like a natural center back, meaning the great debate was who would be the better center back, Follet or Morrah. Morrah has the athletic skills and height, Follet has intimidation. In the end, I chose overall athleticism. With only one central midfielder, and Hughes and Thompson controlling the sides, opposing attacks would concentrate up the middle. This would require speed and agility to cover ground, particularly since Rodgers is not an overwhleming athlete. Furthermore, no player on the roster I put together has excellent height. Nobody is short, but Morrah would also provide a legit threat on set pieces.
My final roster:
Left Side Back: Dante Hughes
Left Center Back: Cameron Morrah
Right Center Back: Thomas DeCoud
Right Side Back: Syd'Quan Thompson
Central Midfielder: Aaron Rodgers
Left Midfielder: Shane Vereen
Right Midfielder: Justin Forsett
Offensive Midfielder: Jahvid Best
Shadow Striker: Desean Jackson
Center Forward: Marshawn Lynch
And, that is my team if football players grew up playing soccer instead. At the end of this, I can't believe I didn't evaluate Boatang, Tucker, or Ross. All three have good athleticism and size, and would make for an excellent target man up top, since height is also important in a target man. I'm also too lazy to go back and rework everything to account for them.