One more time: spinning the Kyle Beckerman-U.S. national team argument wheel. Yes, again.

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Kyle Beckerman is a holding midfielder. His job is to screen the defense, acting as a midfielder destroyer, using his wile to clog and dog passing the lanes, channeling his controlled tenacity into useful tackling and 50-50 ball winning. In possession, he is the first outlet for defenders, charged with moving the ball along in some sensible, orderly way to more attack-minded types.

Those are his unchanging orders around the national team.

Only, to listen to a faction of U.S. Soccer supporters, Beckerman should be scoring goals like Jozy Altidore or assisting like vintage Tab Ramos in addition to everything else. Or something close to it, even from a holding midfield position.

ESPN FC’s Jeff Carlisle said it best when he called Beckerman a polarizing figure. I’ll go a step further:

At the risk of being insulting, I have to wonder if fans who cannot see any value in the Real Salt Lake man just don’t like the way he looks (the dreads and all), or perhaps miss some basic understanding of the game? It’s OK if you don’t like Beckerman as a holding midfielder; I disagree, because I’ve seen him perform wonderfully for Real Salt Lake in that role for years. But you must recognize that he is a holding midfielder at least, a.k.a. a “defensive midfielder.”

I get the feeling that too many supporters cannot or will not acknowledge that teams need balance and roles.

I mean, could a football team function with a bunch of skilled position players and no men to do the blocking? Could a basketball team function without someone to go get rebounds? No. And most fans have a general understanding of that.

Most soccer fans will allow that a side needs defenders, whose role is generally “stop and distribute.” But they might fall short in recognizing that defending happens all over the field and in varying individual balances between “attack” and “defend.”

(MORE: Previewing tonight’s U.S.-Costa Rica Gold Cup contest)

Midfields also need balance, and that’s what a guy like Beckerman is all about. Show me a midfield with four attack-minded types and I’ll show you an All-Star team designed for “show,” or a league team that is going nowhere fast. No, the Real Salt Lake man is not a set-up specialist, although a couple of skillful assists lately have reminded us that Beckerman has that element in his game.

Teams require a certain amount of midfield steel, willing mudders who are happy to win the ball and move it along selflessly. Part and parcel is a willingness to retain the defensive shape, to steadfastly protect against counter attacks rather than impatiently springing forward (as Jermaine Jones, top man on the U.S. holding midfield depth chart, too frequently gets caught doing.)

After all, the reasonable approach to these matches as heavy favorites is to secure a fairly comfortable win; something along the lines of 3-0 or 4-1 does just fine, thank you very much. The silly approach is to go crashing forward in search of 6-0 or 7-0, the kind of romp-and-stomps that may satisfy one small segment of fandom but involves a bit of wholly unnecessary risk.

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Is it best when screening midfielders can tackle like mad dogs and then pass like Xabi Alonso or Daniele De Rossi? Of course! But Alonso and De Rossi are two of the best in the world at what they do; there just aren’t many Alonsos and De Rossis out there.

What I’ve said before about Beckerman is this: he’s probably not the optimum choice for games that will require tons of attacking, where the holding man’s job is equal parts screening the defense and moving the ball forward with a little more of playmaker’s eye.

But in tough games, in the World Cup qualifiers played in those intimidating parts of the world? Give me a guy like Beckerman for those, even if his role is off the bench. He’s fearless and experienced, and that means so much in those testing environments.

And in the Gold Cup elimination matches ahead, give me the leader who knows his role and who isn’t afraid to step into the midfield tackle, to make that area a less comfortable place to be.

That’s Beckerman – whether or not you are the person who realizes it.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.