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Jaylin Lindsey: Sporting Kansas City’s “right” back for the future?

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An analysis of the 20-year-old’s last two matches.

SOCCER: SEP 02 MLS FC Dallas at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the third in a series of analyses in which eyes are focused on a particular Sporting Kansas City player on and off the ball for two matches, looking for his tendencies, strengths, and areas of needed improvement.

Analysis #1: Gianluca Busio, a two-match analysis: Is it his position or what he does?

Analysis #2: The Winston Reid way: The way for Sporting Kansas City?

Background

Jaylin Lindsey has a strong pedigree, either participating in camps or playing competitive matches for the U.S. U-14s 15s, and 17s. Once the Charlotte, North Carolina, native joined Sporting KC’s academy in 2015, his movement up the ranks was impressive. Consequently, the right back made his debut for the first team in 2018. Fast forward to 2020 and Lindsey has started eight of nine appearances, including the last three at right back in place of injured veteran Graham Zusi.

Zusi, originally an MLS All-Star and a player of impact for the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup at attacking-minded midfielder/winger, moved to right back at the behest of Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes in 2017. Zusi had continued success at the international level (53 caps in total) and has been an MLS All-Star and mainstay on the back line for Sporting ever since. However, Zusi’s defensive prowess has always been scrutinized, and that scrutiny was exacerbated in 2019 when Sporting surrendered 67 goals against, nearly three times as many as the season before.

Thus, Lindsey’s opportunity to usurp the sure Sporting Legend is significant, even more so knowing wide backs play such a critical role in Vermes’ 4-3-3. The player who permanently supplants the 34-year-old, long-time Sporting KC stalwart Zusi will have to be a tactically-aware, talented multi-tasker.

Seemingly, the 20-year-old Lindsey has long been groomed to be Sporting’s right back for many years to come. Is his current play consistent with that assumed plan? Granted, two matches is a small sample size, but food for thought can be gleaned.

Job One (A & B)

A right back is, before anything, a defender, protecting a flank in his team’s end coveted by attacking players who are often fleet-footed strong crossers or dribblers (or both) who can get to the end line to play into the box or cut inside for a shot or to make killer passes. In addition, many #10s use the flanks to find space and do their slicing up of defenses from there.

At Chicago Fire in Sporting’s 2-2 draw last Saturday afternoon, Lindsey either blocked a cross or forced a probable crosser backwards five times. For example, in the critical late 87th and 88th minutes, Lindsey worked with Johnny Russell and Roberto Puncec, respectively, to stop potential crosses. These were vital containments and interventions, to be sure. In addition, Lindsey executed several routine defensive maneuvers well.

But more times, Lindsey left his team exposed as he: repeatedly lingered in “no man’s land” where he was easily bypassed by the attacking side; fouled a player going nowhere on the flank, leading to a dangerous free kick; failed to cover a man at the back post; and made two volatile errors that more often than not would have led to a goal against (see below and also in the 84th).

Secondly, in Sporting’s 4-3-3 system, the outside backs are expected to support the attack, and, when possession is lost, to defend when upfield (or recover like a bat out of hell) to avoid quick counterattacks into that space in their team’s own end vacated by their attacking run.

Lindsey’s average foot speed increases the importance of making good defensive decisions when in the opponent’s end (not to mention aids in the idea of winning the ball back or forcing errors there to be able to quickly attack the opponent’s goal). Three times, Lindsey filled space and recovered the ball in the Fire’s end. However, in the 26th minute, Lindsey committed a cardinal sin. Arriving late (and knowing Sporting was exposed), he left his feet to try and win a tackle as a Fire attacker dribbled towards midfield on their left flank. A 3 v 1 attack on Sporting’s right flank (that became a central 5 v 3 for Chicago as they neared Sporting’s box) ensued.

At FC Dallas on Wednesday, October 14, such struggles were mightier (and more in number) for Lindsey as he, at times, gave up corners and allowed attackers to get possession and get off crosses. He was also often put under pressure by talented Colombian attacker Michael Barrios and others. Two errors here are ones for which pundits and discretionary fans would roast Zusi: In the 51st, Lindsey awkwardly knocked down Ryan Hollingshead from behind, luckily escaping a whistle that would have give FC Dallas a free kick just outside Sporting’s box, then touched the ball right to Barrios for a clear shot at goal. In the 76th, Lindsey miss-headed a flighted ball, again right to Barrios.

Yes, Lindsey does some things well defensively much of the time. However, he lacks the ability to be a consistent, formidable interventionist. A level that his opposite, Amadou Dia, has approached in his likely claiming of the left back position.

The attacking back

Combined with the defensive roles, responsibilities (and expectations) for a wing back in a 4-3-3 become almost intimidating when on the attack. He is to pop up in a variety of dangerous areas, dynamically combine with his winger and others, serve a consistent diet of accurate – sometimes pinpoint – crosses, and occasionally find the back of the net.

Against FC Dallas, Lindsey did not fulfill his responsibilities. He sometimes passed up the simple pass to keep possession in his own end (ending in a giveaway) and sometimes passed up the chance to play a penetrative pass on the other end. Each opposite of the ideal. Sometimes, he played the ball well under pressure or kept the ball circulating. Other times, he failed to be in a position be an outlet for a teammate in possession.

In Chicago (clearly his better match), Lindsey sometimes fell ill to the above. But he more often kept possession well under pressure and filled the proper lane to win the ball and play for teammates in dangerous wide areas. Two times he created chances on his own: In the 23rd minute, he won a tackle 36 yards from Chicago’s net; then, using Russell as a decoy, he split two defenders to send a low cross into the box.

Lindsey should have rung up an assist, but no one was at the far post. Late in the 77th, he overlapped wide on the right to draw a defender away from the ball and space. Then, after receiving, he used a feint to an overlapping player to create space to get off a cross, albeit a poor one.

Lindsey has the attacking ideas. He just needs to have them more often and put them into the moment. Halfway through taking notes on Lindsey during the FC Dallas match (which I did after the Chicago match), I wrote, “[Lindsey] lacks that consistent ability to keep the ball in positive (preferably forward) possession.” Generally, Lindsey makes safe decisions on the ball.

The decision

I am not going to take the safe approach. I am going to give my honest opinion. Lindsey’s speed, skill on the ball, decisions on the ball, and athleticism are all average for an MLS player. His tactical awareness is growing and his passing accuracy is good. He is not a factor in the air (though a wing back does not have to be).

It is Lindsey’s inconsistency that is consistent. That is normal for a 20-year-old. Unlike 18-year-old Gianluca Busio, who, in fairness, has gotten more time, Lindsey has yet to show in his play and general demeanor that he belongs. I would even argue that Felipe Hernandez (2 years older, but significant less MLS playing time) has exceeded Lindsey in that regard.

As relayed by Nate Bukaty on the Fox Sports Kansas City broadcast of the Chicago match, Lindsey has stated that he “feels he has grown leaps and bounds, and some because of shaky performances [that he has] learned from.” With more time and more reps, Lindsey will become more consistent and more confident. But I truly see his ceiling as being moderate.

In an August, 2017 ESPN.com article by Jeff Carlisle titled “Graham Zusi’s transition from midfield to right-back a boon for the U.S.”, Zusi states the following: “It’s a position where I’ve found that physically it may not be as demanding as a midfield position, but mentally it is draining. After games you feel mentally drained because you have to be locked in the entire time, or you can be punished.”

Superlative wing backs make the 4-3-3 system hum. But it ain’t easy. Overall, Graham Zusi has been superlative (especially on the attack) 85-90% of the time. It is a fact that they are expected to have a significant impact on both ends of the field, occasionally in an extraordinary way.

Is Jaylin Lindsey (or will he be) near-enough a superlative wing back that Sporting Kansas City can count on for years to come? It is a very relevant question. The contracts of Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Gerso Fernandes, Erik Hurtado, and Gadi Kinda all expire at the end of the year. Many of those are big contracts in MLS terms. Sporting Kansas City should earmark a significant amount of those funds to finding a young-ish right back that can ably fill Zusi’s shoes or more.

What are your thoughts? Do you see other things in his game that are not mentioned here? Is Lindsey the right back of the future for Sporting KC? Is he worth continued investment? Give your thoughts in the comments.