Starting XI: McCarthy v. Soares

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McCarthy v. Soares – 2013 stats. (Graphic by Sean Donahue/Photo Credits: Chris Aduama/aduama.com)

While the talk around the New England Revolution this week may have surrounded the discontent of captain Jose Goncalves, some of the more interesting storylines this preseason will be how the competitions play out for several starting spots. Among the more interesting battles is for the center back spot next to Goncalves were Stephen McCarthy and A.J. Soares split time and each played about 50% of the minutes last season.

Soares, who was selected by the Revolution with the 6th overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, arrived at the team with the high expectations that generally come with such a high pick. As a rookie, Soares immediately earned a starting spot and was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season or the club. Soares would earn the team’s Defender of the Year award that season.

But things didn’t go quite as well for Soares his second year, as some uncharacteristic mistakes proved costly in another disappointing year for the club, eliciting the old cliché of “sophomore slump”. Still, the University of California Berkeley product went into 2013 as the starter next to the experienced newcomer and eventual captain Goncalves, and cut down on – although didn’t completely eliminate – the mistakes that plagued him the year before until a hamstring injury forced him out of the line-up. Soares would return to the line-up by the end of the season and contributed to a great run into the playoffs, while playing some of his best soccer for the club down the stretch.

McCarthy, who was selected by the Revolution with the 24th overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, came to the team as a central midfielder and saw lots of action in that spot his rookie year. Once Jay Heaps took over as head coach, the former Revolution defender saw potential in McCarthy as a center back and started training the University of North Carolina product in that position.

The position switch proved a smart move by Heaps as McCarthy had a very strong 2012 playing as a center back – mostly partnered with Soares – and earned the Revolution Defender of the Year award in his first season at the position. Unfortunately concussions kept McCarthy from playing as many minutes as he otherwise would have, but McCarthy still got in 28 games. Despite McCarthy’s success, he didn’t make his 2013 debut until he was forced to come in for the injured Soares on April 20. McCarthy would then largely return to his impressive 2013 form until a head laceration forced him out of the line-up on July 17th. McCarthy would eventually get back into the starting eleven, but Soares took over the starting sport as the Revolution made their run into the playoffs.

McCarthy and Soares both proved capable partners to Goncalves in 2013, so who should be the starter entering 2014? Here’s a look at who has the advantage in some of the different skills required of center backs:

One-on-One Defending: Soares

Soares may have had a few notable mistakes in 2012 and early 2013, but when he’s been at his best, Soares has proved a quality one-on-one defender. While the stats show McCarthy did ever so slightly better at avoiding getting beat off the dribble (0.4 times per game vs. 0.5 times) in 2013, Soares superior experience at the position helps give him the edge here. Still, McCarthy’s 1.6 tackles per game, compared to 1.3 for Soares are another indication this category is very close.

Aerial Duels: McCarthy

Soares is no slouch in the air, but McCarthy’s 6-foot-5 frame undoubtedly gives him the edge here and it shows in his 2.9 aerial duels won per game while Soares averaged 2 per match. Whether it’s defending long balls in the run of play, or imposing his will on set pieces, McCarthy’s height is a huge advantage for him and the team.

Blocking Shots: Soares

Soares and McCarthy both sacrificed their bodies and seemed to have a knack at times for making impressive blocks last season, but Soares in particular did well to position himself in the way of shots. Soares blocked 0.7 shots per game in 2013 compared to 0.4 for McCarthy.

Passing Out of the Back: McCarthy

McCarthy’s experience as a central midfielder seems to have translated to making him an excellent passer out of the back. McCarthy completed 83.3% of his passes last season giving him a clear advantage over Soares’ 72.1%. McCarthy’s comfort with the ball at his feet is also shown in his limiting clearances to 6.4 per game compared to 7.9 for Soares.

Discipline: Draw

Soares really cut down on fouls in 2013 committing a career low 0.7 fouls per game while McCarthy had a career high of 1.1. Soares has also avoided a red card since his rookie season and picked up only four yellow cards in 2013 (including playoffs). Still, McCarthy only picked up two yellow cards in 2013 and historically has kept his foul total low. Both give up the occasional dangerous free kick, but neither has been much of a risk for a silly red card recently.

Scoring off Set Pieces: Soares

As great of an advantage as McCarthy’s height is, he has yet to score a goal as a center back. That’s not to say he hasn’t been a dangerous target, but based on results, the edge has to go to Soares, who seems to have a knack for getting on the end of free kicks offensively and has four goals off set pieces in his three years with the club.

Clogging the Passing Lanes: McCarthy

Perhaps a byproduct of the vision needed to play central midfield, McCarthy has shown an ability to be in the right place at the right time with 2.6 interceptions per game. Soares isn’t far behind with 2.3 interceptions per game himself.

The verdict? Too close to call.

McCarthy had the better 2013 based on WhoScored.com’s ratings, which puts the defender at 7.11 for 2013, while Soares came in at 6.96. The Revolution also had a slightly better goals against average per 90 minutes of 1.09 when McCarthy was playing compared to 1.17 with Soares in the line-up. Still, Soares finished the season strong, showing the talent that made him a number 6 draft pick with his performances down the stretch into the playoffs. Expect this battle to continue all preseason as the club prepares for their season opener March 8 in Houston.

Who do you think should be partnering Jose Goncalves at center back come March 8? Vote in the poll below and share your thoughts in the comments.

Who should partner Goncalves at center back?

  • Stephen McCarthy (52%, 32 Votes)
  • A.J. Soares (48%, 29 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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About Sean Donahue

Sean Donahue has been covering the New England Revolution since 2002 for various publications. He has covered four MLS Cups, in addition to covering various international matches, including World Cup Qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He has done freelance work for the AP and ESPN Boston. Sean hosted Revolution Recap, a weekly radio program covering the New England Revolution and U.S. Men's National Team from 2005-2008. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters. Sean can be reached at nesoccertoday@gmail.com or followed on twitter @SeanLDonahue