Examining The Utility Player In Major League Soccer: Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, And Sebastien Le Toux

Posted In Features - By Kevin McCauley On Monday, April 25th, 2011 With 4 Comments

By an age somewhere in the late teens or early twenties, most footballers find their position. As children, most coaches have their players learn multiple positions for a few purposes: To develop an awareness of what other roles are on the pitch, to obtain a balanced skill-set, and to figure out where a player plays best without simply guessing. By the time a player hits 19 or 20 years old, their role in a team is usually defined. Some players may make changes later than that, but they are usually not sporadic or dramatic changes. This is not the case for Geoff Cameron or Brek Shea.

Both Cameron and Shea have moved around considerably, occupying almost every single position on the pitch at some point. Conventional wisdom is, at this point, that Shea is best as a left midfielder and Cameron is best as a central attacking midfielder, but both have shown themselves to be competent in other areas of the pitch. Shea has been thought of as both a true left back and striker by some at various points in his career, while Geoff Cameron was a borderline MLS Best XI central defender before Stuart Holden left the Houston Dynamo for Bolton Wanderers, forcing Dominic Kinnear into some personnel adjustments.

There is a question that has to be answered about these players, and that is whether or not they are best as utility players or as players in one position. On one hand, their versatility is an extremely rare occurrence. It’s not every day that you see players who can play literally any position and be effective. On the other hand, Shea and Cameron could probably be the class of the league at whatever position was chosen for them had they stuck to one position for the entirety of their professional careers.

In a league with serious roster restrictions and small budgets, it could be argued that having a utility player that fills in as needed is truly invaluable. Most MLS teams have 18 or less players that are truly professional quality. Some teams, when faced with injuries and international call-ups, are forced to start players that are not consistent with the status that MLS and its fans believe the league to have obtained. For that reason, having a player that can provide your team with quality in any area of the pitch in any game is a serious asset.

At the same time, MLS is a league that is simply in need of quality players, and if a team has one of the best players at a position, that team’s fortunes can be seriously affected. This is not a knock on MLS, it’s a league that has seriously improved in quality every year since around 2001-2, but it still hasn’t quite caught up (as a whole, at least) with the Mexican Primera, Argentine Primera A, and the Brazilian Serie A, which should be the league’s measuring sticks. Last year, David Ferreria guided FC Dallas to an MLS Cup Final while Shea was just a decent complimentary piece. Javier Morales has been the catalyst that turned Real Salt Lake from a decent team into the class of the league. Landon Donovan has kept an otherwise average LA Galaxy team relevant for a while now. If either Shea or Cameron was allowed to learn one position and become elite at that position, Dallas and Houston could possibly be much better teams.

There’s one particular case of a former utility player who has found his home, and to be honest, he could be used as a case either for or against playing Shea and Cameron in one position, depending on how you want to spin the data.

That player is Sebastien Le Toux, who was a bit of a mixed bag for the Seattle Sounders in the club’s first MLS season. Le Toux mostly played on the wing, but he saw some time on the right and the left, as well as a small bit of time as a fill-in fullback and a bit of time up top as well. When the Philadelphia Union took him in the expansion draft, they put Le Toux in a much different role, playing him as a second striker who dropped into the midfield to help with link-up play. As far as his individual statistics, this was a wildly successful move. For those who watched the Union extensively last season, they know that if it weren’t for some great saves and missed sitters by both Le Toux and people he passed the ball to, he very easily could have had 20 goals and 15 assists. He was a truly dominant player last season.

However, the Union did not achieve success in the table, despite Le Toux’s dominance. This was mostly due to poor defending and goalkeeping, but it still has to be pointed out that Le Toux’s great play in one position did not translate to a playoff appearance. So far this year, Le Toux’s role is less defined due to the arrival of Carlos Ruiz. He’s gotten off to a slow start, but the team looks about the same as a whole. Interesting, no?

So, it’s obvious to see how someone could use the case of Le Toux as evidence for Shea and/or Cameron staying as utility players or finding a home in one position. In the case of Cameron, central attacking midfield seems to be his home, unless there’s an injury crisis. He’s a good enough passer and enough of an attacking-minded player to play this position, but he provides something that most attacking midfielders do not. Thanks to his size and his experience as a defender, he’s excellent at winning 50-50 challenges with opposing defensive midfielders, which aids Houston in keeping possession. This was absolutely the case in Houston’s most recent match against the Chicago Fire, in which his team had over 60% possession and completed in the neighborhood of 200 more passes than their opponents. If Houston ever get some serious firepower up top, we might see Cameron truly shine. Hopefully for Dynamo fans and neutrals, Sergio Koke will provide that.

Brek Shea is an entirely different story. With the injury to David Ferreria, it looks increasingly likely that Shea could be jerked around more than ever. He played on both the right and left wings against Vancouver on Saturday, and with Ferreria out, I feel like Schellas Hyndman could put Shea in yet another new position, as a second striker or attacking midfielder. FC Dallas are likely going to play a few different lineups over the next few weeks as they try to figure out how to best move on without Ferreria in the lineup.

That’s the basics of how Shea and Cameron’s status as utility players affect their MLS careers, but one question still lingers. How does it affect their careers, personally? I don’t think it’s any secret that both Shea and Cameron have ambitions to go play in Europe, whether it be to test themselves against a higher level of competition, make more money, or both. The truth is, either player could go make more than the non-designated player maximum salary for a mid-table team in a Scandinavian league right this second. Both of them have the natural talent to achieve much more than that, but that is the floor for these players.

However, we don’t know what the ceiling currently is, or what the ceiling could have been. Some teams that have scouted Shea and Cameron could see their utility player status as positives. A team could buy them to either use them as a super sub or to mold them into whatever player they might need. It’s also very possible that their failure to master any single position has significantly hurt their stock over in Europe. If Cameron and Shea had spent their entire MLS careers at left midfield and central defense, respectably, they might be thought of as virtual can’t-miss players in second tier European leagues at those positions. It’s entirely possible that the coaching decisions of Kinnear and Hyndman have cost these two players hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

While it’s unclear whether or not the careers of Cameron and Shea have been negatively affected by their status as utility players in terms of their transfer prospects and how much they help their MLS teams, it seems reasonable to conclude that their national team careers have absolutely been negatively impacted by their inability to stick to one position, whether or not they bare any responsibility for that. If Brek Shea had been playing as a left midfielder his entire career and Geoff Cameron had been doing the same at central defense, I’m of the belief that they would both be somewhere in Bob Bradley’s first 30 players he considers for selection. At present, it is unlikely that either player is that far up the pecking order. With the USMNT’s lack of reliable depth at left midfield and central defense, they would provide a serious boost to the player pool, were they established at those positions.

If Stuart Holden never left Houston, we might never know that Geoff Cameron was a competent attacking midfield player. If the Generation Adidas tour never happened, we might never know that Brek Shea has some serious chops at defense. But at what point is that knowledge more important than developing either player’s skills at their previously perceived best position? In the cases of Shea and Cameron, it’s the point when they become MLS Best XI or very close to it at that new position. Until that day comes, it’s reasonable to conclude that a couple of extremely talented players had good chunks of their careers wasted unnecessarily.

About Kevin McCauley - Kevin McCauley is the Editor in Chief of The Allocation Order. He is also the managing editor at World Soccer Reader and a contributor on multiple levels to SBNation

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  1. Daniel says:

    I think you’re correct with your assessment of Shea…IMO, he’s been mishandled a bit by Schellas simply because of Hyndman’s obsession with playing players that he “trusts.” I.E. Players that know the defined role of every position on the field.

    It’s time to stick Shea in one spot, whatever that is, and keep him there. I think most FCD fans will tell you that spot is left mid.

    P.S. It’s Ferreira not Ferreria

  2. Mike says:

    Is it just me or do you switch between calling Cameron a central attacker and a central defender back and forth?

    also, The Union looks basically the same this year?! They were leading the East for a few weeks sir!

    • Kevin McCauley says:

      He has played extensively in both positions and he has proven himself as a competent player in both positions. He was originally a central defender and he is now locked in as an attacking midfield player, or so it seems. I’m saying that he’s fine where he is now, as a central attacking midfielder, but that he would have been an MLS Best XI central defender had he never been moved out of that position.

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