USA v Denmark preview: Edgar Castillo edition

Is Edgar Castillo the solution to US left back woes?

The US men’s national team finishes its 2009 schedule with a friendly against Denmark, another European team that has already qualified for the World Cup Finals. But like the matchup with Slovakia last Saturday, of far more importance than the final result will be the debut in the US team of left back Edgar Castillo.

Born and raised in New Mexico, the 23-year-old Mexican-American Castillo has played his entire professional career in the Mexican leagues, even appearing three times in friendlies for the Mexican national team. But a FIFA rule change allows players a one-time switch in national team allegiance if they have never played a competitive international (like Castillo and Jermaine Jones). Many US fans are hoping that Castillo will finally provide the answer to the most troublesome position in the American starting XI.

Before you go there, this is not a David Regis repeat. Regis was the 30-year-old French defender who married an American and was rushed through the naturalization process—only getting citizenship two months before the World Cup—so the left-footed center back could start at left back for the US in France 98. Regis did adequately, but he was not the long-term solution.

Over the next two World Cup cycles, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis, and Carlos Bocanegra took turns through the revolving door on the left side of the US defense. Hejduk is the most natural left back and could use his pace to get forward into the attack, he struggled to make the position his even though the US team made its run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals with him in the lineup. Neither Lewis nor Bocoanegra are left backs (Boca’s a center back and Lewis a left winger) and each were at fault on key goals in the 06 World Cup.

Current occupant Jonathan Bornstein seems to combine Hejduk’s pace and attacking verve with Lewis and Bocanegra’s propensity for critical mistakes—the penalty against Slovakia, the terrible clearance against El Salvador, etc. Getting forward does not appear to be the problem for the US at left back. It’s more like, ya’know, actually defending.

Defending at left back is vitally important in international soccer and for the US team in particular. I shudder to think of what Leo Messi, Frank Ribery, or Aaron Lennon would do to a shaky left back. But the US team is likely to need a solid presence more because Coach Bob Bradley has chosen to put Landon Donovan at left midfield. Donovan has adapted well to that roll, but what makes him dangerous—an ability to run with the ball at defenders and push up in the attack and cut in on his right foot—expose the US left flank to counter-attack.

While it was a pleasant surprise that Castillo decided to play for the US national team, it was his original decision to play for Mexico that was the most controversial. Castillo was a product of US youth soccer and the US Soccer Federation’s development program, attending early camps with Freddie Adu and Michael Orozco. He only went to Mexico when it became apparent that his grades weren’t good enough to get into college. He made it into Santos youth system after an open tryout and soon rose to the senior squad and contributed to the team’s 2008 run to the championship.

Now, Castillo is most known for his blistering pace and his ability to run at defenders and create goal scoring chances. In the video below, he scores an unbelievable goal, winding through three or four defenders before slotting the ball perfectly in the far corner. He also sets up the second goal after his cross is handled in the area.

From what we know about Castillo, he can be a potent weapon attacking down the left flank, but we don’t know much about his defending. That’s why I hope he gets the full 90 minutes against Denmark. One game is not enough to judge any player, but we will know more about whether Edgar Castillo is capable of filling one of the biggest holes in the US roster.

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