18 September 2007

What Chris Webb Gets Right, and Wrong, About the Vanney-Erpen Trade

Chris Webb has a provocative article about the Vanney-Erpen deal over at UnitedMania. Go ahead and read the article in full, because it is good reading. However, as always, we reserve the right to dissent, at least in part. Now, this is the kind of in-depth argument that only fans care about, so let's get at it. Webb argues that the day of the Vanney deal was the day "D.C. United moved into the upper echelon of MLS." But is that true?

I don't think so. As we argued previously, the Vanney deal was more problematic for DC to begin with. There's a clear correlation between Vanney arriving, and a mid-season string of mediocre results (yes, correlation is not causation, but it should at least raise your eyebrows). Specifically, one game after Vanney arrives and the United defense, whose recent form had been below their season average, suddenly spikes above the season-to-date averages. At the time, we argued that this was evidence that Boswell/Vanney did not work well, and that the true spark to the defense was Marc Burch. Webb attributes Burch's maturity at least partially to Vanney:

However, probably the biggest benefactor of the trade has been Marc Burch who has more than exceeded expectations on the left side of defense...Burch has not only defended well but his already prolific offensive moves has added a new dimension to a United attack that now can attack from every position on the field. United has undergone a tactical and philisophical change since Burch has come into the lineup. They actually use his fantastic left foot to their advantage.

Yet let's not forget that Vanney, when initially acquired, was blocking Burch. To refresh your memory, the back four against Colorado was Gros-Erpen-Simms-McTavish. The first game Vanney plays, and the backline is Vanney-McTavish-Simms-Gros. Against Houston, the line-up is similar: Vanney-Boswell-McTavish-Gros. In the crucial road-win against New England, we finally see the backline that powers the unbeaten streak: Burch-McTavish-Boswell-Namoff. Burch, if anything, was not helped by Vanney's arrival, but hindered. Vanney was blocking Burch at the left back position.

Now, I agree that one major benefactor was Josh Gros, who was servicable at best as an outside back, but is more effective in midfield. Webb has that absolutely right. But the day United became a contender wasn't the day they traded for Greg Vanney, it was the day that they realized that the job they acquired Vanney for was one that was better filled by Burch. Once Vanney was put in the center of defense, his speed became a bit less of a liability, and his experience and ability to organize a defense was better utilized. If you're looking for a turning point (and certainly with a season with 5 remaining games, plus the playoffs, it's possible more turning points will emerge) then that's a more persuasive turning point. Is the Vanney-Erpen deal a good one? Yes, for many of the other reasons Webb enumerates (freeing us from an SI logjam with Erpen next year becomes a large one). But the deal itself wasn't the contributing factor, it was the ability to adapt Vanney's usage to his abilities, and that meant moving him out of left back.

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At 18 September, 2007 16:17, Anonymous bdr said...

Or another way to think of it: Boswell/Erpen was not going to work. For all the contract and designated player reasons everyone's mentioned, the logical move was to trade Erpen.

The need was to fix the middle of the backline. Vanney for Boswell would have accomplished the same thing. Only better.

At 18 September, 2007 21:28, Blogger Landru said...

I think d is correct in every respect here.

I came to grudgingly accept the trade, because it was clearly an important business move. I remain convinced that the better center of the defense is Boswell/McTavish, but it's clear that I just plain don't like Greg Vanney, because I can point to no science or mathematics, or even a single objective fact, to validate this view.

I comfort myself when looking in the mirror by chanting Burch's name again and again.

I think Vanney for Boswell would've been a horrible deal from a business perspective and an on-field perspective. I still think that the thing was best not screwed with, if not for the implications of Erpen's emerging SI status. Of course, it was screwed with, and the record is what it is.


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