Brek Shea's play as a left back has been highly scrutinized by the fans and media. The transition from winger to defender was supposed to catapult him back into the United States National Team picture and provide a threatening offensive piece for Orlando City from the defensive line.
Shea's talents fit well within Adrian Heath's philosophy and he has proven that he can be that attacking fullback that provides width on the offensive end. The main question has been whether or not Shea can be strong enough in Orlando's own third defensively, and if he can package both of the defensive and offensive qualities together for a full match.
The team's defensive philosophy against the New York Red Bulls on Friday night showed a glimpse that perhaps the Shea experiment is not working as planned.
Even though, according to the club's Twitter account, the Lions lined up in a 4-2-3-1, Antonio Nocerino was basically playing as the team's left back, a third defensive mid, and at times the left wing. When the Red Bulls attacked the Lions down their right-hand side, Nocerino was the man to defend the wide attacker.
It was a change that needed to be made against New York, though. In their earlier meeting this season, several chances -- including New York's third goal -- came from the right wing directly against Shea. With no Luke Boden on the bench due to injury, there wasn't exactly a plethora of options for Heath. The solution was to have Nocerino cover Shea, which meant Nocerino was of little to no use on the offensive end. Shea made up for that somewhat with his attacking play, but his defensive positioning was worrisome.
The photo below is an example of Shea's defensive efforts against New York. While Nocerino played the wide man, Shea was often lost in the doldrums between center back Seb Hines and the Italian. He didn't mark anyone. He sometimes stayed too deep and broke the defensive line. He was basically a sweeper behind Nocerino or a third center back, waiting to head a cross away.
The Red Bulls went after Orlando's left side 10 times when both Nocerino and Shea were in the vicinity; during eight of those instances, Nocerino defended the attacker while Shea looked on. The other three required Nocerino to mark another opponent in the midfield who otherwise would have been wide open. The one time that Shea could have marked a dangerous run from Gonzalo Veron inside Nocerino, Shea hesitated until Hines stepped out to meet him. Even though the back line contained five men for most of the night, Shea was consistently the weak link. If not for a late clearance, Sacha Kljestan most likely would have sealed the Red Bulls' winner after blowing by Brek.
To Shea's credit, Lloyd Sam and Kljestan are an imposing attacking duo and definitely a threat to any MLS team. But if the game plan is dictating that Brek not defend the wide attacker, is he any use as a left back? Yes, he's dangerous on offense, but there are left backs on the roster who are more reliable defensively that would balance the left side of the pitch.
Boden's ability to cross the ball is something that Shea doesn't seem to have figured out yet. Shea was 1-for-5 for completed crosses against New York and the only one that connected with another Lion didn't sniff the penalty area. That's been about what fans can expect from Brek when it comes to aerial attacks. Kevin Alston played a good game in his only start this season against New England on April 17, and Heath at least trusts him to defend speedy attackers.
Shea is a great player to have on the roster and he's always a threat on offense. But if the gaffer is planning around him as a defensive liability, when do we concede that Shea as a defender isn't meant to be? Can Orlando City afford to always have a defensive winger like Nocerino or Adrian Winter on the left side to cover for Shea's lapses?