The back line for Orlando City has been inconsistent for most of the year. The lineup has seen many changes due to both injury and player performance. One instance happened against Montreal on Saturday, as Kevin Alston came in for an injured Rafael Ramos and played excellently under the circumstances of coming in cold. Last week, I chronicled the woes of Ramos this year. This week I look at the positives of starting Alston.
In his two matches this year, Alston has shown more composure than Ramos has in the past two seasons. Alston doesn't step in to make silly tackles and doesn't get into it with the referee. Alston's yellow card last weekend came after he was beaten by the technical skill of Ignacio Piatti.
Piatti put the ball through Alston's legs and looked to be making a run towards goal. At that point, Alston did the smart thing and fouled him. Aside from that one moment last game, Piatti was pretty silent while Alston was on the field. Alston brings experience to the back line and doesn't do anything more than what he is asked. He won't be a liability to make a knuckle-headed decision and put his team under more pressure. He will make smart fouls and play well under pressure.
Alston only has one inch on Ramos in height, but sometimes it feels like he's a foot taller. Alston plays more physical soccer than Ramos when defending crosses. One example came late in the Montreal match, with Alston goal-side on a taller Montreal player. Alston went straight up and forced the player to head the ball out for a goal kick.
To explain tactically, when defending a cross, a player should jump for the ball because it forces the attacker to head the ball down or head the ball off the defender's head, giving the goalkeeper time to come across and make a save. If a player doesn't jump, it gives a clear flight path for the ball to score. If Alston is on the field, this takes away an issue that is a weakness for the Orlando City back line, which is the back-post cross. Alston is not afraid to be physical on balls in the air and tracks his opposition even though he is severely undersized compared to the striker.
Alston's defensive positioning is the most important reason why he should be in the starting lineup. He has impeccable positioning. Alston is not going to let you beat him down the line to serve a difficult cross. He has excellent starting body position, which allows for the player to rely on his cover -- usually the center back or defensive mid -- to come over and win the ball. For most of the game against Montreal he did an excellent job of delaying the attack to allow his team to find its shape. He doesn't step in to deny, but allows his help to come over to defend.
Alston gets forward in the attack but not at the rate that Ramos does. This could be seen as a disadvantage for Orlando City with him in the lineup. Alston's play is a little bit more defensive, as he holds his runs more. The thing he has over Ramos offensively is he is not afraid to cut inside where Ramos is okay with staying out wide and serving balls in.
Kevin Alston will start Wednesday against the Philadelphia Union due to the Ramos' injury. My thoughts are that he should continue to start even if Ramos does recover quickly from the injury. Alston has proven in two matches that he is a more composed, physical, and tactically minded player than Ramos even though Ramos has more upside. The time is now for Alston to be the piece to shore up the right back position.