Running Man Takes a Step Back

Josh Gros is adjusting to playing in the back four after being a midfielder for most of his career.
Josh Gros is adjusting to playing in the back four after being a midfielder for most of his career. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

For three-plus seasons, Josh Gros did not stop running. He sailed up and down the flanks of MLS pitches and used his endurance and speed to chase down opposing wingers and provide a wide option on the attack.

Then about a month ago, with his faltering club in need of a formation change, Coach Tom Soehn did something that few opponents have been able to do: He slowed Gros down.

Gros became United's left back, a move that both enhanced his defensive responsibility and restricted his opportunities to make carefree dashes downfield.

"It took a lot of the coaches yelling to keep the reins on me," Gros said yesterday as United completed preparations for tonight's match against the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium. "They've tried to coach me about when to pick my times to go, because I usually want to go every time. It definitely takes a lot of concentration."

Despite growing pains, Gros has helped United (4-3-2) resolve many of its defensive issues and extend its unbeaten streak to six games since starting the season with three losses. He has also been able to continue contributing to the attack; last week he skipped a long ball into the penalty area to set up the first of Ben Olsen's three goals against New York.

"It's about understanding when to go and when not to go, when to be conservative and when to be attack-minded," Soehn said. "He's starting to understand that a little better."

Gros took a step back in the formation last month when, confronted with a weekly defensive crisis, Soehn decided to play with four in the back instead of three. Gros was not completely unfamiliar with the backline, having played there at times for United and the U.S. national team, but throughout his college and pro career he had been taught to attack.

"When you are playing defense, if you mess up, it's pretty glaring," Gros said. "There's definitely a lot more thinking -- more thinking than I am used to -- but I am getting used to it."

Gros has made mistakes -- opposing players have turned the corner and created scoring chances against him. He also has looked unsure of his positioning and out of sync with his fellow defenders at times. "In the beginning, I wasn't sure what I should do. 'Should I dribble? Should I pass?' " he said. "But I have watched a lot of tape, the coaches have told me what ball to send long, when to play it short, what to do in every situation."

Although Gros's technical ability is still maturing, his athletic aptitude has never been questioned. He started 79 games his first three seasons and, since missing this year's opener because of a concussion, he has played every minute of eight matches.

Two weeks ago at Los Angeles, Gros found himself back in midfield as Soehn experimented with midfielder Clyde Simms at right back and Bryan Namoff on the left. Twenty minutes into the match, though, with the Galaxy applying persistent pressure, Gros returned to defense and helped secure a 0-0 tie.

"Josh is at such a great fitness level that he can probably adapt to pretty much any position on the field," Namoff said. "It's also an advantage for him being offensive minded, because he can start the attack. It's now getting him used to players running at him one-on-one."

Gros said he feels the pressure of playing in the back.

"It's a little more serious, a lot more nerve-racking," he said. "Usually in midfield, you are nervous until you touch the ball once. But back there, I am nervous all the time because you are the last line and everyone is depending on you to not let anything get by."

United Notes: The much-anticipated meeting between Freddy Adu and his former team will not happen next weekend in Salt Lake City as initially planned. Real Salt Lake officials said they had been assured before the season that Adu would be available despite U.S. under-20 national team duty. However, the U.S. Soccer Federation has decided to not release Adu from training camp next week. The U.S. squad is preparing for the Under-20 World Cup in Canada. . . .

United defender Bobby Boswell will sit out today's game after receiving a red card last weekend, and forward Jaime Moreno will miss the first of at least four matches while on Bolivian national team duty. . . . Forward Guy-Roland Kpene (adductor) and midfielders Simms and Kasali Yinka Casal, both of whom had ankle injuries, returned to training and appear likely to be on the 18-man game roster. . . . Rookie midfielder Bryan Arguez was named to the U.S. under-20 roster. . . . Chicago is missing five regulars: Forward Chris Rolfe (ankle) and midfielders Thiago (groin), Chris Armas (hip), Justin Mapp (U.S. Gold Cup duty) and Ivan Guerrero (Honduras).

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