Vancouver Whitecaps' Russell Teibert, right, gets his head on the ball as Real Salt Lake's Cole Grossman defends in front of his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)

Real Salt Lake: Grossman embracing Beckerman’s role

With the team captain still in Brazil, young Grossman is proving a capable replacement.

First Published Jun 27 2014 09:51 am
Last Updated Jun 27 2014 11:33 pm

Sandy • There is a clear current void left by one of the generational talents in American soccer, and Cole Grossman is the guy who’s drawn the replacement straw. But the straight-shooting midfielder has earned the gig. It’s a spot coaches, teammates and Grossman himself believe he can thrive in.

With Kyle Beckerman in Brazil turning heads against some of the best players the game has to offer in this World Cup, his absence is a notable one. The Real Salt Lake captain is widely considered the premier defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer. Former U.S. midfielder and Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said Beckerman is the "most pure defensive midfielder this country’s ever produced."

Replacing a star, no matter how temporarily, takes time.

Grossman has been solid in Beckerman’s absence since mid-May, but the club has won one match in five league outings and crashed out of its first go at the 2014 U.S. Open Cup tournament on June 14.

"I think ultimately in that position, you’re judged on not necessarily how you play individually, you’re judged on how the team plays," said the 24-year-old Duke Blue Devil. "So from that aspect, at times, the team hasn’t played very well. A lot of that falls on my shoulders, regardless of how I feel I played individually."

Another under-the-radar pickup by general manager Garth Lagerwey in 2013, Grossman impressed Jason Kreis and staff enough to eventually be the No. 2 holding midfielder behind Beckerman in the playoffs. That carried over into the offseason, then into training camp and into the 2014 season. The club knew Beckerman would miss a large chunk of time with the U.S. men’s national team, and has shown confidence in Grossman’s capabilities.

"Whenever you’re getting compared to Kyle, it’s tough," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. "But I think he’s done a very good job. I think he’s still learning what he needs to do in that position. I’d rather have him to do the best of his abilities, rather than trying to do more than he’s capable of."

The base of the diamond midfield formation is complex. It takes time to learn and seasons to perfect. The job description in simple terms: Be available for the back line to either be an outlet or break up chances, while still keeping your head on a swivel to start an attack. Since Kreis and Lagerwey decided to go with the diamond formation in 2008, it’s been wildly successful for RSL, but hasn’t been a league-wide fad.

"I think Kyle’s probably still learning stuff about this position," Grossman joked. "It’s a real difficult position."

The task has been made more difficult with the slew of injuries RSL has been dealt with in the first half of 2014. Consistency is hard to come by, especially when there is a rotating cast of defenders behind Grossman on the back line. It’d be hard for any player, Grossman noted, but he said the group has learned from the last four games before the World Cup break.

Defender Chris Wingert has seen Grossman’s growth and has preached to him to take on that holding spot differently than Beckerman, to maybe give it more of a Grossman flair.

"I know the guys are bummed because of the results, which is understandable, but Cole, for me, has been outstanding," Wingert said. "And it’s not a surprise. I think he’s a very, very good young player. It’s not about filling Kyle’s shoes — it’s just about being himself."

Everyone involved hopes the learning curve isn’t steep anymore. Eventually Beckerman will return to his spot with RSL when the U.S. finishes its run in Brazil, but the direct return date remains up in the air. And all the watching in the 2013 season and training sessions has led up to this opportunity for Grossman.

"You can’t learn nearly enough from watching as you can from playing," he said. "I learn from every minute, second that I’m on the field."

Twitter: @chriskamrani

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