Playing and Getting Forward as an Outside Defender

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Leigh Ann Robinson is a defender for FC Kansas City in the NWSL. She previously played for FC Gold Pride, Atlanta Beat, and the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS, and has two caps for the US Women’s National Team. Prior to playing professionally, Leigh Ann attended the University of San Diego and was named to the all-conference first team for two of her four years on the team. As a club player she played for the 2003 National Champion San Diego Surf team.

It seems that many outside defenders are better at attacking than defending. What are your strengths in the game?

My speed is a strength: especially when I am isolated 1v1. I really like to get forward. In college I played some of the time as a forward and as an attacking midfielder, so I feel like I’m very comfortable getting up the field to be involved in the attack. I definitely prioritize defending though. If I get beaten while defending I take it very personally, whereas when I go forward I take it less personally if I lose the ball. When an attacker has a soccer mind and athletic ability but doesn’t have that finesse in the final third, they might get the chance to play as an outside defender, and I feel like that happened to me – I didn’t have that top level tenacity in front of goal but I apparently had it defending.

If it isn’t scoring goals, what do you enjoy about going forward?

I like getting forward and finding players to assist them in scoring. The formation we play we have outside midfielders who are very comfortable cutting inside and creating a large space outside for me to attack. Last year we played with a 4-2-3-1 with two amazing holding midfielders who made it possible for me to get forward. They were very aware that when I went they would sit, which left us less vulnerable at the back – I didn’t want to have to be concerned about recovery runs when I was joining the attack.  If I am presented with time on the ball and the opportunity to get forward I will try to create situations where I can get people in front of the goal with the ball.

Outside defenders used to have space in front of them when they played against 4-4-2 formations, but now that 4-3-3 is in favor do you find you have less unopposed time on the ball?

It depends what the other team is playing. You would think that their outside midfielder would press me pretty high up the field, and sometimes they will close me down pretty quickly. When we are able to quickly switch the field I might often have a lot of space and time to carry it and link with players. With this formation and with such talented midfielders I definitely find the ball in really good positions. Generally I get forward more than our other outside defender, but the outside midfielder a play behind tucks in a little bit more than the midfielder on the other side, so they put me back there to take advantage of that space.

Do you prefer playing on the left or the right?

This year I’m not sure where I will be yet. The first year here I was on the left, then last year I was on the right. This year in pre-season we have been switching back and forth. In individual games I will always stay on the same side though – I find it a little bit tricky to switch sides during a game so prefer to prepare for one or the other. I am right footed and I am comfortable on my left, but I definitely play each position slightly differently. Generally on my left I still try to get around the back to cross it on my left foot, but I do cut inside when I am in the middle third of the field to find feet more. On the right I try to combine with my outside midfielder to get around the outside.

How do you decide who is going and who is staying? Does having two holding players affect it?

Sometimes we are extremely aggressive. If we are playing against a team in a 4-3-3 who leave one forward and tuck the outside two in, and if we’re getting in to the box and our other outside defender is up there, I will start creeping up there too. Defense is our first priority, but if we can take advantage of it we will.

When you are in the back third, what are your priorities as a defensive unit?

I’ve been very lucky because I played next to Becky Sauerbrunn who was defensive player of the year several times and Barny (Goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart) pulls our puppet strings. Becky is usually closest so in terms of challenges and making sure our shape is good I think she takes charge, but for our entire back line Barny does a lot of the organization, which is very seamless. When we get deep into our defensive third my main focus is not letting any crosses or shots get in, forcing players wide. If I get beaten on the outside, it’s not going to happen twice!

When you take on an opponent 1v1 on the flank, is your instinct to try to beat them or combine with teammates? How do you decide?

I would say I am about 50/50 between dribbling and passing to beat players. If I am isolated 1v1 I will go at them. If there isn’t a lot of space and things are a bit jumbled up, I will try to combine. I don’t consider myself to be extremely technical, so if I am up against someone who is quicker than me then I will be hesitant to dribble myself so might look to combine. If I am as quick or faster than someone I am much more likely to try to take them on with the dribble.

Are there specific moves you favor? Many of the top players in the game seem to stick to one that they do well.

When I am on the right I have one move, which is the Matthews turn – where I lean in on my left, touch it inside then touch it outside on my right to get around them on the outside and try to put a cross in. If I am on the left I don’t have one specific move so it is more about trying to throw in a few shimmies and shakes to throw them off. I feel good when I am forced inside or out over there, but the right tends to be trying to fake to get outside.

If you get in behind the outside defender, what are your priorities?

My first thought is to try to find that near post runner. Last year we had ARod (Amy Rodriguez) who is extremely quick and if she knows you are getting around the outside, she is in that box. If there is a defender to double or get in the way I will try to slot it back deeper, towards the penalty spot. Then my last choice is to try to chip it over to the back post.

Do you know where your teammates will be? How much pattern play do you do in training?

Yesterday we worked separately with the defense and attacking players, then put it all together and all of their runs were very planned out, with some checking high and others coming in, just to get people on the same page. We want to feel very comfortable with where each other will be when we are going into the game. Our coach (Vlatko Andonovski) wants to plant ideas in our minds, so pattern play is the first step of that process. We have some very creative players and people who can improvise well, so he will set a framework and then we improvise on top of that.

Who do you like to combine with, if you choose that option to beat opponents?

If I am higher up the field in our 4-2-3-1 formation I would have Lauren Cheney (now Lauren Holiday) in the center as attacking mid, then ARod as a forward, so I would use one of them. My outside mid has usually dropped in behind me at that point, but if they haven’t I could also use them. If I play it in to the target forward I always expect it back if I’m making the run, but if Lauren wants to turn she is welcome to do that and I am totally fine with it! Probably about half of my runs I don’t get the ball back when I combine with them though.

What are your priorities with recovery runs? Who decides and where do you go?

Haul butt back! That’s the worst part of being an outside back is having to make that long recovery run. I try to get back as close as I can to my center back as fast as I can. If I get caught high and they put a ball in behind me then Becky will slide out and I will fill in for her in the center. We try to replace each other and keep the gap small. I’m fine covering that position, although I am more comfortable outside obviously. As long as everyone is communicating it is not a completely different world.

In a position that relies so heavily on anticipation and understanding, how did you get better at reading the game? At what age did you start to recognize when to go forward?

It was my U16 year playing for San Diego Surf. We were at regionals and my coach kept telling me to go forward and I would reply but I’m a defender! Finally this huge gap opened up and he shouted now! and I took off and got the ball. That’s when it started hitting me that you can kind of go anywhere, but you have to go at the right time and anticipate that happening. I watched a lot of games. Every team that I have been on there was a culture of watching other teams play, and in college I started watching more film of myself. There were times that I could have gone forward and I didn’t recognize it, so by watching myself back I could see what I had missed and learn from it. In my free time I enjoy watching good soccer, more than following specific teams. When you’re younger the coaches tell you to do that, and I remember thinking they were full of it, but as you learn more about the type of player you are, you become more interested in watching others. I try to focus on what the outside backs are doing, and the people around them who help create their movement.

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