History and Blood: The Harm In Playing Ambo
Back in the winter of 2014, those of us who follow Saint Louis soccer were ecstatic about professional soccer finally returning to the area. As soccer fans tend to do, we were anxiously awaiting the first player signings. When Dale Schilly and Jeremy Alumbaugh announced that the first signing was Mike Ambersley, I think we were all over the moon. He was a local boy whom we’d cheered for with AC St Louis, and who was also willing to move from NASL to a new team in the USL. It wasn’t long into the inaugural season that it was clear that he wasn’t quite the player we had hoped for. The effort and intelligence were still there, but without the pace. He definitely struggled at times.
Now coming into the 2016 season, how he would be used was one of the biggest uncertainties. He certainly still had something to offer to the team and looks to be a great leader in the locker room, but how much did he have to contribute on the pitch?
What we’ve seen very early on has been Ambo starting 5 out of the first 7 games, and playing largely out on the wing instead of in the center of the midfield or up top as a striker. Some of these starts may have been forced due to injury, but his inclusion in the starting line up raised a lot of questions.
He looked a bit off in the first several games, and it was difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what was wrong. I didn’t think it could be something as simple as his 33-year-old legs not being up to it. Thankfully, our game over the weekend against Swope Park Rangers provided a clear picture of what was going wrong with Ambersely.
In the first half of the game, Saint Louis FC controlled the game and put the pressure on the Swope Park Rangers. But, despite playing most of the second half with a man advantage, we struggled to dominate as we had in the first. The clearest change at that point was that Ambersley had come on at halftime for Tshuma.
Now let me say this very clearly. I do not think that Tshuma is necessarily a better player than Ambo yet, but bringing in Ambo completely unbalanced our side.
In the first half, Tshuma played on the left with Barklage on the right. In this configuration, Tshuma is able to push forward and get into the attack--confident that Maher (or Doody when he comes back) will be behind him to cover him defensively. On the right side, Dixon loves to be the one bombing forward, and when he is playing on the same side as Barklage, Barks will put in his defensive duty to protect him if he gets too far forward.
When Ambersley came in, this whole dynamic changed. Since he seems to only be able to play on the right, this forced Barklage to slide over to the left. This also meant that we lost a bit of that offensive push on the left side. Barks will get in on the offensive end but he’s not one to attack with the same kind of impetus as Tshuma does. And Maher and Doody are not looking to make the dangerous overlapping runs that Dixon will make on the right side.
On the right side, Ambersley and Dixon are simply a poor combination. Ambersley is a natural attacker, so it’s understandable that his ability to defend isn’t the strongest. He’ll gladly put in the effort but that’s just not his game. So this means that either Dixon risks leaving us wide open on the right when he pushes forward, or he has to stay behind Ambo to cover for him defensively.
Ambersley, in turn, doesn’t provide the same attacking thrust that Tshuma does. He’s probably still one of the best players we have at picking out a killer pass, but he’s not contributing a lot more on the offensive end. Most likely this is a result of where he’s playing on the field. By playing on the wing, he has defensive duties. Knowing Schilly as we do, the importance of putting in the defensive work is likely drilled into him every day in practice--so his runs are a bit short and he doesn’t take many chances getting into the box. So when he makes that great pass, he doesn’t follow it with a forward run. Instead he tends to fade back to cover his defensive responsibility. This is natural for someone trying to make up for his deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. He wants to ensure that he’s gotten himself in the best position possible to defend, but this is at the expense of attacking positioning
.So by bringing Ambo in on that right wing we not only lose one attacker in Tshuma, but we also lose the attacking power of Dixon. Ultimately this leaves us unbalanced on the wings.
So the same question remains: what do we do with Ambersley? Is there still a place for him in the team? Personally I would say yes, but it is not on the wing. In fact it wouldn’t be in the midfield at all. He would likely be best served freeing him of his defensive duties and playing him as a pure center forward. Yes, he would likely be our third choice for striker, but he shouldn’t be our first choice winger either. It’s important to find the best way to use him. If he’s the leader we believe him to be, then we should be able to fix the balance in the team without upsetting the chemistry. -TR