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The Great Left Back Debate: Mata vs. Sweat

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Vieira flipped the script by starting Sweat in the season opener. So, who will get the lion’s share of playing time at left back this season?

MLS: New York City FC at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, a 21-year-old Costa Rican left back by the name of Ronald Matarrita became one of New York City FC’s first-ever signings using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), marking him as a marquee player for the future. By the end of that season, Mata was ranked 13th in MLS’s 24 under 24 list, and became the subject of transfer rumors from European clubs. In 2017, Mata remained a hot name in MLS, this time placing 16th in the MLS 24 under 24 list.

But, something else very interesting also happened in the 2017 season. A 25-year-old left back with his MLS career in the balance joined City’s preseason roster as a trialist. Despite being taken in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft in 2014 by Columbus Crew SC, Ben Sweat had been unable to crack the first team, receiving very few minutes. After a loan stint in USL and a brief appearance in a U.S. Open Cup match, Columbus waived Sweat, who then found his way onto former NASL club (now USL) the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2015. Then in the winter of 2017, trying to find his way back into MLS, Sweat endured the preseason and was eventually signed to a contract, along with fellow trialist John Stertzer. And while Stertzer followed a pretty expected script in his time with the club last season, Sweat’s tenure played out much differently, and continues to do so.

Despite spending the majority of first part of the season on the bench, Sweat’s opportunity finally came when Mata unfortunately suffered an injury during practice in late April. Expected to miss 4-6 weeks with an ankle sprain, the fan base openly worried if this would be a crucial blow to City’s season so early in the campaign. It was not even certain who would be the starting left back, with Sweat earning most of his minutes in the preseason as a left side center back. In the end, Patrick Vieira chose Sweat to start, and he responded with an impressive performance against his former club, notching an assist en route to a 3-2 road victory in Columbus. As impressive as the performance was, it was only just the beginning of Sweat’s miracle season, which was encapsulated in no better way than the “Hudson River Header:”

As Sweat’s status grew, it sadly came at the expense of Matarrita — shortly after he returned from the high ankle sprain he was lost yet again, this time to a broken foot. This gave Sweat the better part of a full season to impress not only Patrick Vieira, but many other eyes all around MLS. Sweat played in 26 games, finishing with a single goal, dishing out 6 assists, and completing 80.4 percent of his passes — good enough for a 6.95 form rating on WhoScored.com. Those numbers put him square in the mix for the league’s best left back last year.

Heading into this season, Patrick Vieira was left with an interesting predicament: Give the left back job back to Matarrita, his young star, or reward Sweat, the journeyman who impressed when given the chance? While some would call this a “good problem to have” it’s still a potential problem all the same. Both players have proven they are starter quality, but also bring very different skill sets and qualities to the table.

While Sweat had performed well when called into action, Matarrita would of course be the starter at left back now that he’s healthy. Right? Well, this is what Patrick Vieira went with on Sunday for the season opener against Sporting Kansas City:

Vieira chose to go with Ben Sweat over a healthy Ronald Matarrita in the Starting XI. A decision that Vieira will not have any second thoughts about after the team pulled off an impressive 2-0 away win in Kansas City. Not only was Sweat rather strong in defense, he was also involved in the attack. Look at this beautiful low cross he puts on the feet of Jesus Medina for the young DP’s first goal in MLS:

Plays like this are exactly why Sweat has earned Vieira’s trust and may become more of a regular name in the Starting XI this season, whether or not Matarrita is healthy. That may sound like heresy when you think of Mata’s pedigree and the investment the club has put into him. But performance matters, and Vieira is a manager who believes in developing a culture where anyone on the roster can earn a starting job, regardless of salary or celebrity. Does this mean that Sweat has outperformed Matarrita? While I wouldn’t go that far, let’s look at how both players have fared statistically with NYCFC:

The battle at left back
MLSsoccer.com & WhoScored.com

It’s interesting, and also an indicator of how much time Matarrita has missed due to injury, that only 550 minutes separate the two players’ tenures at NYCFC (roughly six games). This made comparing the two fairly easy in terms of raw numbers, and the comparison shows the stark difference between the players. Matarrita dwarfs Sweat when it comes to defensive activity such as tackles and interceptions, proving what the eye test tells us: Mata is a dynamo when he’s on the pitch. However, when it comes to offensive contributions, Sweat holds a slight edge over Mata. This may seem weird at first, because Mata offers much more pace and athleticism down the left flank, which anecdotally should tell us that Mata is more of an offensive contributor than Sweat. And while these points are true about Mata’s pace and willingness to join the attack, Sweat appears to be the better passer and more in tune with Vieira’s game plan in terms of the attack. Even though Matarrita has a slight edge in the assists column, it should be noted that “MLS assists,” or secondary assists, make up half of Mata’s total in his NYCFC career. Not including secondary assists, Sweat holds a seven-to-four edge in terms of direct goals that he’s assisted on. This helps to explain why Sweat has received a slightly higher rating via WhoScored.com despite not having nearly the same statistical impact on defense as Matarrita.

So does this mean that Sweat has usurped Matarrita as the starting left back moving forward? Heading into the season, I believed that the left back position would be much more fluid than perhaps most realized. While Mata is the more talented player, athletically speaking, Sweat had emerged as one of Patrick Vieira’s “guys,” much like Tommy McNamara before him. It’s safe to assume that Vieira believes he has two starting-caliber left backs he can deploy as the matchup dictates. Also worth keeping in mind, Mata’s athleticism and versatility allow him to be used in ways Sweat quite frankly cannot. Mata has the ability to play further up the pitch as a left winger or wide midfielder, where he can use his pace to connect more frequently in the attack while also putting extra pressure on the opposing back line. His versatility could make Mata an ideal super sub who Vieira can deploy in different parts of the pitch depending on the flow of the game.

Sweat’s emergence as a capable, starting-caliber left back also allows Vieira to toy with the idea of making Mata a more consistent fixture in the Starting XI as a winger. Despite bringing in several options to play the wing, and a second year of Jonathan Lewis (who fans hope to see much more of), Vieira has instead chosen to go with Rodney Wallace as his first-choice left winger so far. One would assume this is because of what Wallace brings to the front three on defense, which allows the team to put consistent pressure on the opposition in their own final third. Matarrita can do the same thing, and he can probably do it even better than Wallace can, to be frank. Despite getting off to a promising start, Wallace disappeared from the attack for most of last season. Putting Mata in Wallace’s place is an option for Vieira if he’s looking for the same defensive effort from the position, with the potential for much more in the attack.

So, while it’s reasonable to expect to see Mata and Sweat alternating as the starting left back for much of the season, another scenario — and one that I think may play out as the season progresses, especially in a World Cup year — would have Vieira rolling with a left flank of Mata pushed forward as a winger, with Sweat behind him at left back.

What do you think? Should Matarrita or Ben Sweat be the starting left back? Or do you think Matarrita should move up the pitch as a winger, supplanting Rodney Wallace in the Starting XI? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!