For the most part, U.S. soccer fans pay attention to what happens on the ball, whether it's Bobby Wood's emergence as a solid striker option, Clint Dempsey's finishing, or John Brooks's acrobatic, goal-saving tackles. At the same time, U.S. critics lament the team's lack of consistency and occasionally ineffective link-up play, elements most often determined by what a player does when they don't have the ball.
Every team needs someone like Alejandro Bedoya to be successful: a consistent, intelligent player who links the defense and attack and plugs the gaps. Although his name rarely pops up in discussions about the most important player for manager Jurgen Klinsmann's squad, appreciation is beginning to trickle in for the vital role he plays. For all the attention given to whether a player works for Klinsmann's vision, it is perhaps the greatest evidence of his versatility that Bedoya would fit in for virtually any manager.
After DeAndre Yedlin was sent off in the 48th minute of Saturday's critical group stage finale against Paraguay, Bedoya became the most important U.S. player. Playing in the right midfield, he had to help Yedlin's replacement, Michael Orozco, as well as compensate for the one fewer attacker after Dempsey was subbed off.
Bedoya, who plays for the French Ligue 1 club Nantes, didn't just play well before he was withdrawn in the 75th minute. Despite battling flu-like symptoms and having trouble breathing toward his final minutes on the field, he put on a master class of how to play responsibly, consistently, and effectively in a hunkered down defensive formation.
Take, for example, the roughly 10 minute stretch from the 51st to the 62nd minute. It started with Bedoya stealing the ball off Paraguay after a throw-in and using a combination of strength and ball control to navigate through two opponents before he laid the ball off to Bradley in space. The U.S. enjoyed a brief possession spell thanks to his nifty manoeuvring, which may not have looked like much, but a turnover there could have sprung Paraguay.
Within a minute, Paraguay had the ball again, comfortably moving it along their back line. Paraguay's left midfielder, Miguel Almirón, received the ball just inside his own half and Bedoya rushed to cover. Almirón played a comfortable ball to a teammate a few feet across the half line, where Michael Bradley then pressured. The ball was shuttled back to Almirón. Again, Bedoya was all over him. Almirón had nowhere to go and tried to get the ball back upfield, but Bedoya picked it off and, with a quick touch, played it back to Orozco. He then chipped the ball back up to Bedoya, which wasn't the best play; Bedoya didn't have much room to operate. Nevertheless, he hit a clever flick onward to Bobby Wood, springing the attacker free.
Unfortunately, it didn't lead to much. Wood ended up getting tackled just outside the Paraguay box. Attack over, right?
Not quite. Rather than sprinting upfield to join the attack—he wouldn't have gotten there anyways—Bedoya took up a position, should the attack fail. Paraguay tried to play the ball back upfield, but Bedoya intercepted the pass, took a second, controlled the ball as Paraguay closed in, and centered it to Zardes in space, just before the pressure arrived.
It didn't look like much, but thanks to Bedoya's two interventions, the U.S. was able to enjoy several minutes of possession despite being down a man.
If you overlooked Bedoya's impact here, you're not alone. They were brief moments—and he didn't hold the ball for very long at any given time—when he was the key lynchpin in making things happen. In general, Bedoya is exceedingly quick in his decision-making, both on the ball and off. This makes him both a very useful player—and easy to miss.
"My game is simple," Bedoya said later. "I keep it simple by combining passes and help keep the ball but also making off-the-ball movements that may go unnoticed but helps to open up space for myself and for the other players."
These rarely jump off the stats sheet. The metric that best reflects Bedoya's value is probably recoveries, or the times a player collects a loose ball—such as after a tackle, a poor touch, or an aerial duel. Bedoya had eight recoveries against Paraguay; the rest of the midfield had 11 combined, including the substitutes (Bedoya had less of an impact in the wide open, offensive game against Costa Rica).
But much of Bedoya's skill set can't be measured statistically. One of Bedoya's best traits is his ability to pick up runners in the defensive third, sniffing out chances before they materialize, yet it's very difficult to track this statistically, since, by definition, it prevents trackable events from occurring.
Consider the 62nd minute, when Bedoya likely prevented a key scoring opportunity. After Zardes took one too many touches on a breakaway and squandered a big chance, Paraguay counterattacked.
This time, Almirón received the ball approximately 40 yards out of the U.S. goal along the left side. Paraguay's left back, Miguel Samudio, had crashed forward and tried to make a run into the box from the far left flank. Almirón, with his head up, had plenty of time and space to spot the run and play Samudio into the box.
There was just one problem. Bedoya picked up Samudio immediately and cut off the angle. Almirón had no play. Eventually, the ball got switched to the right. A diagonal ball came in across the box, a mix of a pass and a shot. Dario Lezcano, Paraguay's forward, sprinted towards goal, onside, to try and make a play. If the ball had come in a few feet further from goal, he would have been in perfect position to put it in. But Bedoya had picked him up too, shoulder-to-shoulder, and there was no play.
When asked about his off the ball movement, Bedoya cited a quote by Johan Cruyff, who had said, "When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball three minutes on average...So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball? That is what determines whether you're a good player or not."
Bedoya echoed those sentiments. "It's what you do off the ball that people often don't look at which makes you a good player," Bedoya said. " And the way I play the game may not be flashy but [it] has always made an impact."
For his part, Bedoya is just fine flying under the radar. "I have no problem seeing myself as the 'glue' guy that keeps team together in its shape and help others shine and do their thing."
With Yedlin missing the next game due to his red card, Bedoya will once again be called upon to help shore up the right side. If the U.S. is to make a deep run in Copa America, they'll need plenty of glue.