Jonathan Leathers this season in a nutshell. Behind the ball, not getting any attention, but he's got his man. (Image courtesy VanCitySportsBlog.com)
I confess that I was never a Jonathan Leathers fan.
I just didn't see the stuff to be a professional fullback. His size was a concern (although obviously not a serious one; he's not that small for his position, but still). He was quick, which I liked, but not so quick that it made up for some of his other problems. Good throw-ins, decent crosser of the ball. All this was good. But he also seemed to have little sturdiness in defense. He didn't man mark particularly well, and he roamed so far up the field that he was routinely caught out of position. His offensive ability wasn't so good that it made up for his defensive non-existence. Or so I thought.
Sporting Kansas City, or the Kansas City Wizards as they were then, can't have disagreed. They drafted Leathers in the second round of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft and he started twelve games with them that year. In 2009, he started ten. In 2010, they started three. Kansas City's defense was never that good, but as time went on they were less and less interested in having Leathers be a part of it. When he went to the Vancouver Whitecaps, the surprise wasn't that Leathers was exposed in the expansion draft but that somebody took him.
I didn't like Leathers when I saw him in Kansas City. I liked Leathers even less when I saw him at the Cascadia Supporters' Summit and he dilly-dallied up and down the pitch, looking to set up scoring rather than preventing it and doing a good job of neither. I missed Wes Knight, who could combine offense and defense without looking utterly hapless. I missed Zurab Tsiskaridze, I missed Chris Williams. I didn't quite miss Willis Forko but I was getting there. I missed pretty much everybody who wasn't Jonathan Leathers.
Now here we are, four games in. And even I have to admit: Leathers has been pretty good. Perhaps more than pretty good. With Jay DeMerit constantly absent, Greg Janicki fighting injury, and Michael Boxall so inexperienced, he's probably been the team's best defender who isn't Alain Rochat. The team's defense hasn't been great but Leathers certainly hasn't been the problem. He's been putting that speed to good use, closing down hard, and while he hasn't won too many balls on his own he's done a good job forcing wingers down unproductive channels.
I'm still flabbergasted. And every time I see him loping towards the attacking corner flag looking for a cross, or playing way the hell up almost to the edge of the box looking to make a play, I can't quite figure out how he's doing it. Is it smoke and mirrors? Are the breaks going Leathers's way? Or might he actually be good at this?
He's been lucky in a few small ways. We haven't faced any really good attacking left-sided players yet, no electrifying types who could burn Leathers if they caught him too far forward. Dwayne De Rosario was playing rover against Vancouver and mostly tried to pick on DeMerit and Boxall. Kei Kamara was lined up at right wing against Alain Rochat. Marko Perovic could have been that player for New England, but he was hurt. We'll see what becomes of Leathers once somebody like Landon Donovan or Alvaro Saborio is bearing down on him.
Still, you can only take on the players you face. I can think of a couple of times when Boxall got turned for goals against. Janicki obviously got scorched against Kansas City. Even Rochat hasn't quite been perfect. But I'm searching my memory and I don't recall any defensive breakdowns on the right-hand side, any times when I buried my head in my hands and said "that chance is on Leathers". His strategy has been working. His athleticism allows him to make up for a lot of mistakes and I've been impressed by his tenacity in man-marking, as well as his reflexes allowing him to cut out passes better than perhaps any current Whitecap other than Terry Dunfield.
He's still going on those long runs into the attacking zone. Whenever the Whitecaps are drawn or winning you can count on seeing Leathers up there, looking to make something happen, and even when the Whitecaps are losing he's pretty feisty. When Leathers and Blake Wagner both playing fullback, it's like the pitch is tilted horizontally, with Wagner hanging back and playing conservatively while Leathers goes for broke. One thing Leathers has been careful to avoid, though, is flagrant turn-overs. He doesn't try to play the ball past defenders in the open field. His passes are either long (to give him time to run back and make sure he's in position for a counter) or safe (so it won't matter). He actually knows what he's doing up there.
I'm still not fully convinced by Jonathan Leathers. He still doesn't usually tackle well, he's still out of position too frequently for my liking. I live in dread of the day that some really good offensive player matches up against Leathers and really burns him. But he's been a fine fullback to date for the team and, frankly, is probably the least of their problems right now. I hope he keeps it up. On this site I pretend to be a know-it-all but, in the case of Jonathan Leathers, I remain delighted that he is proving me wrong.