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What Should Houston Expect From Nathan Sturgis?

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Similar to any pledge nearing his way toward an initiation, there were some, ah, "tasks," to complete before being allowed to smudge up the margins of this blog. Rather than having been taped to a goalpost wearing my girlfriend's undergarments or made to drop a brick tied to a part of my anatomy from an upper floor ledge, though, the project was a bit more nefarious. Instead, I took a peek at last season's work on the field from one of Dynamo's newest players, midfielder Nathan Sturgis. While on the surface this might not seem an entirely difficult endeavor, bear in mind this did require a bit of sacrifice, as it entailed watching far too many minutes of Toronto FC's 2011 campaign than would otherwise be allowed under UN conventions on the treatment of captured enemy combatants.

To fit within the margins and avoid being considered hazing, some matches were allowed to be skipped, so there is that.

So, what has Houston gained with acquiring Sturgis for a conditional pick in the 2014 SuperDraft? To answer that, perhaps another question should be asked. Are you familiar with how pottery begins, as that wet lump of clay yet to be molded and shaped? It might be entirely unfair to suggest Sturgis is such a thing based on his performance in 2011 for many reasons, but it could be fair to say Dom Kinnear and his staff have a little work to do with a player who has never quite put down solid roots either with a club or with a defined position. Still, there were flashes of talent the 24 yr showed in some of his minutes that might portend a more positive contribution during his time with Houston than he had with Toronto FC.

While it has been mentioned that Sturgis is a player that can plug into several positions on the field, during his appearances in 2011 Aron Winter consistently positioned him on the right side as the defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. A couple times Sturgis played as the attacking tip of that diamond-shaped midfield, but quite often he served as the defensive prong on the right with occasional forays through the center. This occasional drifting caused him to be caught out of position at times throughout the season, as Eric Hassli's opening goal in the match away to Vancouver in March demonstrated. His lack of positional integrity and slight penchant for ball watching was further exposed when Terry Dunfield scored Whitecaps' 2nd goal after Sturgis failed to recover in time to defend in what eventually became a 4-2 loss for Toronto FC on that day.

By the following match against Portland seven days later, Sturgis looked to have corrected the issue of maintaining the shape of the formation and defending his space, but there were moments--particularly around the 39th minute of that game--when his passing out of the back resulted in a few too many prime chances for Timbers to score. What this perhaps points to is a certain lack of focus for the young player and something that Kinnear will need to address during training. In this particular match, his lapses in the passing game as well as an absence of pressure on Portland players when they were on the ball resulted in his substitution by halftime, and Winter saw fit to leave him out of the starting XI for a month.

Sturgis demonstrated considerably more focus when facing former clubs Seattle in late April and Los Angeles in June. On in the 57th minute at Seattle with TFC already down two goals, Sturgis could be seen to be active in the final third, earning a dangerous free kick he later took along with a few corners that were struck quite well. Should Dynamo require his services on the dead ball, he looks to be an asset in this department. Against LA he seemed to have been caught ball watching again, thus slow to recover defensively when Galaxy were on one of their many counter attacks during the June affair, but his play here reiterated something noticed during his substitution appearance against Seattle, which is that he looks much better and more focused going forward in an attacking role than tracking back to assist his center-backs.

How he has been typecast--as a defensive midfielder--seems to be ill-suited to the skill set he presented over the 2011 season. In those previous matches mentioned Sturgis could not be seen making a slide tackle, getting "stuck in," or tightly marking the man in his zone and was often looking over his shoulder in a hesitant manner, unsure where he should be on the field. This gives the impression that he is a 50/50 guy always late to the challenge whereas if allowed and directed to do so, he could be a genuine quality cutting from the right side through to the middle to offer his side another attacking outlet. When Vancouver came to BMO Field in late June, Sturgis was making those late runs into the box to threaten on goal and moving about in a more confident way to make himself available to accept the outlet pass from a teammate. Rather than being caught just watching the opposition ping the ball about once again, his activity from a more advanced position showed him to retain much more focus, exhibiting more authoritative play than in his previous minutes wearing Toronto's red.

Should Sturgis surprise wearing the orange of Houston this season, thanks might need to go out to Torsten Frings for setting him on the right path. Playing alongside the former German international after he had recently signed with Toronto FC during their July 20th match against FC Frisco, Sturgis played confidently, challenging well for balls against FCD's midfield and seeming much more comfortable moving forward and back while commanding the middle third of the field with Frings. While he still presented momentary lapses of concentration--such as turning away from Stefan Frei when the GK was needing Sturgis to take his outlet pass to advance the ball up the field--this game combined with his appearance at Seattle might have been the player's best minutes of the 2011 season.

The problem, though, was he was unable to sustain this level of play for the entirety of the match, as he was taken off in the 54th minute against Frisco in what became a 1-0 loss for the Reds. By this time, Winter might have spotted that Sturgis is best in small batches, as he appeared only two more times in the regular season for TFC after, and both those times came as a substitute.

Overall, then, Sturgis offers the talent for Kinnear to shape into something advantageous for Houston but that potential might be found more quickly by sharpening his offensive game rather than a defensive one. It is said that Dom identifies the personnel he seeks to bring into the squad, so perhaps he saw this possibility from a player signed as a Generation adidas player and selected 12th by LA in the 2006 SuperDraft. Granted, Sturgis does not have the look of a goal scorer, but his performances in 2011 hinted at a player who could provide service and tally a few assists to whomever Dynamo might have leading the line up top. Aron Winter's tinkering in Toronto during his first season in charge north of the border just didn't quite allow Sturgis the opportunity to develop this fully.

Then again, Winter likely wasn't strapped to a chair and forced to watch his own matches on replay as some of us, ah, were "alleged" to have been, so might never have spotted this. So now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few errands to run for Zach. What's the closest dry cleaner around?

Forza Naranja