What did our beloved Claret and Cobalt do the evening of March, 10th? They did what they trained for. They did what they most wanted. They did what they are capable of. They “came to score” (The Aggrolites).
When we came into this season, we knew we were going to be without some of our valuable players from the previous campaign. Key among them was Andy Williams, who had stepped into the right-sided midfield diamond spot, and when he retired, we knew we were going to need to fill that spot rather quickly.
In steps Ned Grabavoy like a Western gunslinger. The wind is metaphorically blowing (let's say these are the winds of change or some such), a tumbleweed tumbles its way across the screen — wait, I suppose that's a bit wide of the mark, as the metaphor hadn't been cinematic. Oh, bother — and the dramatic piano music is cued. His steely gaze (not rather unlike Jonny Steele's gaze, but not a Steeley gaze) cuts through the pitch like a laser beam.
Or something like that. We've discovered a few things about Ned Grabavoy — or rediscovered, perhaps — since the start of pre-season. Where he was previously played as a tactically aware midfielder to watch runs or even as a wholly defensive midfielder, he's now one of the players out there making those runs that needs watching.
Ned, to his credit, credits that to a few things. During last night's airing of OnFrame, he discussed how he feels he's improved season-by-season: "Two biggest things were fitness and in the weight room. I've probably dropped five or six pounds this year, which has helped me big time, especially in the last 30 minutes of the game."
But while fitness has helped — he's shown time and time again that he can burst behind the defense in a way that really helps our side tactically, and he's more active during the full run of the match — it's not the only way in which he's improved.
His mentality and understanding of the game has improved, too, since coming to Real Salt Lake in 2009 after being rather unceremoniously dumped to the side by San Jose Earthquakes: "I feel like the game has slowed down so much more for me, I feel like speed of play and vision-wise, I can play a little bit faster than the speed of the game. It's probably more a testament to this team, because there are so many good players around me, it makes it easier."
While some players would take being dropped from a team with a miserable record after only one season as a sign that it was perhaps time to hang up the boots or start anew overseas, being picked up by the Claret and Cobalt proved significant. Jason Kreis wanted him to fill a role that was perhaps not less attacking but significantly more focused on defining.
Again, Ned: "Jason sat me down and said you're going to become a two-way player and a box-to-box guy. I feel like I've gotten a lot better at doing that every year."
Perhaps it is no surprise that a nominally attacking midfielder dropped off a bit in the final third when asked to sit back more. It takes a very certain sort of player to be able to make an impact on both sides of the field, and certainly plenty have shown that it's not their preference, to be sure. The box-to-box midfielder plays a significant role in the modern game, but only handfuls of players can do it at the very top level. Too often, sacrifices are made on one end, and for Ned, that sacrifice was his attacking play.
Four years on board at Real Salt Lake — the first time he's had a fourth year with a professional club — he's found his attacking boots again. That's not to say that he didn't have his moments, but he wasn't making that stellar final pass or finding space behind the defense with much frequency. He had become, to my mind, the quintessential box-to-box midfielder in MLS: Not showing too much on either end, he was capable in attack and defense but the role demanded just a little too much to be a key player on either end. He had his moments, no doubt, from a key penalty in the run-up to the MLS Cup to a shocking goal against Seattle during the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs to seal the match 3-0. But by and large, there was just something a bit intangible missing.
Perhaps it's his fitness that's changed. Maybe it's his awareness and tactical vision. Maybe it's the players he has around him. Maybe — just maybe — it's all of those things and more. Whatever the case, Ned Grabavoy has changed that. He's established himself as a key attacking player again. He hasn't lost his defensive abilities — the ones that made him a solid but unspectacular box-to-box player in the first place — but he's found that ability again to make that essential bit of difference in a match.
Full of confidence, Ned Grabavoy has made his way from being a solid option in the midfield to being a near-guaranteed starter. While his run of matches has been cut a bit short by a rib dislocation, he should be back to the pitch "sooner rather than later" — he just needs to play through the immense pain that comes with the injury. Once he does, expect him to be back to his confident, inventive self during what is sure to be his truly breakout season.