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The Perilous Search for a Real Number Ten

Can MNUFC find the player of our dreams this offseason?

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off on the Terra Nova expedition with hopes of being the first man to reach the South Pole. He reached the pole, only to find that Norway’s Roald Amundson had beat him there by a matter of weeks. Scott and his companions were overcome by scurvy and starvation on their difficult return journey, and perished on the Ross Ice Shelf.

This offseason – if the Minnesota United fan base has its way – management will set off on a journey to find a number 10 to run their offense. The chances that anyone will perish in the attempt are slim, but finding the playmaker fans so desperately crave may well prove as elusive as being the first person to reach the Earth’s underside.

Minnesota United lined up through most of its inaugural MLS campaign in a 4-2-3-1 – a formation that works best with a genuine playmaker underneath the forward. Johan Venegas began the season in that role, and eventually Kevin Molino became the lynchpin. Venegas had his moments, and Molino had a fairly productive season, but neither player truly commanded the position in the eyes of the sporting public.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Johan Venegas has not lived up to expectations
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Considering that Venegas is out of favor at MNUFC – he was nearly traded to Portland during the summer transfer window and was relegated to the bench for most of the season – it is not surprising that no one sees him as the team’s playmaker of the present or future. Molino’s relationship to the number 10 position bears a bit more scrutiny. Playing on the wing and centrally, the Trinidadian was a crucial cog in the team’s offense. He ended the year with a respectable if not dazzling six goals, and nine assists. But while few question Molino’s talent, pundits and fans alike have been clamoring to let everyone know that he is not truly suited to the role of a number 10.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Minnesota United FC
Kevin Molino was a crucial cog in MNUFC’s offense, but is he a number 10?
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

This begs a question: if a gifted player who leads the team in assists is not considered worthy, then who is?

Let’s take a moment to examine what a number ten is, and why the title is so hard to earn. Every team in the league has someone playing in central midfield, but only a select number of them are considered 10’s. Loosely defined a 10 is a player who roams the center of the field, has limited defensive responsibility, spends a fair amount of time on the ball, and uses that time to set up goals, and score goals.

The skill set for the position includes an immaculate first touch, quickness, and most importantly, vision. Vision – that intangible ability to see seams where others see plugs, and know how a play will develop before it actually does – is perhaps the most important and elusive quality that separates those that play central midfield from those that are called a number 10.

But if you listen closely, being a number 10 is about a lot more than just skill set. In a recent MLS Round Table series on the number 10, a collection of players, former players, and analysts stressed the importance of attitude – and a lot of other things. Alejandro Moreno said, “You gotta want to be that guy.” Sacha Kljestan called Peter Novak one of the greatest number 10’s ever because, “He always wanted the ball.” Kyle Martino, a former number 10 himself for the Columbus Crew and the Los Angeles Galaxy, talked about “the ability to entertain,” then drifted into reverential tones, when he elaborated about how number 10’s “use” the ball: “They sort of dance with it,” he said.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at FC Dallas
Where is our Sacha Kljestan?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Umm, okay.

When you start to unpack this whole number 10 thing, searching for one can seem a bit daunting – like searching for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece. When, at the end of a disappointing loss, a Reddit stream or article comment thread casually mentions how much MNUFC needs a “real number 10,” we are probably only half aware of what we are really pining for. We are not just asking for a guy who plays a certain position, or a guy with a specific and rare skill set; we are talking about an elusive search for a truly gifted player, a game changer; we are on a quest for a taste of soccer sublime.

Does what we’re looking for even exist? Yes, it does, these players are out there. Kljestan is a real live number 10 in the flesh. He is not lightning fast, but his head is always up, he reads the game brilliantly, and he puts the ball in dangerous places. He led the league in assists this year. Kljestan, however, is something of a rarity in that he is from California. Most of the league’s other number tens – Miguel Almiron, Nicolas Lodeiro, Federico Iguain – come from South America, which is where the number 10’s of our imagination exist.

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC
Miguel Almiron, like most number 10’s in the MLS, hails from South America
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

For my money, I’d love to see Nazmi Albadawi get a chance to be the number ten for MNUFC. Albadawi, an American who plays for North Carolina FC in the NASL, has received a lot of attention lately from MLS scouts. By all accounts he has quickness, brilliant touch, and the ability to deliver that final pass. Given the weighty expectations that come with playing the ten, however, I hesitate to wish that pressure on a young player who is unproven at this level.

I’m afraid that what the fan base really wants, in its heart of hearts, is for Manny Lagos to fly to South America with a briefcase full of million dollar bills and come back with a savior. It’s a beautiful dream, but Minnesota United is a budget conscious team trying to balance the expense of a new stadium with the desire to build a quality roster, all while trying to dig itself out from some costly mistakes.

Searching for the number ten of our dreams could be a perilous journey for everyone involved.

What do you think? Can you aid MNUFC on this perilous journey? Do you scour the depths of South American Football? Let us know below!