Analyzing the earthquake of goal letting that was Minnesota United’s opening month in the MLS, it’s pretty clear that the primary fault line ran right through the center back position. While the young and promising Francisco Calvo was gradually finding his legs last March, Minnesota’s defensive anchor, captain, and highest paid player Vadim Demidov was quickly proving to be a liability.
In fact, Matt Doyle ran a video spot in which – guess who? – was the main character in a cautionary tale about what happens when the center backs don’t mind the gap between them when playing against Atlanta. I think it goes without saying that serious – read: frantic – adjustments at center back were the first order of business when it came to righting the ship.
And the ship did get righted – mostly. While the Loons never completely locked down the middle of their defensive third the way, say, Sporting Kansas City does, it’s safe to say that they made legitimate progress.
How we got here
On paper, the plan looked awfully good. Loons scouts had managed to dig up a pair of center backs that appeared to have complimentary styles. Francisco Calvo, the young, athletic, swashbuckling Costa Rican, was to be paired with the steady Demidov, a 30-year old Norwegian with experience in the Bundesliga and La Liga among other places.
When this plan went up in flames – and Demidov was relegated to the bench for good – the Loons found an able replacement in Brent Kallman. The Woodbury High School product looked the part from the first game he stepped onto the field – a 2-2 draw at Colorado Rapids. The Kalman-Calvo pairing, however, didn’t last as long as many had hoped hoped; injuries and international duty disrupted the team’s ability to build center back continuity as the season progressed.
Jermaine Taylor forced his way into the mix, and while he had an outstanding Gold Cup and logged some quality minutes off the bench, he never got a real opportunity to vie for a starting spot. Big Joe Greenspan picked up two concussions, but never really found his MLS footing, and both Justin Davis and Jerome Thiesson even logged some minutes in the middle to patch things together during times of trouble.
By the time the summer transfer window came around, there had been enough dodgy moments that management made the decision to acquire more talent at center back. Michael Boxall, a New Zealand international fresh off Confederations Cup duty, was brought in to push for a starting spot in July. When the season was done and dusted, Kallman, Boxall, and Calvo were the three center backs deemed worthy of future consideration at MNUFC.
On field performance
If there was a game that showed how far the Loons Center backs have come since the debacle that was the snow opener, it was the game at Chicago in late August. With Calvo pushed out left to play wingback, Heath went with Boxall and Kallman in the middle – ostensibly the team’s number two and three at the position, and managed to scrape out a 2-1 win for their first road victory in MLS. The Fire dominated possession, and Bastian Schweinsteiger worked his typical magic through the midfield, but the home team had trouble creating many legitimate chances. Kallman and Boxall worked together to plug up the middle, made several crucial tackles, and owned the box in the air.
The victory at Chicago, however, does not mean that the Loons solved their center back problems outright. Moments of brilliance like Chicago were punctuated by occasional mental lapses and positioning errors that plagued the team down to the last game of the season, when Calvo – playing as the last man – flailed at a bouncing ball just about 10 yards beyond the center circle, missed, and could only watch as San Jose’s Danny Hoesen corralled the ball and went in alone to slot it past a helpless Bobby Shuttleworth.
This gaffe wasn’t necessarily typical of Calvo – more often than not his athleticism helped him cover for his mistakes – and he covered a lot of ground as the team’s premier center back. He was very difficult to beat one on one, helped jumpstart the attack with poised passing, and he’s always eager to jump into the offense when he sees a lane – or a half of one. His glorious pirouette in the box against Philadelphia, and his lethal header against Vancouver, furthermore, are evidence that his forays into the offensive third are for the most part worth the gamble.
The Kallman surprise, meanwhile, was salve for the bitter disappointment that was the Demidov deal. He locked down the slot beside Calvo and the two seemed to be one way to developing that crucial center back chemistry before he fell prey to a series of injuries. Once Calvo left for extended Gold Cup duty, which also claimed Taylor, there were some dicey times and anyone who looked remotely like a center back was thrown into the rotation.
When Boxall arrived, he was thrown immediately into the fray. He didn’t look out of his depth, but it took him a few games to find his positioning and adjust to the speed of play. He grew gradually more comfortable and began to exert his physical presence in the middle of the field. By the end of the season, Boxall was Heath’s preferred foil to Calvo.
What we can expect going forward
A guest post at 55.1 earlier this month provided two potential center back targets for Minnesota United. The players put forward seemed like ideal targets – young, up and coming Europeans who had established themselves in second tier leagues – but I have my doubts that the Loons will pursue either of these or players like them.
While a quality center back tends to be a high leverage signing for any team, this position is probably pretty far down Minnesota United’s long winter shopping list. Calvo, after all, is arguably the team’s most important player, and there are two big fellas who have proven themselves up to the task of playing alongside of him. So to review, our center back corps consists of: a rising star, two guys that have put in quality league minutes to date, all three are well on the right side of 30, and healthy. . . I’d have to call us relatively well off at this position.
When it comes to acquisitions then, we are likely to see the Loons bring in some affordable domestic talent in order to restock the depth cupboard. I can only pray that the understudies we bring in are young, given that we are in the process of becoming one of the oldest teams in the league.
I think the most interesting center back question is whether Kallman will have an opportunity to win his starting job back when training camp starts up in January. When Boxall was off for international duty against Sporting Kansas City, Kallman filled in, played extremely well, and scored on a late header to draw the game level. The two are an identical 6’2”, and both fit the mold of a more physical, stay-at-home back that pairs well with Calvo. I am obviously biased towards Kallman as a Minnesota guy, but I don’t see him as the lesser player. He is deceptively quick and reads the game well defensively. Heath, at this point, appears to favor the New Zealander.
One more wrinkle that management will need to iron out, of course, is Calvo’s World Cup Duty this summer. While the big fellas have shown that they can pair well together, the margin for error injury wise will become razor thin during Calvo’s Russian vacation. The World Cup factor could move center back slightly higher on the shopping list than it otherwise might be. It will be interesting to see how much the team decides to invest there.
What’s your take? Kallman or Boxall? How much money should we spend at center back? Is Calvo really the future? Sound off in the comments below.