One of the primary reasons for the delay between part I of this series – goalkeepers – and part II is that I couldn’t figure out what to call the guys who play defense outside of the center backs. I prefer wing backs, but that term implies a defender that gets forward and overlaps, and not all of them do. Fullbacks, on the other hand, implies a stay at home fella – the kind of player former Macalester College coach John Leaney likes to call a “yard dog.” The players Minnesota United has deployed at that position have been a little bit of each
Whatever you call them – wide defenders? – the Loons need some. After some recent roster surgery, the amount of serviceable outside backs is down to two – Jerome Thiesson and Marc Burch.
How we got here
It’s kind of funny to think that Minnesota United actually has the same amount of wing defenders on the roster now as it did last year at this time, when there were only two players total. The Loons began the roster building process with the logical move of signing two defenders from their NASL side: Kevin Venegas and Justin Davis – both former members of the NASL Best 11. They were relatively inexpensive and already endeared to the local fan base.
I wish I could say that these two stalwarts went on to anchor a stingy defense that kept the Loons competitive in their inaugural MLS season, but our defense was far from stingy, and while both players had their moments, neither was able to nail down a starting spot. Davis began the season as a starter, but lost his spot by April. Venegas got a few opportunities, and there were a few weeks in the summer when he looked to be on the verge of breaking through, but it was not to be.
Rumors about a Swiss defender “with MNUFC as a possible destination” began to surface late in preseason, and those rumors came to fruition in the form of Thiesson. The trade that yielded Burch, meanwhile, didn’t happen until April. Thiesson and Burch are the only two players who managed to inspire enough confidence at the position to be asked back for an encore.
On field performance
For whatever reason, management seemed a bit slow to recognize the fact that the team wasn’t ready to hold down the flanks at the MLS level. In a desperate bid for MLS experience, Jermaine Taylor was acquired from Portland in preseason’s waning moments and inserted on the right for the opener; fears that he was not suited to defending out wide were borne out. Taylor became one of the early scapegoats for Minnesota’s defensive woes – thanks to some missed marks and questionable positioning – before he was moved back to the middle where he belongs.
In addition to establishing an endearing social media persona, Thiesson, a veteran of the Swiss Leagues, helped to gradually stabilize the defense and even gave the opposition something to worry about as he picked his spots going forward. Thiesson is comfortable with the ball, delivers dangerous crosses into the area, and even broke through for a couple of goals to compliment his three assists. I think it’s safe to say we can call him a genuine wing back.
The grass on the left side of the pitch, meanwhile, was not nearly as green for the Loons. Aside from the few games where Thiesson played on that side, the left did not enjoy the same relative stability as the right. Burch’s arrival in April brought new hope, but the Loons never really fired on all cylinders when it comes to working it out of the back. Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle ran a piece in May about how Minnesota United was struggling to find the right balance as a unit when it comes to getting wing backs forward without becoming vulnerable to the counterattack. While Thiesson was fairly comfortable moving up and down the flank, Burch, known for a dynamic left foot, suffered through an injury plagued season, never found his groove in that department, and has yet to register an assist as a Loon.
The chances of gaining any stability or mojo along the flanks was all but lost when Burch took a leave of absence to repair a bilateral sports hernia in June. Venegas took advantage of an opportunity and played his best MLS game against Portland at home, but he faltered later that week against Vancouver and never saw the field again. At this point, one of the more surprising experiments of the year took shape when Heath began to deploy Ismaila Jome as his left back of choice to get the Loons through the lean times.
The Jome experiment left many fans scratching their heads, but I think the project had serious merit. Jome’s athleticism allowed him cover for most of his positioning mistakes, he was pretty effective at forcing players out wide where he could close them down, and as midfielder by training he was comfortable enough with the ball. With so little youth on the field, it was refreshing to see the 22-year old former Minnesota Mr. Soccer winner get quality minutes. Jome was not the left back the franchise ultimately needed, but he was not overmatched or overwhelmed.
Jome and center back Francisco Calvo put in time before Burch returned in the fall, but the left side remained a weak spot for Minnesota. Possession wise, there was very little contribution from that side of the pitch, and no one besides Thiesson registered any assists from that position.
What we can expect going forward
Thiesson, 29, and Burch, 33, are hardly the wing backs of the future. Thiesson appears to have some good years left in him, but when you plug in the variables of Burch’s age and his recovery from major surgery, it seems wise to be cautious about his prospects for 2018. All told, the MNUFC depth chart is perhaps shallower at wing back than at any other position on the field.
Given the razor thin margin for error the team has at this position, I found it particularly puzzling that they opted to pull the plug on the Jome experiment. Jome, could have provided much needed depth at a pittance, and even if the team does as well as they seem to think they will with their wing back search, they could always loan him out and give him more time to develop.
I think it’s safe to say that investment at wing back will be among the team’s top priorities this offseason – and specifically investment in youth. However, the team is likely to prioritize its TAM/GAM money on the search for a difference maker at central midfield, meaning they will need to rely on trade, free agency, and the draft to acquire more affordable domestic reinforcements in back. Chances seem good that they will try to land at least one outside back that can push for a starting position, as well as one or two projects.
In the spirit of conjecture, let’s nominate a few targets who might be the kind of player the Loons are looking for. My Nordic consultant out of Texas tells me that left back is the hardest position to fill in the MLS, so the Loons could spend money on another right back, with the knowledge that Thiesson can play either side. Jukka Raitala of the Columbus Crew is an established left back who backs up Harrison Afful. He is, however, 29 years old, and also would take up an international slot. Eric Miller, the 2011 Minnesota Mr. Soccer winner out of Woodbury High School who currently plays for the Rapids, would be a pricier solution, but his ability to play all four positions across the back is something to consider. Anthony Hudson, the new Rapids manager, may be willing to part with Miller in favor of more offensive minded outside backs as they make the transition from a 4-4-2 to a 5-3-2 formation. Saad Abdul Salaam is a 26-year old American product who had a standout season in 2016 with Sporting Kansas City, but now backs up Graham Zusi. All of the above could push for a starting spot.
Come SuperDraft time, the Loons might consider Tim Kubel, the young German who has been torching the NCAA field at Louisville. They also might take a flyer on a second year player like Regan Dunk, who was recently released by Real Salt Lake, or Chris Odoi Atsem of DC United, with depth in mind.
Do you have other targets the Loons should consider? Sound off in the comments below.
Next installment: center backs.