Manny Lagos, Adrian Heath, and a priest walk into a bar. . .
The punchline is wingers. Lots of wingers.
If you pay any attention to Minnesota United, you are probably aware of the team’s reputation for signing wide midfielders. The club’s reputation for taking on wingers established itself early in the preseason and only picked up steam by the end of the summer transfer window.
Whether it’s because wingers are more affordable than central midfielders, more plentiful, or just because someone in the Loons’ front office likes to collect, the end result is an ever growing pile of wide players on the team.
Oh – would you look at that – Frantz Pangop, the team’s most recent signing out of Cameroon, profiles as a winger. They just keep coming.
How we got here
Two of the team’s highest profile off season moves last year were luring Miguel Ibarra back from Leon of Liga MX, and shelling out a then record amount of TAM and GAM (650K) to acquire Kevin Molino from Orlando. Ibarra prefers the left, and Molino had some of his best years in the MLS running riot down the right flank. The team also picked up Bashkim Kadrii, a left winger from Denmark with some eye-popping highlight reels, and signed Ismaila Jome from the NASL squad. The team wasn’t truly deep when preseason started, but they looked to be adequately staffed out wide.
During summer transfer window, however, is when Minnesota’s reputation as wing hoarders really began to take root. First the Loons found an out of contract 22-year old winger they liked in Scotland named Sam Nicholson, took a flyer on Costa Rican international winger Jose Leiton, then shelled out another handsome chunk of GAM and TAM (425K) to lure Ethan Finlay from the Columbus Crew. At that point, MNUFC winger jokes began to appear regularly in headlines, twitter feeds, podcasts, and Reddit posts. Incidentally, both the Molino and Finlay trades remain among the top five most expensive MLS TAM/GAM trades in league history.
By season’s end, it was reported that several MLS teams were interested in Ibarra, and most Minnesota fans have gotten used to assuming that the popular winger will be dealt somewhere soon. Both Ibarra and Nicholson were left unprotected in the Expansion Draft – you can only protect so many wingers – and MLS analyst Matt Doyle projected that LAFC would select Ibarra. No Minnesota players were selected in the draft, however, and it appears at least for the time being that Ibarra remains part of the team’s future plans.
On field performance
In the preseason, it looked like Minnesota just might be stacked out wide. Kadrii impressed early with his playmaking and wicked knuckleball shot, and Molino was firing on all cylinders. Ibarra, meanwhile, didn’t make an immediate impact but it was clear that he would be in the mix. Kadril and Molino were the go to starters as the regular season got underway.
As the season progressed, however, things got a bit more complicated out wide. While Molino was off to a great start, Kadril had trouble putting his stamp on the game. Ibarra won the left wing job back from the Dane in April, and appeared to be gaining confidence quickly. He scored the game winner at home against Colorado in late April, then followed that up with a two-assist performance that helped the Loons knock off Sporting Kansas City at home – earning MLS Team of the Week honors.
The ascendant season so many of us hoped to see out of Ibarra, however, stalled out sometime in June. After much of the team struggled in an ugly 3-1 loss on the road at NYCFC, Heath benched Ibarra and inserted Ismaila Jome. That seemed to be the beginning of a rocky relationship between the head coach and the enigmatic winger. Ibarra’s place on the team, and his confidence, appeared to yoyo throughout the remainder of the season.
Meanwhile, Johan Venegas, Minnesota United’s erstwhile solution at the number 10 slot, imploded by the time May rolled around, beginning the much maligned experiment of pulling Molino in from the wing to a central, playmaking role. Molino had his moments in the middle, but he never looked quite as comfortable there as he does when he has some room to operate out wide.
Finlay, thankfully, provided an immediate shot in the arm, scoring within minutes of putting on the grey and black to help the Loons go up 1-0 on the road at Seattle. He followed that up with an assist on the road at Chicago, and notched the tying goal against Philadelphia. He impressed just about everybody with his ability to not only get forward, but also recover and help the defense in the trenches.
Nicholson, meanwhile, was more of a mixed bag. The Scot has a soft first touch, gets up and down the flank efficiently, and can unleash a potent long range shot. He scored a pretty goal in a losing effort against Houston, and made some dangerous solo runs. The main issue with Nicholson, however, is that he seems to have trouble combining with teammates. Heath started Nicolson as soon as he arrived, but by the end of the season it appeared that Ibarra had won the left side back. Leiton never broke into the rotation, and had logged only 15 MLS minutes by season’s end.
What we can expect going forward
It’s safe to say that neither Ibarra nor Nicholson has nailed down a starting spot. Both of these pacey wingers could end up on the outside looking in, however, in the event that Heath decides to move Molino back to the wing. Finlay has obviously made the right side his own, and it would seem logical to slot Molino to the left as an inverted wing. The Molino and Finlay line up makes sense on many levels. After extensive experimentation, it seems abundantly clear that Molino is more effective out wide, and giving him a chance to own the left seems more plausible than benching one of the team’s most valuable assets. It is also entirely possible that Heath opts to do away with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in favor of a 4-4-2 in an attempt to get both Abu Danladi and Christian Ramirez on the field at the same time, which is yet another reason we are likely to see Molino back on the flank.
As far as future acquisitions, this position is probably at the very bottom of Loons offseason priority list. Considering Ibarra and Nicholson could be competing to see who is the first player off the bench, it seems safe to say Heath has legitimate depth here. The Loons, then, have the luxury of investing in some long term, long shot prospects – which is exactly how I rate the Pangop signing. He’s 24, looks to have some legitimate speed, and no one knows much about him.
Any further signings out wide are likely to be even younger than Pangop, and potentially loaned out for big chunks of time. It is still possible, however, that Heath could decide to offload one of his winger assets and maybe throw in some TAM/GAM in an attempt to acquire a central midfielder or even a left back. Ibarra, who is pretty well known around the league, remains the most likely trade candidate.
Looking ahead, The big question is which wingers will rise to the top in this crowded stable, and who will be left on the outside looking in? What’s your take? Sound off in the comments below.