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Breaking: Loons Trade Sam Nicholson for Eric Miller

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Minnesota get another hometown defender, trading young wing depth for young defense

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Colorado Rapids Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Multiple outlets (first tweeted by Jeff Rueter of The Athletic and published by Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press) are reporting that Minnesota United FC acquired defender Eric Miller from the Colorado Rapids before the closing of the MLS Primary Transfer Window. In exchange, Minnesota traded away winger Sam Nicholson and a 2018 international slot, with the Rapids also sending over $50,000 in General Allocation Money. The teams and the league have since announced the trade.

Raised in Woodbury, MN, the 25-year-old Miller was a standout in the local club soccer circuit and at Woodbury High School, winning the 2010 Minnesota Mr. Soccer award. He then moved on to create a solid defensive partnership at Creighton University with his high school back line mate Brent Kallman, and saw significant time with the United States U-20 Men’s National Team before getting drafted by the Montreal Impact with the fifth pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Miller was a consistent starter in his rookie year, but saw time dwindle in 2015 due to injuries and national team commitments. Montreal subsequently sent him to Colorado ahead of the 2016 season, where over two seasons he rarely saw the bench. Miller made 60 appearances for the Rapids, starting 56 times between regular and postseason, making starts across the back line. A formation switch with new coach Anthony Hudson and preseason injuries blocked Miller from making the lineup in 2018.

The 23-year-old Nicholson joined the Loons in 2017 following the expiry of his contract at Scottish side Heart of Midlothian and emerged as one of Adrian Heath’s preferred options in the close of the season. The left winger made eight starts and four substitute appearances in his debut season, scoring a late curler against Houston and assisting on the equalizing goal in the Loons’ comeback win away to Atlanta. Noted for his love of long shots and even longer dribbling runs, he came into the season as a starter out left, but illness and the form of Miguel Ibarra shifted him back to the bench. Perhaps a casualty of talented spark plug players on the bench, Nicholson commonly was swapped out late in games, only appearing a full 90 minutes in four of his 14 starts for United.

The 2018 international slot was granted to Minnesota by Major League Soccer, and allowed Nicholson to play for the team during the year. Nicholson was reportedly close to obtaining a permanent residency visa earlier this season. It is unclear whether the GAM provided in the deal was granted by the league during the 2017 or 2018 season, though per Colorado’s March trade with Vancouver it is believed to be worth $75,000 in Targeted Allocation Money.

Eric Miller’s arrival comes amid a significant depth crisis for Minnesota United. The Loons came into the year planning on having Jerome Thiesson and Marc Burch as the 1-2 option at left back, with Tyrone Mears as the primary right back and Carter Manley as a rookie to gradually bleed into the lineup. Injuries to Mears and Burch ravaged the plan for Manley’s development, forcing Manley to play 45 minutes against Portland and the full 90 against Seattle and Houston. As Megan Ryan tweeted from practice, the team expects Burch’s absence to be lengthy:

However it shakes out, Miller likely takes over the right back position and simultaneously is the backup on the left. In terms of proportions, Miller’s work in both right and left back almost mirrors that of Jerome Thiesson upon arriving at Minnesota United, with data from Transfer Markt showing Miller making around 27% of his appearances out left in his career to date and Thiesson at roughly 24%. In either spot, Miller likely turns it into a more defensive position. WhoScored.com’s data for the 2017 season shows that he was sixth in clearances and blocked shots among players who primarily played fullback, and middle of that pack in terms of tackles; the flip side is that he’s a bit more absent in attack, and his pass completion ranked in the lower third of fullbacks. For my money, I would actually have Thiesson and Miller rotate sides of the field depending on matchups, with Miller taking the mark for the faster opposing winger.

What Miller also provides is significant salary relief. Sam Nicholson’s 2017 deal saw him make a guaranteed $281,457, compared to just $86,554 for Miller. Roughly $300,000 isn’t a brutal cap hit for a rotation player in MLS when you consider different salary buydowns, but assuming that Minnesota lacks real breathing room after raises, the $195,000 in space could be enough to bring in a player on a contract similar to Jerome Thiesson or Tyrone Mears; it also could get the team closer to a cap figure to allow for a second Designated Player in the summer.