One player out, one player in. Even post transfer window, the Loons managed to make some moves with the intention of improving the team. Fernando Bob came in for free, and Tyrone Mears was cut and then immediately signed by West Bromwich Albion in the English Championship.
After all the clamoring for a bona fide #6 all year, the Loons moved with typical frugality and picked someone up for free. On one hand, more money to spend in the future; on the other hand, there may be a reason that this player was free. Bob is a year younger than Sam Cronin and has spent his entire career playing in Brazil, with his 11 years and 183 appearances spread across eight teams. So how does he work his way into the Loons’ starting lineup?
This would just be the same as we have right now. Three at the back, one sitting in front, two more central midfielders with wingbacks, and two up top. There is some staggering in here as Darwin usually sits underneath whoever the other striker is, Ibson usually pushes forward and gets higher to add to the attack. Bob would push one of the three midfielders, Ibson, Schuller, or Warner, back to the bench. Since Warner was the #6 in the lineup, it would make sense for him to go. Schuller has arguably been the best midfielder this year, or if you don’t agree with that statement, the least frustrating midfielder. Schuller stays, Ibson probably stays as well. Warner never was a #6, but he did well enough for it not being his best position. When he got higher up the field, he looked more relaxed. The only thing in his way is Ibson. If Ibson wasn’t dropped for his disastrous backheel against Vancouver or for spending half the match on the ground against Kansas City, he won’t be dropped for a new Brazilian with a cooler name.
Out with the new, in with the old. This was Heath’s favored formation for most of his time in Orlando and for the first year and a half in Minnesota. Was it working? Sometimes...? That’s the best it got. After the trade for Sam Cronin, however, things were looking up. This year Cronin hasn’t even been near getting back to playing, and if Bob is a slightly younger, slightly better, slightly more Brazilian version of Cronin, then the Heath Special could be back in business. This would require actual fullbacks, of which we now have one less. Carter Manley is on loan, Jerry is just getting back to being healthy, Marc Burch’s last appearance was the disaster against Portland, and Eric Miller has mostly been used as a more defensively sound wingback. Angelo would still start up top, Darwin underneath, and with the lack of defensive responsibility on the wide players, Romario and Miguel could focus more on offense. That leaves one spot in midfield for Schuller, Warner, Ibson, or even Colin Martin or Maximiano. My pick would be Schuller, he brings the most to the table and is the most natural #8 to pair with the #6 of Bob.
The Loons rocked the 4-3-3 in the Open Cup against Cincinnati and it didn’t look too bad. It was mostly a second string lineup for the Loons against the USL opponent, but there were still some weaknesses exposed, like which of the three midfielders would sit at the base of the midfield and actually defend, or at least be the pivot. With Bob in the lineup, he would be the natural base for which to run the team around. His passing may or may not be world class, but he has a decade of experience and his role in the midfield three wouldn’t be as a creator, it would be as a destroyer who can keep possession. Just in front of him would be two midfielders who would have to bear the brunt of the creative load. In his few appearances this year, Colin Martin has looked sharp. As far as being creative and trying things, a pairing of Ibson and Martin would allow the Loons to cause chaos in the middle. The problem with this lineup is that there really isn’t a place for Darwin. His talents are wasted on the wing and his game isn’t suited to be the lone striker.
The answer to solidity in the middle and finding a way to force Darwin into the team may come with sacrificing the wingers. Rather than opting for balance and width, the Loons could tuck the wide midfielders inside and let the fullbacks overlap, much like Graham Zusi did to great effect against the Loons. This would require Darwin playing either at the tip of a midfield diamond or as the withdrawn striker. Fernando Bob would be the base of the midfield, Martin or Schuller could operate on the left, rotating between sliding out wide and tucking into the middle. Ibarra on the other side would make the most of his talents: getting wide and letting him run at defenses, and getting him inside and on the ball more often. If Darwin played as the #10, the Danladi and Rodriguez could play together, with Danladi’s pace being the foil to Rodriguez’s strength. If Darwin played up top next to or underneath the striker then the Loons would need to find another player to fill in at the #10, someone with a little more production than Colin Martin and a little more spine than Ibson.
There are two months left of the season. The Loons aren’t making the playoffs. The Loons aren’t even getting close to the playoffs. The only thing saving this season from being more than a footnote and an exceptionally loud shrug of the shoulders is if they show they can adapt with new players and form some sort of cohesive and defensively sound unit. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, but at this point in the season all we have left to hope for are baby steps.