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Scouting Report: What Did MNUFC Get With Thomás Chacón?

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Minnesota United’s latest signing will change the future of the team—even if it might look a lot like the present.

2018 Panda Cup International Youth Football Tournament - Uruguay v Hungary
Thomas Chacon (#17) fights for a ball while playing for the Uruguay U-19 National Team in 2018. Chacon was announced as Minnesota’s first Young Designated Player on Wednesday.
Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with the easiest comparison player when Minnesota United signs someone. When the team signed Jan Gregus, you couldn’t really compare him to Rasmus Schuller: Gregus’s top evident skill was an eye for progressive passes that differed from the Finn’s industrial approach to the #8 slot. Robin Lod threads passes and little else, unlike an overloading supporter like Miguel Ibarra or a counter-runner like Romario Ibarra. Thankfully, this scouting report is a little easier to relate, as the latest player to join the Loons, Uruguay under-20 international Thomás Chacón, projects—emphasis on project—into a more familiar mold.

Chacón comes with heavy expectations. He’s the team’s first Young Designated Player, attached to a transfer fee quoted by Ives Galarcep at $4 million (with his former club, Danubio FC, holding 30% of his next transfer fee), and the pressure will be on him to contribute quickly to a team charging toward its first playoff run. It’s somewhat uncharted territory for more than just the Loons to bring in a player this young: the league only has four players brought in from overseas at age 18 who are currently age eligible for next year’s Olympics, and those four (guess who in the comments for internet points!) have combined for just 26 starts this year.

The risk is there, but the upside seen as he broke into Danubio’s first team over the last year and his appearances in Uruguay’s youth national teams is undeniable. Chacón has typically suited up as a roving attacking midfielder, either as a left wing or centrally, usually looking to make supporting runs and take on defenders one-on-one. He possesses elite ball skills, as shown in this all-touch video from a match against the Saudi Arabia U-20s earlier this spring:

It’s also worth checking his performance this April away to Penarol, Uruguay’s two-time defending league champions. Chacón was on his best that night, torching his international teammate Ezequiel Busquets on the left wing for a number of key passes that, as his remonstrating showed, should have been enough to turn the tide from Danubio’s 1-0 loss.

Performances like that reflect on Chacón’s abilities more than the top line stats show. Between 2017 and 2019, Chacón only made 20 appearances at senior level, with no assists and two goals (both coming this year). Yet after watching tape on a number of those games, it’s hard not to think that the stats would be more kind if Danubio had better scorers. Danubio scored 22 goals in 15 matches in this year’s Apertura tournament (ten of which saw Chacón appear amid U-20 call ups), but five of those goals came from penalties. Only striker Santiago Paiva tallied more than two goals from open play. The number of weak shots coming from inch-perfect passes reflects the finishing issues that Danubio showed in a mid-table Apertura performance.

There are a few general things I love about Chacón’s performances. That Penarol clip was a display of his willingness to run deep to open up chances in the box for his strikers. When given a target, he will find it from numerous spots in the last 20-30 yards of the field to any spot on his teammate’s body. This will be something that can come in handy with a team that has recently struggled to finish chances passed from behind the on-rushing attacker, and has gone stale in its tries to hit high targets from right flank crosses.

Chacón is also not afraid to ruin the career of a defender. He forces nutmegs in close quarters, and his cutbacks can play regardless of the opposition. That sort of ruthlessness in one-v-one situations has been hard to come by in recent weeks as teams like Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Portland turned the goalmouth into a fortress, and while Chacón’s positioning has been wide for Danubio it’s been more or less by necessity given their personnel. One can expect Chacón to move centrally and be the focal point when fully integrated into the side.

The other aspect is the type of pressure he can provide. Check out his goal in Danubio’s 3-2 victory over Progreso this past March (at 3:20 in the video):

That sort of counter-pressure doesn’t always come through for attackers, but it can create goals and stem the tide of an opposition’s back line buildup. It’s something that his new teammate Darwin Quintero has been sneaky good at, averaging 1.5 tackles completed per 90 minutes—a level that, per WhoScored, puts him in the top 10 of players with five or more appearances in MLS this year as a central attacker or striker.

In fact, when reviewing Chacón’s game the comparisons to Quintero are striking. Both players leverage a low center of gravity when taking on defenders and look to keep them off balance on the dribble. Both are aggressive in trying to open up back lines on the run. While both can influence the game starting out wide, both clearly are at their best when playing inside out, drawing the defense toward them and opening lanes for the rest of the attack. Neither likes to stick directly in their spot, instead trying to find their openings where they come. Like it or not, both players can be accused of fading out of games where they don’t get on the front foot right away—admittedly when drawing tons of attention.

The difference at this point is in the end product. At his best, Quintero scores from all over the field, taking sometimes ill-advised shots and making a not insignificant number of them. Chacón hasn’t picked up that skill quite yet, needing a bit more confidence to take his shooting half-chances. He also doesn’t seem to point and shoot much, preferring to have a couple of touches or even a full dribble before firing on target. My assumption is that he’ll grow into being more of a scoring threat, both with additional senior-level minutes and age.

The imminent question is where those minutes will come when his direct competition and playing comparable is his team’s highest-paid player and biggest star, but it’s possibly not a coincidence that Chacón would come in shadowing Darwin Quintero as 2019 concludes. During Sunday’s broadcast of the Loons’ game versus the Portland Timbers, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman said that Minnesota’s top brass has a big question on whether El Cientifico should have his option picked up for 2020. The inference is that such a deal would keep him above the Designated Player maximum—as is, with a mounting crew of TAM-level players, there might not be excess funds to move around.

If the question Twellman posed was about Quintero’s individual value, it’s something of a coin flip. American Soccer Analysis’s data on goals, expected goals, and expected goals plus assists (all less PKs among attackers and forwards with more than 1000 combined minutes since 2018) all suggest that Quintero’s production fits squarely on the trend line of expectations relative to the $1.75 million salary he’s pulled in the last two seasons; in other words, MNUFC is getting what it pays for. But having Chacón coming through in the same spot—especially on a transfer fee based more on his promise than his immediate production—sways that into a new direction.

That said, it’s unclear what direction that would be. Chacón obviously needs minutes, but the adaptation for young players into new leagues and environments can be a difficult one. Chacón could make like his countryman Diego Rossi, who came to LAFC on a $3 million transfer fee from Penarol at age 19 and, in less than sixty games, score 25 goals with ten assists. Chacón could also go the route of his former Danubio teammate Joaquin Ardaiz, a striker with zero goals or assists in 17 appearances after coming to Vancouver this past offseason on a YDP-level loan from Swiss side Chiasso.

The playoff run will dominate headlines for Minnesota United, but the middle-term storyline of what Chacón shows in the next dozen games is no less intriguing. If he shows that he’s ready to take the mantle of spearheading the Loons’ attack, Darwin Quintero might be expendable at year’s end, either through declining his option or controlling his next move via a potential transfer. But if Chacón still needs time to settle and learn from a veteran with a similar set of skills, an identical body type, and a well-honed eye for goal, Minnesota may need to adapt to having an expensive depth piece at the #10 next year—Colombian or Uruguayan.