In back-to-back matches, we have a fair demonstration of how the breaks can even out. Next weekend, we will see if Adrian Heath’s men can go on the road in Kansas City and put together a performance like that of the Toronto and LA games, while achieving the result of the Orlando match. In other words: a win that actually feels like a win.
The Loons seem to be on the right track to me to challenge for the playoffs—and probably fall a few points short. There’s work to be done to change that destiny, and it’ll likely have to come in the transfer market. At minimum, the team needs depth. That said, I’d hope they have irons in the fire that might allow them to shoot a bit higher and grab a critical player. Below are some thoughts along those two lines, and a final thought on the one rumor we’ve heard so far.
With Ismaila Jome’s surprise start against Orlando, all of the club’s NASL holdovers have now started a match (with the exception of the injured Bernardo Añor, who was really never an NASLer to begin with). I didn’t think Jome truly impressed on Saturday, but he didn’t embarrass, either. I’d like to see him go on loan to the USL or NASL for regular playing time. Still, he has shown that, at minimum, he can do a job in MLS. That’s more than nearly anyone expected.
It also continues a trend of the ex-NASL Loons doing a credit unto themselves. Christian Ramirez and Brent Kallman are solid starters. Ibson has blossomed when surrounded with better players. Justin Davis was solid before the arrival of Marc Burch and will get more chances. Only Jome and Kevin Venegas have been more on the fringe, and the former appears to have belatedly caught Heath’s eye.
If the Loons did not properly rate and trust their NASL talent until circumstances forced them to, then perhaps they were wrong to not raid the NASL on the way out?
Others have asked the natural question of whether the Loons’ front office underrated the talent they already had on their roster when preparing for MLS. I’ve already gone on the record saying that the club should’ve also brought along J.C. Banks and Sammy Ndjock. But never mind the former Loons for a moment. The success of Minnesota’s group of promoted players should call us to question whether Manny Lagos and company were correct to not draw any players from other teams in the NASL along with them. After all, the Minnesota NASL team with all of these players did not even make the playoffs. Surely Minnesota was in the best position of any MLS team to identify and capture more talent available in the NASL.
The first name that comes to mind is Nazmi Albadawi, whom our own Jeff Rueter wrote about in The Guardian and FourFourTwo. The American Albadawi has starred for the North Carolina NASL team for the past few years, leading the NASL in assists last season. He currently is tied for fourth in the league in chances created, with 15 through nine games of work. If Christian Ramirez’s goal scoring translates from the NASL to MLS, might not Albadawi’s prolific chance creation? Yet the Loons, who know Albadawi better than anyone, are apparently not in the hunt for his signature, while Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake are.
Two other names leap from the list of chance creators in the NASL as familiar. The excellent Dylan Mares was long the lone spark of creativity in a brutish Indy side. Now, he’s credited with 24 chances created in nine games for Miami. I’ve always been impressed by Mares, and thought that he was almost never played properly in Indy’s system. He could do better under Adrian Heath. The other NASL name is Edmonton’s Dustin Corea who, like Mares, was often the only rewarding watch amidst a simplistic attack in a defense-first team. He is tied with Albadawi, with 15 chances created, and has done it in just seven games.
The problem for Venegas is that he is being played, whether by design or by accident, as a creator and not as a second striker. He is drifting deeper to collect the ball and trying to pass through the lines or make runs at defenders, instead of playing off Ramirez.
All three of these players are familiar to Minnesota’s front office from last year. All three are dynamic attacking players in NASL. All three are 25. All three are Americans.
If the Loons did not properly rate and trust their NASL talent until circumstances forced them to, then perhaps they were wrong to not raid the NASL on the way out? Only one NASLer, Duke Lacroix, was on trial with the team at the start of preseason. It seems to me that the club wasted one of their largest advantages. But they can still make use of it. They hold the top spot in the NASL/USL allocation ranking. Put it to use. Get some cheap depth from the NASL, and you might just find them amounting to more than filler before long.
Johan Venegas produced the prettiest play in the match against Orlando, with a deft little flick that sent Christian Ramirez alone on goal to score the winner. But apart from that one movement, Venegas was once again poor.
The problem for Venegas is that he is being played, whether by design or by accident, as a creator and not as a second striker. He is drifting deeper to collect the ball and trying to pass through the lines or make runs at defenders, instead of playing off Ramirez. Neither of these tasks appear to be his strengths.
From Matt Doyle’s weekly wrap-up column on MLSSoccer.com, I learned the incredible statistic that Venegas leads MLS with the lowest percentage of successful dribbles among “high volume dribblers.” In other words, he is frequently trying to beat people on the ball, and is less successful than any other similar player in the league. That’s simply not good enough.
Venegas’ positioning and his woes illustrate the lack of a true No. 10 on the Loons. They have two players who are second-strikers, in Venegas and Abu Danladi. They have a player in Kevin Molino, who is reportedly best as a No. 10, but I haven’t seen it. He seems to me to be much the same player out on the right wing. We have Collin Martin, who played as a youth in that role, but is now probably a No. 8. We have Ibson, who long experience has showed us is not a No. 10 anymore either.
Which brings us to another long-held talking point of mine, which I will again present to you. The biggest need on this roster is for a true-blue No. 10. There are many of these in MLS and you know their names: Diego Valeri, Mauro Díaz, Kaká, Federico Higuaín…
The Loons need such a player for two reasons. The first is simply because they do not have it. The second is because teams are scouting them and figuring them out. Venegas’ ball possessions are an obvious weak link. Minnesota lacks aerial prowess and the general preference is for working it through the center instead of crosses. Other teams know this. They know the ball must go through Venegas. They know he is not up for the job assigned to him.
Now, Manny Lagos and his team can’t rush this move. You have to get a player like this right. I’d be happy just to start off by adding one of the players I named from the NASL, who all are best at this position. But this really is Minnesota’s critical position of need.
The one transfer rumor that is truly solid is that of Heart of Midlothian left winger Sam Nicholson. The Scottish international is, according to the Scottish Sun and our own independently confirmed report, headed to Minnesota to meet with the club.
I truly know nothing about this player. At minimum, he would offer another depth option in the attack, where he would compete with Miguel Ibarra and Bashkim Kadrii. At best, he could become a dynamic young star for the Loons. Who knows?
But for fans looking for a signal from the Loons’ summer transfer business, Nicholson seems to indicate that the club is working in much the same way they did over the offseason. Recruiting a foreign player from an inferior European league on a free transfer sounds a lot like how the team operated in January and February. That policy seemed smart at the time, but currently seems to have produced a string of disappointments and outright busts. Did Minnesota learn a lesson from the Vadim Demidov debacle? Are we certain Nicholson has been thoroughly scouted? Are we confident he will be quick enough for MLS?
We’re past the point where every new name is exciting and full of promise. These days, we need something more solid to go on. Hopefully Nicholson is the real deal. But let’s be sure.
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