It hasn’t been the biggest problem Carl Craig or Manny Lagos have faced in the past year and a half. All the same, it’s been there, lingering. What to do with J.C. Banks?
When the Loons acquired him, the Milwaukee native was coming off a strong season with the Rochester Rhinos in USL. But with the Rhinos, Banks played as a center forward or a winger. In Minnesota, he was behind Christian Ramirez and Pablo Campos in his preferred #9 position. On the wings, he competed against Daniel Mendes, Miguel Ibarra and Yago. This year, Stefano Pinho, Danny Cruz, and Lance Laing all pushed him further down the depth chart.
When Banks earned rare substitute appearances, he put in serviceable shifts. He scored twice in 560 minutes of action for Minnesota in 2015 (plus a goal in the USOC). He started four times and came off the bench on fifteen other occasions. His average appearance was about 29 minutes and 30 seconds. In 2016, due in part to the heavy competition, he’s been used less. Across five calls from the bench, Banks has played a total of 80 minutes.
Then came the US Open Cup match against Sporting Kansas City. Down a goal, Craig threw caution to the wind, withdrawing defensive midfielder Juliano Vicentini and inserting Banks. Suddenly, there he was, spraying deep incisive passes and connecting plays in the attacking third. It was a superb performance, and one that we took note of.
Coach Carl seemed to agree, starting Banks even further forward in the #10 role against Club León. The move paid off. Banks earned the Man of the Match award with his performance. He scored a wondergoal and was hugely involved in the Loons attack. After the match, Craig was full of praise. “That was the best game he’s played for us,” he said.
Banks has a number of attributes which have proven extremely useful in central midfield. He’s obviously good with the ball at his feet, handy with a pass and a quick runner. But his best attribute has to be the way he finds open space.
Here’s an example. Witness his position at the top of the box as Christian Ramirez shoots.
Here’s a screengrab a moment later, as Ramirez’s shot somehow skips past USMNT goalkeeper William Yarbrough.
Johan Cruyff famously said that a footballer spends 3 minutes a game with the ball at his feet, and that it’s the other 87 minutes where you can find out if he’s any good or not. Apply that maxim to Banks here. Ramirez shoots and Banks continues his run. Had Yarbrough parried the shot, Banks is the only player on the field ready for the rebound. While León’s Liga-MX-caliber defenders were ball-watching, Banks was making his move.
Here’s another example. This is a screengrab from the moment where Danny Cruz is fouled by Sporting Kansas City defenders in the U.S. Open Cup.
Cruz was cutting into the box when he was scythed down. Had Cruz not been fouled, where was his best passing opportunity? The Loons outnumbered the Sporks 3 to 2 in making runs to the endline, but the angle is tough for the finish. Instead, the best look is to Banks, who we see here inside the semi-circle, making a late run to the penalty spot. The defenders to the right and left aren’t watching him. A cut-back to the wide-open Banks offers Minnesota a tremendous opportunity to score.
In his post-game press conference following the León match, Coach Craig summed up his view on J.C.’s play on the day, highlighting above all his ability to find space. “He still has work to do, he still causes me palpitations on occasions with how he defends,” he said. “But certainly his ability to get in those pockets…and what a lovely finish.”
At long last, it’s clear where J.C. Banks is best deployed. Well, it’s mostly clear. The question now becomes whether to play Banks as a #10 (CAM) or a #8 (CM).
Here, Banks subs on as a #10.
Here he plays as a #8.
Against León, Banks operated in the advanced position. Against Kansas City, he played in the middle. The tricky part of this decision is that the #10 spot is already claimed by Ben Speas, who has shown his worth repeatedly for the Loons this year. As good as Banks has played, it’s hard to say he ought to play ahead of Speas.
So why not play them both, as in the Sporting Kansas City game? This is my preferred option, (the first chart) but it’s clear that Coach Craig worries about J.C.’s defending ability. If that’s a concern, why not leash Jeb(!) Brovsky more firmly to the defensive line and allow Banks to roam? The team has employed Ibson in a similar position and the Brazilian is hardly a better defensive option.
It may be that we’ll see both choices juggled by the coaching staff in the coming days. But between Banks, Speas and Ibson, the Loons cup overfloweth with attacking choices in central midfield. After Speas’s injury in the spring, the team struggled mightily to score. Too late to fix the spring, but better late than never, Minnesota appear to have finally found the additional central attacking option they so desperately needed.