Despite preseason plaudits for depth and exciting tactics (and I’m quite aware that I’m guilty of this as much as any writer), United was left decimated by injuries as the second half of the spring rolled on. Playmaker Ben Speas missed four weeks with an ankle sprain; winger/workhorse Danny Cruz had a knee scare; and pivotal central midfielder Jeb Brovsky dislocated his shoulder. Meanwhile, Damion Lowe was shown a red card against the Cosmos and Justin Davis another against Indy Eleven.
As a result, a momentum-building victory over New York was washed away by a whole litany of maladies. As the fall season loomed, the team needed to find its mojo again.
Enter Carl Craig.
Since joining then-head coach Manny Lagos’ staff in 2010, Craig has taken on many roles with the club. His tactics get a lot of attention, but what sets Craig apart from most managers in the world is his player management. Able to console without coddling, Craig has been seen as a father figure for the club since his arrival. Leading into last weekend’s matchup against Carolina (a team that had beaten Minnesota 2-1 in the spring opener), Craig made sure to keep the team grounded.
“I sat them down and told them that they weren’t the best team in the league. By the table, they were the fourth best team,” Craig said. “If they wanted to call themselves the best and live up to the hype, they had to up their game. Just the way it is.”
He had some major lineup adjustments to make given injuries to Speas and Damion Lowe. With the emergence of J.C. Banks, the fit for the #10 slot was a given. Meanwhile, Tiago Calvano has shown time and time again that he’s still a starter in this league (he even called out any critics of his age with an “old man with a cane” goal celebration last week). Less publicized was finding a midfield partner for Brovsky to shut down an impressive RailHawk attack. Longtime Loons captain Aaron Pitchkolan got the nod.
“Looking at us in the past, I think: what do we need?” Craig explained leading up to the match. “What do we need to have so we can play effective, expansive football? We need a big hairy-arsed midfielder to shut down the opposition, and that’s Pitch. The kid has a heart like a lion, is as fit as a fiddle, and is very smart.”
True to the plan, Pitchkolan helped to shut down a Carolina attack which had been able to come back from a 1-0 deficit and beat Minnesota just three months earlier. With Brovsky drawing two yellow cards and out for this week’s matchup against spring champion Indy, the club captain figures to start again. Meanwhile, Banks has made himself a key component of Craig’s attack.
“Banksy is a good player. For one reason or another, he hasn’t always been able to stay on the field since he got here. As I see it, he’s as much a part of our plan as anyone else. It’s a nice problem to have.”
The problem Craig is referring to, of course, is the gradual recovery of first-choice chance-creator Ben Speas. Still healing from an ankle injury in the spring, Speas will miss the match on Saturday. However, Banks filled in admirably against Carolina, creating pressure and providing another option for Christian Ramirez to work off of in attack.
All of that said, it leaves Craig with a nice problem, indeed. With players like Pitchkolan and Banks proving their worth and making their case for playing time, it allows for the three central midfield slots to be filled by in-form, capable players. None of this even mentions proven commodities like Juliano Vicentini and Ibson or the exciting prospect of Jack Blake. If a team anchors itself in the midfield, Carl Craig has a bevy of options in his arsenal from which to choose. More than ever, this team looks ready to take on the grueling fall season.