“Before I signed here, we spoke about the formation change. I was able to get a sense of where it was going and what they wanted to do,” Danny Cruz said after the team’s training on Wednesday. “The preseason happened and the spring showed some growing pains, but I think we’ve done a great job adjusting. We have a good group here and I think you’re starting to see the pieces coming together. You’re starting to see relationships build and those are obviously important as we move forward.”
As the season has progressed toward its halfway point, Craig has found himself with what he calls a “nice problem”: almost too many capable players to fill the wing positions. Each presents a different benefit, allowing Craig and the coaching staff to tinker with the lineup and bench to best match up with their next opponent.
While the signings of 2015 NASL Best XI teammates Stefano Pinho and Lance Laing earned the most headlines, the pickup of MLS veteran Danny Cruz has given the team the biggest payoff. “Cruz has made the right wing spot his to lose,” Craig admitted. In Bill Steinross’s overview of the winger position, Cruz highlighted his complementary play with regular starting right back Kevin Venegas. With Cruz on the wing, Venegas has been able to find extra space on the outside of the pitch, working up and down the line in tandem with the former Philadelphia Union player.
While still occupying the general positioning of the winger (somewhere between the levels of #10 and the target forward in terms of spacing), Cruz drops back into defense to allow the versatile Venegas extra space in attack. In turn, Venegas leads the club in assists with six (tied for the NASL lead with Carolina’s Nazmi Albadawi). Cruz has created chances, earned penalty kicks, and added an assist to show for his effort, as well. With Venegas out for a couple more weeks after knee surgery, Cruz has picked up more offensive responsibility.
In his third year with the Loons, Jamie Watson has seen a lot of roster turnover. During this offseason, he recognized that the winger acquisitions signaled a new formation for 2016. “We didn’t really start working with this formation until the preseason,” Watson admitted. “When you look at all the signings, they made sense. You bring in a couple of coveted players like Laing and Pinho; Cruz, who was a successful player already in MLS; Ben Speas, who’s a talented player but was stuck behind Federico Higuain in Columbus. We made all these signings, and they were obviously the best available signings at the time with an eye to the future.”
Referencing his partnership in Orlando with assistant coach Ian Fuller, Watson knew a bit about how the staff would look to utilize wingers. At 30, Watson has established himself as an attacking-minded winger, looking to find pockets of space between the opponent’s full back and center back and apply pressure on the goalkeeper.
In Watson’s start against Tampa Bay this spring, he provided a consistent outlet for the rest of the Minnesota attack. Watson’s bread-and-butter is a crafty attacking mind, finding his opportunities to break past the defense and create chances for himself and his team.
In referencing the new guys and the holdovers, Watson believes that the biggest asset that this depth offers to the coaching staff is the collective group’s versatility. “You look down the list and see a range. With Danny Mendes, you have a solid footballer, week-in and week-out; Danny Cruz is a workhorse; Lance is going to put crosses in; myself, I think I can find some spaces and create some holes, get in my chances and create more for others. Each week, we can plan for the opponent. It gives (Craig) some choices. If what I bring is what he wants on the weekend, I’ll be ready.”
While signed as a striker and seeing ample time at training at left-back, Ish Jome features as a left winger in college at UC-Santa Barbara. This versatility makes Jome an asset no matter how a game is unfolding for the team. “I have to get readjusted to the position after trying to develop as a left back. Wherever I play, I just want to work hard and do the best that I can.”
Coming on in the 63rd minute against Fort Lauderdale, Jome plugged into his natural left wing position, looking to provide an insurance goal with the team up 2-1. Despite only getting 10 touches, Jome showed both his defensive poise and attacking prowess. Defensively, Jome added three recoveries and was able to limit the Strikers’ options on the right side of their attack. With his speed, he was also able to make some key offensive touches, none more important than his goal in the 70th minute.
As he continues to develop as a player, Jome figures to see more and more of the field. “For me, I see my strength as running at guys, trying to take on players to create chances, and putting in some crosses as well.” Craig certainly seems to agree with this diagnosis. “He can run all day. He’s got quality, a good one-on-one ability. Like Cruz, he has a bit of trickery with him and he’s a workhorse. He’s got a bit of speed, he’s got the grit and the will to achieve. He’s got a goal in him, too, and we saw that on Saturday.”
With Stefano Pinho out on Saturday with a tweaked hamstring, it seems down to the likes of Jome and Watson to start on the left side. Each provides their own skill-set and would indicate a different type of gameplan for United as they face Rayo OKC. With Watson, the club would be looking to stay opportunistic, relying on his craftiness and awareness to beat the defense. Jome, on the other hand, would show a desire to have him create his own chances and show youthful aggression on the left. The club flies out on Friday morning for the match.