Photo Credit: Nathan Klok for Minnesota United FC

The Angle

The Future Is Now: Defenders

by on 21 September 2016

Five weeks are left in the MLS regular season. Six weeks remain in the NASL regular season. Eight weeks until the NASL final. Thirteen until the MLS Cup final and the expansion draft. 

It’s all happening very fast for Minnesota United FC. As the current seasons race towards their conclusion, Jeff Rueter and Alex Schieferdecker sit down to discuss the current roster status of Minnesota United FC and the club’s future needs at every position. 

This week, we’re discussing the defensive corps!

***

Alex: Hey Jeff! So last week we took a look towards Minnesota’s MLS future in goal. This week, let’s shift our focus outward and assess the team’s options in defense.

I took a look at a couple MLS rosters, and the standard number of defenders seems to be about nine. We currently have six guys, plus two midfielders who can be deputized. So we’re obviously going to need to add some folks. But before we get to that, who should the club take up with them? Our defense has been much maligned this year, but I think they actually haven’t been so bad.

Jeff: Great timing, running this edition right after the Ottawa match…

All kidding aside, I do agree with you to an extent. A lot of the hiccups United has suffered this season have been entirely separate from the defense. Depth has been a concern all season, and that obviously means it isn’t a finished product for next year.

Going into the season, reigning NASL Best XI fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas signed extensions that implied they were locked in for MLS. While we now know that wasn’t the case, they’re still very much in the mix for next season’s roster, right?

Alex: Yeah, I think they are, although the loan of Chris Klute (which feels a lot like a signing) suggests that the team isn’t taking either fullback position for granted. I think JD and Viva, over the years, have demonstrated that they’re among the NASL’s best in their positions, all the while dealing with a lot of instability in front of them. But there are definitely questions surrounding both. For Venegas, he’s a deadly attacking option, but as a result, he sometimes leaves that right flank too exposed. I think our goal scoring and goal conceding, with and without him in the lineup, seem to suggest this. And for JD, he’s always been the more defensively focused of the two, but I don’t think he’s been as locked-in in that position this year as before. Is that because of the carousel of players ahead off him? I’m not sure, but both of Ottawa’s late goals on Saturday night were crossed in from the left.

“I think JD and Viva, over the years, have demonstrated that they’re among the NASL’s best in their positions, all the while dealing with a lot of instability in front of them. But there are definitely questions surrounding both.” – Alex Schieferdecker

I really love those two guys, and both have contributed tremendously to the club, with over 100 appearances each. I think both are talented enough to succeed in MLS. But I’m also happy to see Chris Klute in the equation. Regardless of how good JD and Viva have been, we have needed depth in fullback this season, and the need for more options to push those guys next year is even greater.

Jeff: You hit the nail on the head about the two of them. We know what we’re getting out of the DaViva, and that isn’t a bad set of skill at all. While Davis is the more defensive-based of the two, it’s easy to forget that he started out as an attacker. He was at his best with someone like Miguel Ibarra in front of him; Ibarra was willing to tuck into the center of the field more and open the wing for Davis’ attacking runs. If United can get someone like him (or, you know, just get Ibarra), it could unlock more of Davis’ ability.

Klute has plenty of MLS minutes and was called into the 2014 USMNT January Camp, so there’s still potential there. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to get regular time on Columbus or Portland, but that doesn’t really worry me. Both of those teams were MLS Cup contenders, and it’s safe to say United won’t be that far along. I think he can push either fullback for starting time and he’s exactly the kind of addition I had hoped the club would be continually making all season long.

Looking centrally, I’ve been really impressed by Brent Kallman’s development over the last three years. He’s always had the athleticism, but it’s clear he’s added strength to his profile and is able to wrestle away balls easier. I’ve also seen him playing with more confidence, willing to make slide tackles in the box to stop potential goal scoring opportunities. The fact that none of these slides have resulted in a penalty kick for the opposition is as impressive a stat as any. I think he could be a starting center back if you have a Per Mertesacker-type next to him. A tall, physical veteran who can mark up with the Fanendo Adis and Jozy Altidores of the league to allow Kallman to focus on the quicker players.

Oh, look at that: Mertesacker’s contract expires at the end of the season!

“I’ve also seen (Kallman) playing with more confidence, willing to make slide tackles in the box to stop potential goal scoring opportunities… I think he could be a starting center back if you have a Per Mertesacker-type next to him.” – Jeff Rueter

Alex: You’re the expert on DPs, so I’ll let you say whether or not it’s worth spending the big bucks for a center back. But I agree with you on Brent, I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Kallman the Younger this year. He finally got the playing time he needed, and he’s gotten better and smarter. Is he MLS level? I think he could be for sure. I’d love to see him compete for and win a starting role.

What about Damion Lowe? He’s here on loan, but it’d be a surprise if the Loons didn’t have an option to buy. I think Damion has gotten some undeserved criticism this year because he’s got this long loping stride and it never looks like he’s actually running hard. But he’s a monster in the air, and he’s young. I’m hoping we keep Damion around as well. Give me Kallman, Lowe, and then at least two steely eyed veterans and let the four of them duke it out for the two spots.

Kinda funny to say about a team with yearlong defensive woes, but I’d take all four of our starting guys up to MLS with us.

Jeff: I think it should be said that the team is going to be taking more of their players along than we first thought. Last week, we found out that this year’s Expansion Draft would only provide five players instead of the usual ten. It’s pretty unrealistic to think the club will sign 18-23 guys outright, so it’ll be important to lock down the players who seem like they can cut it in MLS for depth, if not to become starters.

Anyway, I agree on Lowe. He’s shown flashes of the promise that made him a Generation Adidas player (and became one of MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle’s favorite prospects) so far this season, and I believe the club has a purchase option on him. If you’re bringing Kallman, Lowe, Davis, and Venegas along while signing Klute, that isn’t a bad core.

I would love to see them use one of the three DP slots on a center back. Players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Maurice Edu aren’t the flashiest players, but they’re able to anchor the backline and add a lot of stability. Besler might be available this offseason after an unfortunately-timed injury allowed extra time for players like Kevin Ellis and Ike Opara, and both have done well to earn a greater role in the squad. Personally, I’d love to see Besler as a Loon.

As you look ahead to next season, do you project Jeb Brovsky as a defensive midfielder or a right back? He’s gotten plenty of minutes at both positions in MLS and for United.

Alex: Poor Jeb(!) already played RB for one expansion team, don’t make him do it for another! On that note though—and we’ll talk more about this next week—it’s absolutely useful to have guys like Brovsky who can fill in respectably in the event of a crisis. We just can’t rely on that, as we did this year.

Okay, so we’re on the same page with regard to our current group. How about additions? You’ve named two names that I think are pretty unlikely, Mertesacker and Besler. Now, I know you’ve mentioned them as examples as much as anything. So who would actually be available? Anyone else in NASL who might be worth grabbing? Who might we come across in the expansion draft?

Gale Agbossoumonde is still pretty young, and I’ve been impressed with him this year. I’d take him up for cheap. In the expansion draft, Aurelien Collin might be available. He’s been through three teams in two years, but as he’s showing with New York, he can still play. Maybe not worth the price, but I’d love to have that guy on my team. Steven Beitashour is another guy who keeps moving around, and every team he moves to gets better while the team he left gets worse. Wonder if TFC have noticed the pattern? Who tickles your defensive fancy?

“Steven Beitashour is another guy who keeps moving around, and every team he moves to gets better while the team he left gets worse.” -AS

Jeff: First off, Mertesacker is FAR more unlikely than Besler. SKC has no fewer than four truly worthy starting CBs on their roster: Besler, Ellis, Opara, and Coehlo. Of those, Opara is the most likely to be left unprotected in an expansion draft (though I’d still argue they’ll leave Besler and see if either team wants to pick up his $700k salary). Opara may be the most athletic CB in MLS, but he has a long history of major injuries. He’s been mostly healthy this year, but he’s a worry.

As far as other center backs? A.J. DeLaGarza will probably be unprotected in the immensely talented LA Galaxy roster. DC United’s Kofi Opare, Toronto’s Drew Moor, Philadelphia’s Richie Marquez, and Vancouver’s Christian Dean or Kendall Waston may be available. Full backs like NE’s London Woodbury, Vancouver’s Sam Adekugbe, or Toronto’s Beitashour would also provide good depth.

If I can only target one defender from within the league? It has to be Colorado’s Eric Miller. The Minnesotan has worked his way into the conversation among the best young defenders in the league, and he still has close ties within the state. If the club is going to build to be competitive in the future as well as relevant in their own market, locking down the state’s best young professionals is a good way to start.

Did I miss anyone?

Alex: Obviously I’m all for stockpiling Minnesotans. Can’t go wrong with that strategy.

I think my takeaway from your list is this: defense isn’t a flashy position, it’s a position where experience really matters. Guys like Moor and Beitashour (who would be a starter, not depth, I love Beitashour) really are the kind of players who I’m looking to add to our existing, younger defensive core. I’m not sure who will ultimately be available—would surprise me if DeLaGarza was open—but there’s going to be one or two guys worth adding. A lot has been made about how almost all of the players in the last expansion draft are no longer with New York City or Orlando. But one of the ones who still is, Jason Hernandez, was taken by NYCFC as a 31-year-old center back, and he’s played 53 times for them since. That’s a real expansion draft win, and I hope Minnesota can find similar success.

We haven’t touched on it, but obviously the Loons will hopefully find some success internationally in this position as well. It’s not easy to find good center backs, and the team wasn’t able to land Dekel Keinan last year. But they’ve been in the market for a year now, so hopefully Manny has some good leads.

Jeff: It isn’t the flashiest position, but you can’t win more than five games a year with a poor defense. Lagos has been looking abroad for help, but for whatever reason they’ve been hesitant thus far in transferring in such players. For example, the club passed up on a golden opportunity this summer.

Granted, Whitbread is over 30 and is certainly past his peak as a player. That said, a center back with EPL experience and Championship experience within the last two seasons doesn’t fall into your lap very often. Either way, moving to MLS will make Minnesota a far more desirable destination than their NASL iteration. It’ll be fun to follow along with their fortifying moves.

Alex: That’s about all I’ve got to say about that. Can we call it day? Next week, same time, same place, midfielders?

***

Next week, we’re taking a look at midfielders, and we’ve got a key semantic question for the readers. Should we cover wingers/wide midfielders in the midfield section? The forward section? Or their own unique section? Let us know!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,