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The Angle

The Future is Now: Midfielders

by on 28 September 2016

Three weeks are left in the MLS regular season. Five weeks remain in the NASL regular season. Seven weeks until the NASL final. Ten 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 needs at every position. 

Previously, we’ve discussed goalkeepers and defenders. This week, we’ll move up the pitch and stay central with midfielders!

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Jeff: Hey Alex! Last week we looked to the backline and figured there were four or five guys we would envision as a part of next year’s squad. This week, let’s look at the midfield. According to the readers and current tactics, wingers are not midfielders. We’ll give them their own thread (sorry, Danny).

This article is going to focus on midfielders playing centrally, including the advanced playmaker role behind the striker. There’s a surprising number of these guys on the 2016 roster, so we’ve got a lot to sort through on our way to identifying potential targets.

This season, Minnesota United has mostly trotted out something of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, with two holding midfielders and an attacking midfielder just beneath the striker. Is that a formation you think will carry over to next season?

Alex: Personally, I’m glad we’ve decided that wingers are not midfielders. As a Dutch-American, I feel a powerful need to uphold the overall correctness of the 4-3-3 in all situations.

Thinking about that midfield three, I have to say that there’s really been no part of the field where I’ve been more disappointed this year. You look at the caliber of players that we’ve brought in and the caliber of players that we had going into this year, and I feel as though we should be able to comfortably hold the ball in the midfield against most teams in this league. I feel as though we should be able to comfortably create chances. I feel as though we should be able to comfortably win the ball back. At the beginning of the year, we saw some of that, but as the year has gone on, something has really been lacking in this area of the field. In the last two weeks, we’ve watched our team get overwhelmed in the midfield by the Ottawa Fury, who are not a particularly good team. I get that they’re playing a different system, but it’s hard for me to say that we’ve been dominant against other clubs in the way that I would expect, given the lineups on paper.

So I’m not sure what the issue is. Most likely, it’s a lot of different issues. But the midfield has been getting me down lately and next year it’s clear that we need some new options. Does that mean that we completely clean house? No, I don’t think it does. You can have good players who look bad in a bad system or a struggling team. But honestly, I don’t think anyone has really made their case. That sounds harsh to say, maybe we win next week and we have cause to feel differently.

Jeff: Ahh, you’re an Arjen Robben backer… I’ll be sure to remember that.

So I’m not sure what the issue is. Most likely, it’s a lot of different issues. But the midfield has been getting me down lately, and next year, it’s clear that we need some new options. – Alex Schieferdecker

For the most part, I agree with your assessment. In all areas of the field, the past two weeks against Ottawa haven’t exactly bathed United in glory. The midfield has been a culprit in this, with sloppy passing despite a lack of defensive pressure causing many key turnovers against the Fury. It’s clear that we need new options, but I think there are some takeaways from the current roster in this area.

First things first: I want Jack Blake to come along with the club. There have been times this year where he’s been a healthy scratch and it baffles me. More than anyone on the roster, he has raw upside that’s untapped thus far. He’s one of our best technical players and, with more minutes, I think he could be a real MLS starter. I’d completely understand loaning him to an NASL or USL side for 2017 so that he can get regular minutes, but either way I think his potential makes him a strong candidate.

Alex: I buy that. I think he’s been a solid worker in the center of the pitch and I’d absolutely hope to see him get more time in the coming weeks. I’d like to see a bit more from him on both sides of the ball, though. My questions on him are whether he can be a defensive force in the midfield, and also whether he can play passes between the lines on the attack. My mind isn’t made up yet on both of those counts. But as a general rule, I don’t think it’s too wise to throw away 22-year-old midfielders who grew up in an English academy.

What about the MLS vets? I absolutely love what Jeb(!) Brovsky has given to this club on and off the field, especially because he seems to have real enthusiasm for the state, but he hasn’t looked sharp in the last few games. I think you could say the same for Ben Speas. These were two guys who I was convinced would really be difference makers with us this year and I think as the season has wound on, they’ve made less of an impact. I don’t have a good answer for why this is the case and can totally accept that the issues stem from other areas of the field. But it’s been a bit disappointing. I’m looking to see both with the club in MLS because proven MLS quality is underrated, but I’d be surprised if either were starting.

Is that unfair?

I want Jack Blake to come along with the club. There have been times this year where he’s been a healthy scratch and it baffles me. More than anyone on the roster, he has raw upside that’s untapped thus far. He’s one of our best technical players, and with more minutes I think he could be a real MLS starter. – Jeff Rueter

Jeff: I don’t think that’s unfair to say at all. There are different scenarios to consider depending on who the club signs in the offseason, the formation they want to run, etc. If the club wants to use a flat 4-4-2 formation, neither Brovsky nor Speas would start, as neither are true central midfielders. I don’t see the club lining up this way; while I’d love to see a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-5-2, I’m expecting something similar to this year’s formation.

It also begs the question about whether Jeb(!)’s best position is at defensive midfield or at right back. You made the call to delay talking about him for this piece, but I think he’s best suited as a defense-first RB for MLS. Either way, his versatility is an asset, and I’m bringing him along for MLS.

I’d also bring on Speas. He has experience from his days with Columbus and looked really good before his injury. It wouldn’t surprise me if the ankle sprain has hampered him this year, but he’s started to look like his usual self in the past couple of matches. He didn’t start with the Crew due to being blocked by Federico Higuaín, but I’m making a space for him on the MLS roster, nonetheless.

That leaves us with five more players: Ibson, Aaron Pitchkolan, Greg Jordan, J.C. Banks, and Juliano Vicentini. All of these guys have have been United for two or more years and three of them may be nearing retirement. What do you think their prospects are?

Alex: I’d be surprised if the older guys come along. Juliano is 35, Pitch will be 34 right around MLS kickoff, and Ibson will be 33. None have been automatic starters this year in the NASL and so it really is difficult to see how they fit into the club’s MLS plans.

I’m less sure about Greg Jordan and J.C. Banks. There’s probably nobody on the squad who deserves our sympathy more than Greg, he got hurt in the worst way at the worst time. Before the year started, I thought he would probably come up to MLS, but after the injury and barely playing, it might not happen. I’m unsure about J.C. He had his two best games of the season against the two best opponents we faced, Kansas City and Leon. I don’t think he’s been quite as effective in his other starts. He’s definitely a No. 10 playmaker, and from the limited evidence we have, he can play at the MLS level. However, I’m not entirely convinced the club will take him, just given his playing time. I think we have to note as well that the No. 10 role is really the single most obvious place to stick a DP. It seems like just about every MLS club has a designated player in that role. So while we talk about Ben Speas and J.C. Banks, ultimately it doesn’t seem likely that either would start, just by convention.

Moving straight on to that topic, what should the club be looking for in terms of players for the midfield positions? And considering how common it is to have DPs in this area, what is your vision for how the club could deploy DPs in the midfield?

Come March, I want to see Jackson Yueill starting in central midfield as our #8… He’ll be around twenty when the 2017 season starts. He’s still got time to mature physically. He’s the kind of young player who we should be giving time to and helping develop, and I think he could be a tremendous player for Minnesota for many years. – Alex

Jeff: I know the two of us praised the two best Argentine No. 10s in the league during the Designated Report series: Portland’s Diego Valeri and Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti. Both have salaries around $500k and have been reliable for around 10 goals and 10 assists per season. Those are stats for a bona fide star and they’re the model that Minnesota should try to follow.

If Ramirez is coming to MLS, I don’t think United needs a DP at striker. Having one as a No. 10 would be a massive necessity — we haven’t even mentioned Nicolás Lodeiro, Pedro Morales (circa 2014), Javier Morales, Sacha Kljestan, etc. I would be happy to see one at center back, but if we have Ike Opara and Brent Kallman starting, that’s a fine pairing. Wing would be another place to utilize a DP, but bringing in a truly capable defensive midfielder at a DP level is a great move as well.

There are numerous examples of this working well. Osvaldo Alonso was with Seattle for a few years before he was a DP, but he’s one of the best in the league. Diego Chará with Portland, Oswaldo Minda with the late Chivas USA, and Matías Laba in Vancouver have sold me on the idea of a young, aggressive DM within the $400k+ range, including a transfer fee. Long story short, that’s two true midfielders who could be designated players.

Alex: 100 percent with you. The Dream comes in three parts. I’m a defensive midfielder aficionado, all I’ve ever wanted is a killer No. 6. Laba, Alonso, or Dax McCarty are great examples. Another third of The Dream is that cornerstone No. 10, as Valeri, Piatti, and Mauro Diaz have been. Lodiero looks like he might be the best yet. At least half of MLS teams seem to have this player.

I don’t have the slightest idea of who these two players ought to be for us, though.

I do have a good candidate for the third part of The Dream though. Come March, I want to see Jackson Yueill starting in central midfield as our No. 8 box-to-box man. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen from him at UCLA. He rarely turns the ball over, he’s got great passing ability, and he’s got the ability to play quickly in tight spaces. Not to mention, of course, that he’s a Minnesota native and has practiced with the Loons in the past. He’ll be just about twenty when the 2017 MLS season starts. He’s still got time to mature physically. But he’s the kind of young player who we should be giving time to and helping develop, and I think he could be a tremendous player for Minnesota for many years. I’m excited about his prospects, and I’d love to see him realize them with us.

Jeff: Of all of the targets we’ve listed so far in the series, Yueill seems the most likely to join United. Considering his record-setting start to the season with UCLA, he’s a mortal lock to be a top-2 pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Minnesota will have one of the top two picks. It just makes too much sense that it’ll work out. I think you’re right that he could be a starter. I’d love to see someone with experience to push him at the No. 8 spot to serve as competition/a mentor figure. There are plenty of those kinds of guys around the league (Ned Grabavoy came to mind, but I’m pretty sure he’s close to 50 with how long he’s been in the league).

So The Dream consists of a 20-year-old rookie, a (likely South American) No. 10 up top, and a true defensive midfielder? Where do I sign?!

Alex: Unless you’re the true defensive midfielder, I don’t think you sign anywhere!

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We’ll be talking wingers next week! What do you think United should do with their midfield situation for MLS? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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