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The Angle

The Future is Now: Wingers

by on 4 October 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 goalkeepersdefenders, and midfielders. This week, we’ll move out wide and talk about wingers!

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Jeff: Hey Alex! We’re back for round four and talking about wingers. Though not quite as well-stocked as the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ fleet, Minnesota has seven guys playing in wide positions. That’s a lot of current guys who we can talk about.

It’s been a revolving door of sorts on both the left and right wings for United this year. For whatever reason (form, injuries, etc.), there hasn’t been a solid pairing that Carl Craig has relied on this season. Does that matter as the club looks to 2017?

Alex: Well, I think it matters in the sense that we’re going to see a lot of turnover on the wings in the offseason. This has really been a cursed position for us for a while. We solved it temporarily by playing Miguel Ibarra on wing on the left and Danny Cruz seemed to have the right wing nailed down while he was healthy. But otherwise, week by week, it’s always an open question who will start. And obviously that’s been a huge issue for us, it hurts our midfield, it hurts our striker, and it hurts our full backs. I suspect in MLS, we’ll see a lot of new guys brought in for those positions. And I’m sure plenty of Loons fans, including myself, are hoping we get to see an old face as well, with a Miguel Ibarra return.

But before I take us too far ahead, I’ll let you weigh in on the wingers we’ve got on the roster right now.

Jeff: I think a lot of United fans lit the Bat Signal right away this season when left wing looked to be an area of need. If we’re purely looking at who should be considered a winger, this is my latest list (in order of number of minutes this season):

Danny Cruz – 1362
Lance Laing – 1085
Stefano Pinho – 920
Jamie Watson – 788
Ish Jome – 451
Bernardo Añor – 410
Daniel Mendes – 42

(Repeat after me: JC Banks is not a winger.)

That’s a fairly even distribution of minutes, and that’s not a great sign. There’s a pretty clear split between the first four and the last three (though Añor has been battling injuries all season, and Mendes, I think, was really a casualty of the international player limit), but I don’t think it’s necessarily an accurate depiction of which ones may be #ReadyForMLS.

“If Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas will see rotational minutes, it’d be best to have capable defenders to help unlock their overlapping abilities. I think Danny Cruz has done this better than anybody on the roster.” – Jeff Rueter

Only two of these players were on United’s roster going into 2016 and it’s been a mixed bag of results. The best MLS wingers are two-way players — able to work in tandem with the full backs to deliver crosses for the strikers while providing good defense. There aren’t any free-scoring wingers like one sees in La Liga, but they should still provide a threat to cut into the box and put a few goals in each year. Ethan Finlay, Michael Barrios, and Kekuta Manneh come to mind as those types of these players, though they aren’t necessarily the most defensive guys.

Anyway, if we think both Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas will see rotational minutes, it’d be best to have capable defenders to help unlock their overlapping abilities. I think Danny Cruz has done this better than anybody on the current roster. He has two assists this season in 18 appearances, but his work in tandem with Venegas was lethal before they both were injured. He knows the league (having played for Houston, DC United, and Philadelphia previously) and will be just 27 for opening weekend next year. I’m making a spot for him on the roster and letting him get into the rotation.

Alex: I thought Danny was excellent for us defensively. That dude went out there every night and put in a shift. He wasn’t brilliant in the attack, but Kevin Venegas was and Danny was often covering for Viva. So I think you need to share some of the credit there — and the right wing was working very well with both of those guys healthy. Add that to Danny’s MLS experience and his really positive presence, and I think he’s an asset for the team.

But beyond Danny Cruz, I think we’ve really struggled on the wings and the constant rotation out there proves it. Lightning round: Lance Laing has been really frustrating all year. He hasn’t been the kind of constant threat that he was in Edmonton and even in recent weeks where we’ve really tried to run the offense through him, it’s been largely fruitless. Stefano has been played out of position on the wing and he’s rarely looked really dangerous out there. I don’t want to say anything mean about Jamie — because he’s awesome and I’m afraid he’ll read this — but he’s only gotten time this year after a number of injuries. It seems clear he’s not the first choice option. I think Ismaila Jome gave it a good effort, but he’s very young and green. I can’t think of a single Bernardo Añor highlight and the poor dude started the year with a nasty concussion, so I don’t hold it against him, but I doubt he’ll stay in Minnesota after his loan. And Daniel Mendes has barely featured, which is unfortunate, because there’s been times we could’ve use his experience.

Of this entire group of wide players, Danny stands out for his effort and attitude, Ish for his age and potential, and Jamie for his smarts and effort on and off the field. I could see the club taking one, two, or three of those guys up with it, but it would really surprise me if the starters on the wings in the first MLS match are not new to the club.

Jeff: Man, I was hoping we’d have a feverish debate about some of these guys. I shouldn’t be surprised, but we agree on the three to take.

I mentioned this on the Inverted Triangle Podcast a month ago, but I don’t think Laing and Pinho being relatively disappointing this year means that their careers are on a downward trajectory. Each of those two were “The Guy” in Edmonton and Fort Lauderdale, respectively. The game plans worked to highlight their biggest strong-points, with Laing able to get in position for lethal crosses and Pinho in positions to score crucial goals. When they went from “The Guy” to “one of the guys,” it was never going to be a seamless transition. In an offense that relies on Ramirez, the full backs, and one or two attacking midfielders, there just wasn’t enough time on the ball for them to really thrive. Put Laing in Tampa Bay (this seems inevitable, doesn’t it?) or Pinho in Miami and they’re going to be just fine for 2017.

“Of this entire group of wide players, Danny (Cruz) stands out for his effort and attitude, Ish (Jome) for his potential, and Jamie (Watson) for his smarts and effort on and off the field.” – Alex Schieferdecker

Watson provides the effort, but in a squad that will have a lot of new faces next year (thinking about this is so bizarre, but the majority of United will be new next year), you need some continuity. Ramirez and Davis have done well as public faces, but there are few players that have become endeared by the community like Jamie Watson. Over his recent stretch of play, he’s proven that his ACL injury hasn’t caused an early retirement. He’s looking dangerous on the field again and I’ll be damned if he isn’t brought along for his contributions on and off the field. Agreed on Cruz and Viva sharing the credit — if you’re bringing Venegas to MLS, I think it makes sense to have Cruz as well, considering he was allowing Viva to have a career year up until his injury against AFC Bournemouth. Jome fits the same mold we cast for Jack Blake: young player, lots of potential, strong candidate to be loaned to increase his playing time.

What kind of wingers do you want United to carry going into 2017? In particular, who would make for good starters?

Alex: What kind of qualities do you look for in a winger? Speed is obvious. Skill on the ball is obvious. You want someone who can beat people one on one, you want someone who can really put defenses on their heels. In MLS, you’ve got guys like Kekuta Manneh or the recently departed Fabián Castillo. You’ve got guys who were expected to be that type of player, like Lucas Melano and Gonzalo Verón. That’s my preference, as opposed to a more Graham Zusi-type “wide midfielder”. We did title this section “wingers” after all!

The top candidate for the club has to be Miguel Ibarra. It’s almost too obvious. The move to León hasn’t resulted in steady playing time. He’s got connections to the club and now experience in a team that’s above MLS level and that training environment. He might be available for less than they paid to get him. Every night I turn the bat signal on.

“The top candidate for the club has to be Miguel Ibarra. It’s almost too obvious.” – Alex

I also liked a couple of the names that Wes floated in last week’s article on Manny’s scouting targets. Joshua Gatt doesn’t look like he’s lost a step despite three knee injuries, it’s incredible. But his future in Europe is probably not going to extend beyond Molde at this point. Minnesota can offer him a lot in terms of lifestyle and proximity to home. He can offer us a big upside for little cost. And with the qualification that I know absolutely nothing about him, Samuel Adegbenro seems an exciting prospect as well. Other names stand out to you? Anyone from MLS who might be available?

Jeff: I would so much rather have a Melano than a Veron. Veron was four years older when he signed and had no track record of success, making him a suspect signing. Either way, bring on Ibarra. Davis-Ibarra on the left side would make me feel comfortable as we enter 2017.

Gatt would be a great find. I think one player I would love to see would be San Jose’s Tommy Thompson. The guy has been MLS’s Next Big Thing (trademark) since 2013, but San Jose has squandered his talent due to a lack of playing time. He can play as a No. 10 or as a right winger and having him in the regular rotation would give Minnesota a very creative, young player. Mike Grella would be a great get, but I have to imagine that New York will protect him. Jose Villarreal has had a similar issue in Los Angeles as Thompson has with San Jose, and with more minutes he could be a USMNT candidate. I’d love to see one of those two in our ranks next year.

Alex: This gives me an excuse to reiterate a point I made last week with regard to Jackson Yueill and young players. I have low expectations for this coming year. There are lots of things working against expansion clubs, regardless of how we build the team. It’s not easy to succeed in your first year in the league. So if we’re choosing between playing kids who are learning on the job and playing vets who might give us a chance at scrapping the final playoff seed, I’d rather play the kids. I’d rather be very good in three years than middle of the road for three years.

So yes, absolutely, all of the youth. If we finish our first season in MLS out of the playoffs, but with an exciting stable of young players and a good sense of where we fit in, to me that’s a successful season. Ibarra, Gatt, Thompson, Villarreal, Adegbenro? Music to my ears.

I think we’re done here, right?

Jeff: I think you missed Cruz and Watson on that list (and assuming Jome would be loaned for minutes), but you’re right. That’s a fantastic group of wingers for an expansion side.

Only one more to go! Is that Superman’s music I hear?

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

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