As the NASL regular season draws to a close, the focus shifts to two facets of chatter: the playoffs (which Minnesota is once again in line to make with key losses for both Miami and Tampa Bay) and awards. The league put out their finalists for the top prize, and two Loons are in contention to take the award. Let me remind you why Justin Davis and Christian Ramirez are in the running. I call this ‘Exhibit A’.
That play shows two players at the height of their respective powers. On the one hand, we have Davis showing his tireless motor after running up and down the left side, taking full advantage on a counterattack, and delivering a world-class cross. On the other, there’s Ramirez, able to settle the ball and find the only spot on-frame that wasn’t covered by Jimmy Maurer. Needless to say, the entire season wasn’t this smooth; however, when both are at their best, it’s impossible to deny that they’re among the cream of the NASL’s crop.
For Ramirez, a simple eye test will show why he’s a finalist. Leading the league with 18 goals (16 of which were from the run of play), he’s 4 goals ahead of the nearest contenders with two matches left in the season. Ramirez has added 4 assists to the fold, proving to be an integral part of an attack that features him as the lone forward.
“It’s humbling,” Ramirez remarked after Wednesday’s training. “It’s a great honor to be nominated two of my three years. I feel like I could have been up for it last year, but for whatever reason I wasn’t. I’ve had that chip on my shoulder this year. It’s one that I’m missing. It was on my list of goals for the year, alongside winning the Golden Boot, making the playoffs, and winning the title. I’m right there for all of them.”
His lofty to-do list could be 3/4 of the way through if the club can take care of business against the RailHawks and the Cosmos in the final matches. Ramirez’s high goal tally is credit to his hard work and the coaching staff’s game-planning, as he’s put up the highest three-year goal total in modern NASL history. He was a finalist in 2014, ultimately losing the award to teammate Miguel Ibarra.
“I didnít mind losing in 2014 because it was Miguel and he was called up to the US menís national team. I was really happy for him and knew how important he was to what we were doing here. I try to do what I can to make sure Iím an important piece to the team. The statistics of how many goals Iím involved in show that my presence on the field is known.”
While United’s box score and counting stats have been filled by Ramirez’s contributions, Davis has had a fairly low-productivity season by his standards. Like Ramirez, Davis is a reigning two-time NASL Best XI recipient and was also nominated for the Ball in 2015. After combining for 6 goals and 6 assists over the past two years, Davis has just one of each in 2016.
With this in mind, his inclusion on the list came as a surprise.
“I actually was in the training room when I saw they had posted it,” Davis reflected. “I asked Christian if he was on it, and he was like, ‘yeah, so are you.’ I was kind of taken aback by that. Stats-wise, I donít think I belong up there. Iím sure there have been more deserving guys, but obviously I did something enough to get someoneís vote. Itís nice to be recognized, but I donít think Iím gonna get it.”
His statistical fall can be explained by a rotating left-wing slot in front of him, forcing him to adjust to a changing game plan and greater focus on defense than the interchange he had with the likes of Ibarra and Jamie Watson in previous seasons. However, as Ramirez puts it, “his leadership has been great this year. He’s had to deal with a number of different outside mids in front of him, and that’s affected his style. He’s an important piece to this team; it’s nice to have him nominated as well.”
With J.C. Banks in front of Davis against Edmonton, it was easy to see the attacking side of Davis unleashed. “I think itís getting us back to what we were used to in previous seasons,” Davis claimed.†”Itís a right-footed guy who likes to come inside, and that creates the space for me to take in the outside. In the first half, I utilized it a lot. I think thatís the most Iíve been forward the whole year, and itís fun to be able to do that again. Itís good for Jimmy, too–I think he was able to get a few attempts on goal.”
After scoring three goals on an Edmonton defense that had allowed 17 goals in their first 29 matches, it’s safe to say that Ramirez, Davis, and the rest of the United lineup are firmly installed for their final two matches. For a club that’s still clawing for a playoff spot, the prolificacy†of Ramirez and the leadership of Davis will be crucial.