As the new season rolls into focus, Oscar Pareja and company have built up a new roster for the 2018 season that is full of new battles.
I present to you a few position battles to watch for as the pre-season moves along and as we edge closer to our first starting lineup on February 21 in Panama and our first MLS matchup on March 3 against Real Salt Lake.
Centerback: Maynor Figueroa vs Reto Ziegler
Let’s start with the most up for grabs spot on the team: Matt Hedges’ center back partner. We all know about our new signing Reto Ziegler and the presumption is usually that the pricey new signing gets to start. But Maynor Figueroa is the known commodity, for better and worse, to the coaching staff and could possibly have an inside track to start the year out alongside Hedges. Remember, Figueroa plays centrally for Honduras and even played there last season a stretch with all the injuries in the back. From looking at the tape on Ziegler, he appears to be a good passer from out of the back, especially when sending a player down the flank or picking out a player across the field. That isn’t really in Figueroa’s wheelhouse, but his athleticism and experience in the league could work in his favor. In the end, I think we may see all three on the field at the same time at some point, but if I had to choose now it would be Ziegler as the starter with Figueroa as a back up for either of them. Or maybe…
Left/Right Back: Anton Nedyalkov vs Figueroa vs Reggie Cannon
Maybe we see Figueroa battle for his old position on the left flank or moved across to the right. Nedyalkov is another pricey player whom the FO brought in this winter to complete the defensive overhaul and I fully expect him to be starting game one of the regular season. The worrying scenario in my head is that Figueroa moves over to the other side and keeps Cannon out of the starting XI. I think we can all agree that Cannon has a bright, bright future for this team. And although I think he gets more playing time this year, I believe that will come in cup games, and as a sub unless we are hit by injuries or he can truly overtake our Honduran friend later in the season.
Figueroa brings too much experience to the position to be left on the bench. So we have a starting back line of Nedyalkov-Hedges-Ziegler-Figueroa.
Central Mid: Paxton Pomykal vs the Pack
First things first, our starting central midfielders are set in stone as long as Kellyn Acosta stays over the winter (which it looks like he is). Mauro Diaz, Acosta and Carlos Gruezo are one of the best units in the league when all fully healthy and motivated. So the backups take on a greater focus here. Victor Ulloa has proven himself a worthy fill in for either Acosta or Guezo when called upon and I don’t think his place in the rotation is up for debate.
But after that, there isn’t a true proven commodity to fill in for Diaz (no such thing really) as a No. 10. Usually we switch formations and bring on another striker in that situation, but I wonder if this year Oscar experiments with Pomykal at that position. He is technically gifted enough to fill the gap and looked sharp on the few occasions he played with the first team (in a wide role granted).
The only other options I see would to bring along one of Brandon Servania or our draft picks Mauro Cichero or Chris Lema. None seem to have a compelling case to take the opportunity away from Pomykal at the start of the season although they all had very good college numbers.
To be honest, I want Pomykal to have a major role this year as a sub and spot starter, but I think with all the heads at the forward position, he will tied to the bench too often. What a shame.
Editor’s note: Cichero is likely going to be placed on the club’s IR for 2018 as he recovers from surgery.
Super Subs: Tesho Akindele vs Francis Atuahene vs Ema Twumasi
Now for the super subs; this is the battle that has the most potential to change the season. Sure, the second CB spot is important, but the first man off the bench is generally used as a weapon to reshape the game. Think of how Oscar has used Michael Barrios and Tesho late in games to attack tired defenses with speed. Now imagine having two more speedy wingers to throw at teams. Most of us were hoping that Atuahene would be pushing Roland Lamah for a starting spot, but after is arm injury and impending surgery, I think we will have to push that dream down the road for a while.
As for Tesho, I think this will be his last year with the team unless something really clicks or we lose Lamah and Barrios after the season. Drafting Atuahene was a start, but then adding Twumasi surely put the writing on the wall that replacements have been found. It’s a shame for Tesho because his first few seasons were very bright, but no progress, and maybe even some regression, last season really hurts his stock. The fact he can play up top helps, but having Jesus Ferreira waiting for a chance to play probably balances that back out. And for anyone clamoring for him to replace Cristian Colman, just stop. For all the missed chances, what separates the two is that Colman is much better a creating those chances in the first place and putting himself in position to score. Tesho never really consistently found a way to do that. For now, I think Tesho is option one of the bench when we need pace, followed by Twumasi. But when Atuahene gets back to full health, all bets are off.
Formations: 4-2-3-1 vs 4-3-3 vs 3-5-2
Finally, the most important battle of all: the formation to use going forward. I know most of us think that a 4-2-3-1 is the only way as long as Diaz is in the team, but I disagree, if only to be a contrarian.
A 4-3-3 with the wingers pushed high would give the Little Magician even more space to roam around in and allow the fullbacks to set up higher, which would then give more options to work in the final third. But as a few others have noted in other posts, and I say above, a switch to a three man back line sounds like a real possibility for this team.
So let’s examine what that could mean for the above battles. The center back triumvirate of Hedges flanked by Figueroa and Ziegler gives us plenty of stability and athleticism in the back. In the best-case scenario, our newly acquired wingback Nedyalkov pushes Lamah out of the starting lineup entirely. On the other wing, Barrios could run the first 60 minutes or so and then give way for one of our super subs to take over. In an ideal situation, Cannon, could come on in his place and bomb away on that side too. Central mid field doesn’t really need to change; Acosta stills runs box to box with Gruezo providing cover and Diaz working up top.
The final piece of the puzzle is who gets to play up top with Maxi Urriti. I really want Colman to work out and I think he showed great instinct last year in getting in position to score almost every game he played. The problem was the finish of course, so that leaves the door open for any number of people. Say, Atuahene? If it’s not Colman, I think the speed alone puts our number one pick next in line (when back from injury). Imagine the combination play of Acosta, Diaz and Urriti setting up Barrios and Atuahene down either flank or through the middle. His speed really balances out Barrios on the other side and now a chipped ball down either flank becomes a nightmare for opposing teams. Think about a counter in which Diaz has the option to send a runner down either flank knowing his man will get their first. Even better, knowing that the defense understands the same situation opens up play for Urruti down the middle, or Diaz to press forward on his own because no one can leave their markers.
Once again, I think the most likely outcome is a 4-2-3-1 to start the year. But a mid-season change sounds very promising too.