The Revolution made Michael Mancienne the highest-paid defender in MLS when they acquired him on a free transfer from Nottingham Forest this month. Mancienne, whose salary is listed at $1.28 million, is expected to help solve the Revolution’s defensive problems as the team attempts to make a playoff run.
But coach Brad Friedel might have waited too long in making adjustments. The Revolution have committed $2.75 million to center backs, disproportionate to the league’s $4.035 million salary cap per team, though Mancienne’s salary is pro-rated.
Friedel expected Claude Dielna ($909,000) and Antonio Delamea ($400,000) to provide the team’s foundation when he became the eighth head coach in Revolution history in November. Both Dielna and Delamea were red-carded in the season opener, a 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union March 3. And the defensive situation has not improved much since then, though the Revolution are within 4 points of a playoff berth with nine games remaining in the season.
Dielna has not played since July 21 and Delamea was benched for the Revolution’s visit to Philadelphia this past Saturday, a 1-0 loss that extended their winless steak to eight games. Mancienne was paired with Jalil Anibaba ($90,000) in central defense, and the combination seemed effective for much of the match.
But a failed offside trap led to the Union goal, scored by Cory Burke, who was held onside by Mancienne, then went in alone on goalkeeper Matt Turner. It was the type of sequence that required the Revolution back line to be on the same page, and Mancienne has had little time to work himself in with teammates. Defenders should not be expected to always be in synch without extensive experience playing together. Even then, offside traps can be solved.
The Revolution were able to stifle Philadelphia’s midfield for most of the game, but this was small consolation as they lost to the Union for the third time this season, failing to score in two of the three confrontations.
Friedel will have to scramble to keep the Revolution in playoff contention, as only three home games remain: against the Portland Timbers Sept. 1, Orlando City Oct. 13, and the Montreal Impact in the season finale Oct. 28.
Playoffs or not, the plan should be to pair Mancienne with Anibaba, or another center back, starting in preseason training, providing a base to build the team next season.
Mancienne, 30, is expected to contribute mobility and tactical sense, plus the experience of having performed in the Bundesliga, League Championship, and Premier League. Mancienne was among Chelsea’s top prospects, and performed briefly with the Blues’ first team early in his career.
Mancienne also paired with Manchester United’s Chris Smalling in England’s U-21 defense, later moving to Hamburg SV on a 2.5 million euro transfer.
“[Blake] has an even bigger upside than Cyle Larin,” UConn coach Ray Reid said recently. “I’m surprised he’s not in the Premier League.”
Blake’s Premier League prospects have been limited because of Jamaica’s low FIFA ranking. Last year, when Crystal Palace hoped to add Blake, the Reggae Boyz were No. 78 on the FIFA list; unless a player’s national team is in the FIFA top 75, his options to go Premier are limited. Now, Jamaica is ranked No. 54.
Blake’s spectacular second-half performance helped preserve the Union’s 1-0 win over the Revolution. Afterward, he confirmed his interest in a move and also noted the higher ranking for Jamaica needed to be maintained for two years to be effective — unless a Premier League club is willing to pay a transfer fee acceptable to the Union and MLS.
If Crystal Palace is still interested in Blake, the transfer money will come from club shareholder Joshua Harris, a Harvard Business School graduate who owns the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils.
So, can UConn continue sending high draft picks to MLS (the Huskies also produced the 2002 first pick, current Northeastern coach Chris Gbandi)?
“I think we can,” Reid said. “We have our best freshmen and sophomores in years. We were fortunate with Blake, Larin, and Alvarez. But we have a bunch of guys now who can do it.”
One could be Felix Metzler, a former Stuttgarter Kickers defender/midfielder whose 84th-minute free kick made the difference in a 2-1 win over Lehigh in UConn’s season opener Friday night.
Josef Martinez has developed a strong rapport with former Providence College midfielder Julian Gressel on the way to setting the MLS season goal-scoring record. Martinez converted his 28th goal of the year as Atlanta United took a 2-1 win at Orlando City SC, breaking the MLS mark of 27 set by Roy Lassiter (1996) and equaled by Chris Wondolowski (2012) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014).
Gressel began his career in Germany with Greuther Furth (Henry Kissinger’s boyhood club) at the junior level, later performing for Eintracht Bamberg. Gressel led Providence to the NCAA semifinals (2014) and quarterfinals (2016) and was selected No. 8 in the 2017 MLS draft.
After his senior season at PC, Gressel had a chance to return to Germany with FC Nurnberg, which would have meant a bigger paycheck than MLS’s offer. But Gressel decided to go to Atlanta, and he impressed coach Tata Martino enough to earn a starting role in the team’s debut game last year.
Gressel, 24, has been credited with 10 assists, tied for seventh in MLS, many resulting in Martinez goals. Gressel’s tactical sense, anticipation, and crossing ability from the right wing have been crucial as Atlanta finished second to Toronto FC in scoring last season and leads the league with 55 goals this year.
Gressel set up Martinez for the record-breaking goal, playing a give-and-go with Hector Villalba in the defensive end, then running through the center of the field to find Martinez, who took two touches and finished from close range.
Martinez has had a breakout two seasons in MLS, but his production also raises questions about the quality of the league.
In three seasons with Torino in Italy’s Serie A, Martinez never scored more than three goals.
Atlanta paid a 4.5 million euro transfer fee for Martinez last year, and now his value is listed at 6.5 million euros by transfermarkt.com. Martinez’s aggressive style is similar to Torino’s Andrea Belotti, 24, who is valued at 38 million euros. Belotti, now Torino’s captain, scored 26 goals in the 2016-17 Serie A season, making Martinez expendable.
US scorers lag
The emergence of players such as Martinez and Wright-Phillips also spotlights a lack of player development in the US.
Lassiter and Wondolowski were among several proven goal scorers of previous generations of US players. But the Columbus Crew’s Gyasi Zardes (15 goals) and LAFC’s Christian Ramirez (9 goals) are the only US-born strikers among the top 38 goal-scorers in MLS this season. In 12 MLS games last week, one US player scored a goal: Corey Baird, in Real Salt Lake’s 6-0 victory over Colorado.
Baird helped Stanford win three successive NCAA titles and also performed for US junior national teams. At Stanford, Foster Langsdorf (Portland Timbers) and Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) were the go-to scorers. Baird totaled 16 goals in 83 games in four seasons at Stanford; but with six goals in his first MLS season, he has emerged as a setup forward with an ability to finish.
Finding players with a knack for scoring goals can be difficult. But US strikers also seem to be declining in other ways. Wright-Phillips has shown how effective an all-around striker can be since joining the New York Red Bulls in 2014.
Wright-Phillips had scored once in 32 Premier League games but was considered an effective forward because of his hold-up skills and instincts. Wright-Phillips has brought those qualities to the Red Bulls, and also scored 102 goals in 165 games since moving to MLS in 2013.
There are few US strikers displaying the potential to match Martinez, Wright-Phillips, No. 3 scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic (16 goals), or Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic and Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, MLS leading scorers of recent seasons.