(Editorial) – This article is Part 2 of a series that investigates the Saint Louis FC off season and the potential decisions and changes that could be made. It also seeks to predict what will occur and give an idea of what the team will look like next year, as well as what role the retained players will have in that team.
For Part 1 of this series on goalkeepers and the coaching staff, click here.
Injuries and inconsistent play plagued the team in 2015. The club must improve and get healthy in the off season to make the playoffs in 2016. Here are some thoughts on the men of the back line.
In short, if the club retains it’s top six defenders for 2016, they are going to be just fine. In comparing the team’s record to defensive statistics, it is clear the back four (and goalkeeper) were a bright spot. The team finished 9th in the Eastern Conference with 33 points and 17th overall out 24 teams. The defense averaged 1.43 goals against per game, good for 11th in the league (6th in conference). They tied for 11th overall with 7 clean sheets on the year.
The defense was not the problem in 2015 and there are many reasons to believe retaining the defensive core will be good for the future of the club.
Captain James Musa and Sam Fink anchored the back line all year and were the club’s best center back pair. Musa, a New Zealand International, grew into a leadership role with this team. He is very sound defensively and physical when the game calls for it. Fink was impressive in his first year as a professional; the Wake Forest product had no noticeable slump and became a weapon in the air.
When Musa went down with an injury, former Saint Louis Ambush player, Chad Vandegriffe, stepped in. Vandegriffe played well when called upon and even spent time as a serviceable right back option.
It is a deep group of centre backs – as local kids and first year (outdoor) professionals, Fink and Vandegriffe are likely to return. Musa finished his fifth year of professional soccer, having played in Australia, New Zealand, and he even had a stint with Fulham. There is no doubt the club wants him back and that he’ll be a leader next year. Things could get complicated should Musa desire to return home or to England.
The club also has several options at right back. Vandegriffe filled at times when both Richard Dixon and Nick Bibbs were injured. Dixon was a starter at the beginning of the year and was a dynamic wide player. He was the most active of any full back at getting up field and into the attack. His early season performance even earned him a spot on the Jamaican National Team’s preliminary roster for the Gold Cup before getting injured.
Bibbs had a similar season to Dixon and in limited time, had a good run of form mid-season. Retaining both of these outside backs would be good decisions. Dixon would probably be the starter over Bibbs, but with the two having similar styles, they would be a good combination at that position. They just need to stay healthy.
Left back is a bit more of a mystery. Chicago Fire loaned Patrick Doody started 18 of 28 games, mostly at left back. With Chicago likely going through a massive overhaul in the off season, it’s unclear what that means for Doody’s place in the club going forward. Doody developed nicely this season and his absence will leave a big hole on the back line. Saint Louis FC would be lucky to have him back in 2016. He could very well challenge for minutes in MLS though.
Parker Maher played at both left back and in the midfield this year. Like Fink, he impressed in his first season as a professional. His speed and potential are reason enough to retain him. The fact that he can play stretch the field as both a midfielder and defender make him extremely valuable. Maher could be the starting left back next season.
If there is a weak link in this defensive core, it’s Oskar Gasecki. That’s not to say that he played poorly this year; others impressed more when given the opportunity. Still Gasecki is the only player on the roster to play both left and right back this season. He has experience both with Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team as well as the Polish U18 team. If I had to cut a defender based on this season’s performance, it would be Gasecki. That said, I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt to be re-signed for next year.
In terms of potential loans from the Fire, a fourth center back option would be nice for depth purposes. Should the coaching staff strongly prefer that Maher play in the midfield, another option at left back is also a possibility.