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Transfer market holiday shopping pt 3: Attacking Midfield

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Do we need an attacking midfielder? If so, who might the targets be?

Costa Rica v Haiti: Group B - 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Our series reviewing positional needs for the 2017 Colorado Rapids continues.

For part one and part two (GKs, defenders, defensive mids and wings), click here and here.

Today we look at Central Attacking Midfield, a position that is integral to scoring goals. Scoring goals is considered by many in the soccer world as an important part of the game.

Scoring goals is also something the Rapids haven’t been good at in a while. Here’s the clubs scoring history over the past 10 years.

Rapids Scoring History, 2007-2016

Year Goals Scored Goals Per Game MLS Rank in GS / # of teams Rapids Leading Scorer - Goals 2nd Leading Scorer - Goals
Year Goals Scored Goals Per Game MLS Rank in GS / # of teams Rapids Leading Scorer - Goals 2nd Leading Scorer - Goals
2016 39 1.147 19th out of 20 teams Gashi - 9 Badji, Doyle - 6
2015 33 0.971 20th out of 20 teams Doyle - 5 Sanchez, Torres - 4
2014 43 1.265 13th out of 19 teams Brown - 10 Sanchez - 6
2013 45 1.324 11th out of 19 teams Brown - 10 Powers, Buddle, Harris - 5
2012 44 1.294 10th out of 19 teams Castrillon - 8 Cummings - 6
2011 44 1.294 7th out of 18 teams Larentowicz - 7 Folan, Casey - 6
2010 44 1.467 2nd out of 16 teams Cummings - 14 Casey - 13
2009 42 1.4 4th out of 15 teams Casey - 16 Cummings - 8
2008 44 1.467 4th out of 14 teams Casey - 11 Cummings - 6
2007 29 0.967 12th out of 13 teams Kirovski - 6 Gomez - 5

A couple things. First, 44 is our number, for better or worse. Second, the Rapids have been in the bottom half of Goal Scoring in MLS for half a decade, so that’s not good. Third, and most important for our purposes, the central attacking midfielder hasn’t been one of the team’s leaders in goal scoring since Dillon Powers rookie year in 2013. Simply put, the team needs more scoring from the CAM position if the team wants to maintain or improve on its results from 2016 in the year to come. This position is the most important one on the field. Settling for sub-par production is a bad idea.

Position: Central Attacking Midfielder

The entire offense of a soccer team runs through, or off of, the CAM. That player has to make the final pass and jam home the rebound; race through the opposing defense on the counter and feed the filthy through-ball to the striker; do some nifty back-to-goal work and make the fancy dribble through the feet of clumsy, lanky central defenses. Add to all that the need to high press and defense smartly in the Mastronaccio, and you basically are asking for a miracle worker. Either we’ve got the guy in-house, or we don’t.

The Rapids spent the season tinkering with different options there, with no one leaping out to lock down the position permanently. Dillon Powers played 18 games there, and was solid, but not spectacular, with 1 goal and 4 assists. Jermaine Jones played 9 games at attacking mid, with 3 goals, 1 assist from that spot on the field, and was really exciting and fun to watch offensively while providing plus defense from an attacking position. Kevin Doyle played 5 games in the midfield attack, scoring 3 goals as the CAM. Finally, Shkelzen Gashi also played 5 games there, getting 2 goals as a center mid. Marco Pappa also started at central midfield once.*

Below I compared Powers, Jones, Doyle, and Gashi on some statistics that are typically important for a number ten kind of player. All of this is to answer one critical question going forward: do the Rapids have a starting CAM in-house, or will they need to buy?

Disclaimer: all of these statistics are affected by the fact that none of these players played the same position primarily; their stats aren’t cleanly interchangeable. Powers was a d-mid when he wasn’t attacking mid. Jermaine is affected by small sample size. Doyle was a striker most of the year, and so scoring should be a priority over creating goals though passing. Gashi played most of year on the wing.

Still, we see some things here quite clearly. Dillon Powers is one of the strongest players in terms of passing, but he isn’t a scorer. Both Kevin Doyle’s passing and shooting leave a lot to be desired, but perhaps having 3 goals in 5 games at CAM tells you that he’s been struggling because he isn’t meant to be a striker. And Shkelzen Gashi is your best shooter and your best passer, at least in terms of Key Passes.

Perhaps Gashi as your number ten is your best move. It would put more pressure on the Rapids to sign a DP winger, a position we discussed in part 2. In the event the Rapids are set on Gashi lock as the team’s left midfield, can Kevin Doyle or Dillon Powers be the teams number ten?

I don’t see how that’s a good idea. The top eleven midfielders in MLS scored between 17 and 9 goals this year, with the top three being Ignacio Piatti (17), Diego Valeri (14), and Frank Lampard (12). Kevin Doyle had only 7. Dillon Powers had 1. It would be a bad idea for the Rapids second-to-worst scoring offense to not address the glaring problem that a collection of four different players scored only 9 goals over the course of 38 games at one of two most important offensive positions on the field in 2016. By comparison, the Sounders Nicolas Lodeiro, who joined MLS mid-summer, scored 8 goals in 19 games. For a team to be successful in MLS, their attacking midfielder needs 12+ goals a season.

Long story short, the Rapids desperately need to upgrade at the position. Powers and Doyle are good enough to be role players for a successful soccer team. They are not the fulcrum upon which the offense should depends, and if they are, you’re asking for trouble.

Buy or Sell?

Buy. Dillon Powers will still get a fair number of minutes filling in at midfield or coming on as a sub. If he’s not satisfied with that role, he can be sold, although I’m not sure his sale value is going to be what fans want it to be.

Who? Luxury Shopping

For starters, set aside top-flight players in the world’s biggest leagues and aging Euro stars looking to score a final payday in MLS. We’re looking a notch lower or two than that. So you’ll find no Pogbas or Rooneys or Cuadrados here. However, here are some guys you probably haven’t heard of that might be the kind of player we could use.

Viktor Claesson led the Swedish Allsvenskan in goals this past season as a central midfielder with 8, while also nabbing 7 assists for his adorably named club, IF Elfsborg. He’s only 24 years old, and maybe its time he tested himself in a bigger league. Transfermarkt thinks he’d go for a transfer fee about $1.25 million.

Nicolae Stanciu is a Romanian footballer who made his way from lower league Romanian teams to Steaua Bucharest and then to the Belgian League for Anderlecht, who signed him only last summer, so he may not be ready to move till the summer. Stanciu is 23 years old and has 11 caps for the Romanian national team, with 5 goals.

Luc Kassi is 22 and plays for Stabæk in the Tippeligaen, a team formerly managed by Bob Bradley. With 24 goals in 110 appearances over four seasons, he may have proven all he can in the Norwegian league, and might want to move on. Stabæk might be ok selling him, if the price is right. Kassi was born in Ivory Coast.

All three of these players fit a certain criteria I set: younger player that has found success for a team in one of Europe’s less prestigious leagues. None of these players is likely ready to make a move to a bigger European league, and MLS is a nice intermediate step. None of the three are playing in their home country, so I assume they aren’t necessarily deeply tied to staying.

If you’re looking in our hemisphere, and I think, for the money, the Rapids should look in this hemisphere, I think I may have the guy. Costa Rican U23 playmaker Dylan Flores (pictured at the start of this article).

Dribbly? Check. Fast? Check. Scores screaming volleyed golazo to start his highlight reel? Check. Named Dylan/Dillon? Check. Also you’ll notice from that highlight reel above that he’s been to Colorado before; in 2015 he played with Costa Rica in the CONCACAF U23 Championship right here in Colorado. He’s one of the last of Costa Rica’s top talents still playing in his native country, with domestic powerhouse Saprissa.

If he isn’t available, CONCACAF U23 tourney best XI midfielder Oscar Salas is worth a look too. He still plays in his native Honduras for CD Olimpia.

Since the Rapids played a life-long d-mid as their number ten this year in Jermaine Jones, and it looked pretty good, maybe they want to do that again. Defensive midfielder and 22 year-old Colombian international Wilmar Barrios might be the closest thing to Jermaine Jones in our hemisphere. Barrios played for Deportes Tolima in the Colombian League until this summer, where he transferred to one of Argentina’s best teams, Boca Juniors. Observe below in this clip from the Copa America Centenario this past summer; Barrios has a fantastic acceleration through the whole USMNT at 3:33.

Since Barrios just transferred to Boca Juniors to start the season, he likely isn’t available until the Summer of 2017 or the Winter of 2018. Still, there aren’t a lot of guys like this that haven’t already been snapped up by the AS Romas and PSGs of the world: big, physical, pacey, and capable of passing.

Another idea is 20 year-old Mexican U23 player Kevin Escamilla, who is getting sparse use for his Liga MX club UNAM Pumas. A loan to the US might jumpstart his career.

Lastly, the Rapids could stay inside MLS and get Cristian Maidana or Pedro Morales, both currently out-of-contract with their clubs. Maidana, at $237,000, could be considered a bargain, but Morales made $1.47 million in 2016. Even if he took a 50% pay cut, he’d still be a bit pricey.

Who? Bargain Shopping

Simply put, this is 2016. There really isn’t much bargain shopping for a good number ten any more than an NFL team thinks that a below-average quarterback, with the right pieces around him, can lead a team to the Super Bowl. No, they can’t. In MLS in the current era, you need a playmaker at great-to-world-class level to keep pace in this league, atleast for someone ready to produce in MLS right now.

If you’re willing to wait, you can draft a young’un and oversee their development for a while into a starting-caliber MLS string-puller.

Jackson Yueill just finished up his Sophomore year for UCLA, but he could come out early, since he’s already rated the best midfielder in college soccer. He has a heck of a highlight film. If he does leave, the Rapids likely need to move up in the draft to 4th or better in order to nab him. After that, topsoccer.com doesn’t really have a pure playmaker in its college top 25. America’s inability to produce a technical, playmaking number ten is a topic of much consternation in the soccer world, and that means the Rapids, like everyone else in MLS, need to look for attacking midfielders elsewhere, like South America.

The Rapids do have an in house option, if they want to go for it. Ricardo Perez just finished his Senior season for Creighton, and he’s a Rapids Academy product. The team just needs to decide he can be the guy and give him the Homegrown tag.

That’s it. Next up, forwards!

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* That adds up to 38 games: 34 regular season, 4 playoff games. Whoscored.com lumps the playoffs and regular season all together, which I actually prefer.