As soon as Mekeil Williams was booted out of the match vs. the Vancouver Whitecaps, I began wondering who was going to replace him the following week. Would Dillon Serna come in at left back? Would Mike da Fonte get a start? I heard that Kortne Ford had some experience as a fullback - would we see Kort over there? And then there was a little thought in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Eric Miller will shift to the left side and see Marlon Hairston back there. But Marly hadn’t played fullback since the first game of the 2016 season (which was also against the San Jose Earthquakes).
Then I was told that Hairston was taking reps at practice as a fullback. THEN Richard Fleming said to expect something new on Saturday. AND THEN Pablo played a 4-4-2 with Hairston as right fullback and we destroyed San Jose. Granted, there were many variables to analyze in Saturday’s win, but I’m looking at one of them: after his performance on Saturday, should Marlon Hairston be our right fullback moving forward?
Yes, he should.
“I think Marlon could be one of the best right backs in this country. I think he’s one of the best one-on-one defenders and covers the back post incredibly well,” Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni said in the post-game press conference. He also said this, which makes it sound an awful lot like we will see Marly in that spot more in the future: “Once he gets his fitness from that position, I think he’ll bring something that we haven’t had at this club for years.”
Clearly Pablo isn’t the only one who thinks Hairston had a good game.
The biggest benefit is that Hairston gives us the speed and attacking mentality that the team needs.
“The play he sets up in the first half, 10 minutes into the game where he gets a shot off on goal - that’s what I want from Marlon in the attack,” Mastroeni said after the game. “Those are the kind of plays I want and that’s what he’s capable of doing. I think him coming in from behind for that element of surprise, coupled with speed, presents a very deadly combination for our attack.”
As Rapids Rabbi mentioned in his Backpass this week, Hairston hadn’t been that effective this year as a winger. Teams knew what to expect from him offensively, and “moving him to fullback gives him the opportunity to run into space again...his pace and fitness means he push high and still get back in time to defend.” Would teams figure him out again if he stayed in the fullback position? Maybe. San Jose couldn’t really do much at all about Hairston, but maybe it wouldn’t matter even if they tried.
It’s also no secret that Williams hasn’t really been cutting it this season. He’s made some noticeable mistakes, like the unnecessary foul that led to the Jared Watts red card and the backpass to Tim Howard that the crowd booed at him for. Williams did pretty good back there last year, but something is off for him this season, which is all the more reason to give Hairston a chance. See what he can do when the pressure is on and the game is a bit more difficult.
While I’m sure Eric Miller prefers the right side, he did fine on the left side. Even with the yellow card, WhoScored.com gave Miller his best rating all season so far. Even though he had the lowest passing accuracy of the four players who had more than 60 touches, I don’t remember any particularly cringeworthy moments. Again, maybe we would get a better idea of how Miller plays on that side in a game against, say, Chicago Fire, but if you look at San Jose’s shots and general distribution in the final third, just one successful cross came from Miller’s side. (To be fair, there wasn’t really much action at all, and when San Jose did get something, it usually came from the middle.)
But does Hairston want to be back on defense?
“If it was left up to me, I would prefer to play on the wing,” he said after Saturday’s game. “I just like to attack. Sometimes during the game today, when I could see the play unfold in front of me, I just wanted to go. But it’s about being disciplined... that’s the balance I’m trying to find.”
Back in March, I spoke to Hairston about how his defensive skills make him a better offensive player. “Growing up I was always a central midfielder, so being in the middle of the field you have an awareness of what’s going on around you, so always having that awareness helps me,” he said. Hairston talked about playing a box-to-box midfielder, and that even when he plays on the wing, he plays more narrow and feels a bit like a central midfielder sometimes. But when it comes down to it, “I think it’s useful to be able to play a ton of different positions. Right now, it’s just whatever the team needs.”
The team needs you at right fullback, Marly.