Round Table: #PlayTheKids vs #PlayoffPush
Some of The Post's writers sat down to discuss where they are with this season. Are you on team #PlayoffPush or are you on team #PlayTheKids?
Look, I’m the first one to say Jaap Stam is extremely unlikely to manage this team into the playoffs. I’m the guy who was call for his job back in April. But let me play the role of the optimist for a moment.
This is a very talented team. Yes the contracts could have been written better and yes a few players are maximizing their xMpD (expected minutes per dollar, of course). I don’t deny these things. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what happens on the field. New England might be the best team in the league, but we’ve seen Cincinnati play them to a draw. And we know this team is able to beat the bottom feeders of the Eastern Conference. We could probably pick out three or four moments in the season that if they broke Cincinnati’s way, this team is right on the playoff line.
One of the biggest things going for The FC is the homestretch at the end of the year. Yes the schedule will be congested, but with most of the matches at home The Gary’s will be ready to go. We’ve seen it in years past in MLS where teams get to play a back-loaded schedule at home and push what was previously thought to be a poor team into the playoffs. Just ask Lucho about that.
Brenner is also finding his form. We’ve known all season he’s a talented player but very young, away from home for the first time, and playing after a transfer fee that would put pressure on just about any player in the world. It appears he’s finding his footing and if he does, good luck defending him.
So all of that was to say this: this team can still make the playoffs and it would be irresponsible to not try to make the playoffs until that’s mathematically impossible. I don’t want to see younger players get minutes just to see what we got when there is still something to play for. Granted, the firing of General Manager Gerrard Nijkamp makes this season feel pointless, but it isn’t! I want Stam to run out the best team possible for each and every match until the season is mathematically a lost cause. Should that happen, hopefully a GM is in place who can tell Stam he can’t play a single player who won’t be here next year. Let’s hit the ground running in 2022. But only after we fly too close to the sun in 2021.
Chief War Pig
Objectively, there’s very little chance that this team, with this manager, is going to make the playoffs. If you think there’s still a chance things are going to turn around, please @ me on twitter with the name of the person who is getting you the clearly awesome drugs you’re on. There’s also the matter of continuing to run the same players to death over and over again. I’m more than a little worried (and you should be too) about someone who is under contract for 2022 and beyond picking up a serious injury that would make competing next year even harder than it is already going to be. With a new GM search ongoing, the team needs to be planning right now for how this next Director of Gary Operations can be set up for success. Rolling into next year with a bunch of dudes tying up xAM while hurt isn’t a great way to do that.
Having said that, this team needs to win a fucking home game. Period. The fanbase deserves to walk out of this new stadium one goddamn time feeling good. You’re trying to sell season tickets to people who haven’t experienced real joy watching soccer since 2019, and that’s going to be the kind of uphill climb that usually requires a sherpa and fucking oxygen tank. So, my take would be that we play the kids on the road and play the starters at home. This is the ultimate win-win scenario — we let opposing teams beat the shit out of our reserves and make other fans happy, but also use our best lineup in front of our fans. All this while hopefully limiting mileage on legs and limiting the opportunity for major injury.
There is the obvious issue of convincing Jaap to get behind a plan that will result in more lost games, but I’ve been offering a solution to that particular problem for weeks now. Maybe a topic for the next roundtable.
I am team #PlayTheKids precisely because I think FC should be trying to make the playoffs. There comes a time when putting a worse, but fresher, player is better than just playing your Best XI every game. The benefits are twofold - you have well-rested legs during the game you rotate, and then your starter won't be tired the next game. And rotation doesn't mean swapping out the entire team in a game. Maybe you give Gyau a rest one game (whoops, he's hurt), and then you let Kubo start on the bench the next. I'm tired of seeing guys collapse at the end of a draw that they clearly should have won, and maybe would have won if they hadn't been drained from playing 90+ on Wednesday, Saturday, and then again on a Wednesday. As to the losses, would the results against Nashville and New England have been any worse if we'd let Flanagan and Mines see the field? More importantly, I guess, even if the results had been worse, would that have mattered?
So I guess I reject the dichotomy here. I don't care how bad Stam thinks the bench is, or how many games he played in 1998. Studies have shown that the workload expected of soccer players changes over time (one 2016 study concluded that in just 10 years, soccer players in the Premier League sprinted 50 percent more on average each game). Gone are the days when you could show up hungover to a game, smoke a cigarette on the sideline, and just play yourself into shape. Seattle started half a dozen teenagers (and goalkeeper Spencer Richey) in a game this year - and won.
If this team is going to maximize its chances of winning enough games this year to make the playoffs - which is already a Mars shot - Stam is going to need to do a much better job managing the minutes of his best players, to ensure that he is able to get their best efforts when they are on the field. And that means playing the kids.
Like Chalmers, I am team #PlayTheKids. We're gonna blow a tire on one of these guys if we don't get rotation (pours one out for Joe Gyau's weary legs), and with minimal quality depth as it is, we can't afford to let that happen. As much as we struggle to get results as-is, I'm not sure how much worse it could be to give some hungry, young players minutes to go out there and prove themselves worth more than mere training dummies.
With 5 subs available, you'd think a lot more tactical options per match would also be available. Start some of the kids with a healthy mix of veterans to get the opposition used to a certain look of the squad; let the young legs run at the opposing first team for a number of minutes, and then assess the match as it unfolds. If we've held them to within a reasonable position to go in the game, send out the starters to bag a goal or two against tenderized legs. Example.. Start Medunjanin and Vasquez in a 4-5-1 relying on route-1 soccer and overlaps from Flanagan, Fjeldberg, Atanga, and Ordonez, make the opposition deal with balls sprayed forward to a target forward knocking down balls for speedy youngsters. At half, or the 60th minute, change tactics completely to a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1.. bring on Acosta, Barreal, Mattarita, Brenner, etc.. give the opposition a completely different look and a new problem to solve.
Maybe this doesn't make a difference in our season, but if I'm facing FC Cincinnati I don't have to review much game film to know what I'm in for.. but perhaps there is some value in an inferior plane if it's at least unfamiliar to the opponent - we'll probably never know, though.