There are a good deal of ex-Major League Soccer players in the North American Soccer League for a good number of reasons. Some are journeymen players like Wells Thompson and Omar Cummings but more than a few are young players looking to prove their worth after getting passed over or released by MLS teams such as Kalif Alhassan or Young Player of the Year Leo Fernandes.
There are more than a few NASL players making their mark in MLS.
It’s always beneficial when players have the freedom to move between leagues and teams.
Now that the NASL and MLS seasons are all but over, it’s a good time to mull over players who’ve performed well enough to have their stock rise. These players deserve to be considered as future signings for more moneyed teams at a level of play that will challenge them while at the same time filling a team need.
There’s nothing flashy about the Atlanta Silverbacks. After a rough start to the NASL season, the team revamped itself to deploy a more fluid 5-4-1/3-5-2 formation for the Fall half of the season. It worked well enough to keep Atlanta out of the bottom of the table and even threaten for the fourth playoff spot towards season’s end.
Part of the success of this shift in tactics was due to Mancunian fullback-turned-centerback Paul Black. In his first season in the league after jumping around the lower divisions of English football (Black logged over a hundred appearances for Oldham Athletic), the twenty-five year old made it clear he could play and play well. Notching over 2500 minutes, Black played in nearly every one of Atlanta’s matches picking up two assists.
There is a criminal lack of proper fullbacks in MLS. Too often the position is swept up in the catchall term ‘defender.’ Black is able to keep pace with some of the quickest wingers, he reads opponent’s attack well, and can get forward when necessary to provide service.
At 25, Black could step into a team like San Jose Earthquakes or Colorado Rapids to shore up an aging backline.
Part of the reason MLS doesn’t really understand what the fullback position entails is because it routinely pushes aging wide midfielders back assuming that they’ll be able to extend their careers that way. The logic also encourages any attack-minded fullback to be pushed farther up the field into a proper wide midfielder or winger role.
There’s nothing wrong with a player tweaking their position or a team reploying resources. Often it works. Look at the Houston Dynamo’s DeMarcus Beasley (wide midfielder pushed back to become a fullback) or Chicago Fire’s Joevin Jones (a fullback often pushed up to be a winger). Lance Laing is probably one of the best examples of when this strategy works.
The FC Edmonton star and Jamaican international began as a leftback but has really blossomed these last two seasons as a left winger. When Laing isn’t in the line-up, chances are Edmonton will lose; he just that vital to the team in terms of his service, work rate, and deadball expertise (which earned him a Goal of the Year nomination this season). This year saw Laing be a regular in the Jamaica squad as it played in the Copa America, Gold Cup, and World Cup qualifiers.
His international experience, his professional skills, and his leadership ability all make Laing an attractive player that several MLS teams should consider making a move for. The aforementioned Houston Dynamo could really use an upgrade on the wings, and Real Salt Lake already has some ex-NASL players (Luke Mulholland, Pecka, and Devon Sandoval) that Laing would most likely gel with fairly well. Also, Laing is no stranger to vast amounts of travel for both club and country; it’s a subtle fact that could make him more lucrative.
San Antonio Scorpions
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for winger Billy Forbes. Having to watch the San Antonio Scorpions this season play the worst soccer the organization has ever played, Forbes was the lone bright spot.
Like all classic wingers, Forbes has speed and excellent dribbling skills. His first touch is often vastly superior to his peers meaning Forbes needn’t concern himself with it and can instead take in the field of play. What separates average wide players from good wingers is vision and decision making; these two traits are what gives an attacking player the composure necessary to score as well as create scoring chances.
Over two seasons with the San Antonio Scorpions, Forbes has put up some impressive numbers. In 2014 he started 20 games scoring four goals and notching seven assists, and this season in 19 starts he bettered those numbers by one. If Forbes was given a proper full season as a starter, he could easily be a double digit goal scorer and assist provider. What’s key here to remember, Forbes is only twenty-four years old. Now is the time to snatch him up just as Club Leon did with Miguel Ibarra.
With two MLS teams in Texas, it would make sense for him to be considered by FC Dallas or Houston. Dallas are poised to challenge for the MLS Cup but it’s an organization on the lookout for talent on the cheap. Forbes would fit that bill. If NYC FC could get its shit together, pairing Forbes with Poku (another NASL product that has found success in MLS) would significantly upgrade the team’s attack. If Forbes was picked up by Orlando City, then perennial disappointment Brek Shea could be moved permanently to leftback (a scenario which might also benefit the national team) creating a left side with dangerous pace, service, and finishing.
Indy Eleven have done something rather remarkable. The team has been able to maintain a level of supporter enthusiasm that befits a much more successful team. It’s only been two season but the fans in Indianapolis keep coming out in droves to watch their team; average attendance for the two years is over ten thousand. And let’s be clear, Indy Eleven aren’t a bad team; it just isn’t good, yet.
What has been keeping Indy together has been Honduran international centerback Erick Norales. The defender has been stalwart. A danger to score on set pieces, a commanding physical presence in the box, and an un-hesitant and well-timed tackler, Norales is a regular member of the NASL Team of the Week. His presence in the backline has made domestic defenders Kyle Hyland, Cory Miller, and Marco Franco (all in their mid-twenties) better, which is a trait that is too often overlooked in centerbacks.
Major League Soccer is not a good defensive league. In fact, it’s rather poor. Finding and keeping quality centerbacks (sometimes even merely adequate centerbacks is difficult). Former Rookie of the Year Austin Berry was so poorly deployed and employed by the Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union that he had to ply his trade in South Korea’s K-League Challenge–that’s the second division of Korean football. Let that sink in. It’s a fact that speaks more to the poor quality of the front offices in Philadelphia and Chicago than it does of Berry.
My point is, Norales with his international experience as a regular on the Honduran national team and his familiarity with the North American style of play would be an excellent addition to several MLS sides in desperate need of a quality centerback.
A team like the Chicago Fire that over the course of its horrendous 2015 season used a combination of midfielders and fullbacks at centerback never once creating a consistent partnership or even taking the position seriously. Chicago lost twenty games, had the worst goal differential in the league, and tied with two other teams in surrendering the most goals. Quite frankly, the Fire can’t do any worse. At thirty, well-versed in his position, familiar with the style of play and travel, Norales would do wonders to bring the league’s worst defense up to par.